Article 2: Good guy Justino Diaz drips with evil in
'Tosca' role. In: The Detroit News (May 4, 2000)
Article 3: A legendary baritone's return to Connecticut. In: Yawanna (January 1, 2001)
Article 4: Justino Diaz Mozart Arias By Roland Graeme. In: Opera Quarterly. - Vol.7 (1990);
Article 5: Justino Diaz by Erik Myers. In Opera News Vol.70, Issue 9 (2006); p14-16 [New]
Diaz And The Devil
By Perry Tannenbaum
Creative Loafing [March 2000]
Justino Diaz, the famed bass-baritone who sings Mephistopheles this week in Gounod's Faust, wouldn't tell us how long he's been singing. Not for publication, anyway.
But he's enjoyed amazing longevity singing at the most fabled opera houses around the world. Mephistopheles, the devil who tempts Faust, is a signature role for Diaz, one of "about a dozen" that he can perform on a day's notice. These roles include Scarpia in Tosca, Escamillio in Carmen, and Iago in Otello.
The native Puerto Rican has sung his scheming Iago opposite Placido Domingo in a video version of Verdi's classic. And when he spoke with us a couple of weeks ago, he was completing a month-long engagement as Iago in Washington, DC, opposite hotshot tenor Jose Cura.
Even speaking, the rich voice conveys so much more than the words. The force of it can be intimidating, its sweetness a beguiling delight. A Mephisto for real.
Yet when I heard -- in strictest confidence -- the roll call of opera stars Diaz haas performed with early in his career, it struck me that Opera Carolina's marquee singer had somehow struck his own bargain with the devil, attaining replenished youth. Like Faust.
Only Diaz seems to have bargained better than Faust. He has not only kept his soul, he has kept the flame of idealism burning bright within.
Creative Loafing: Let me ask you how you got exposed to opera in your native Puerto Rico.
Justino Diaz: When I was a kid, I used to sing in church. Then when I was about 16, I joined the chorus of an opera festival. That gave me the opportunity to see and to really fall in love from within the artform. And it seemed that I had some talent; I had a voice; I started to study voice with local teachers down there. And about eight years later, I was singing at the Met! It's very simple.
You went from the chorus, though. When and how did you refine your acting skills?
It happens slowly. You know, you study with good teachers in conservatory -- I went to New England Conservatory in Boston. And just by doing it. You discover your body, you discover the technique not only in singing but in how to move. This is something that grows on you, and you develop, you mature. And hopefully, every time you step on the stage, you're a little bit better.
When did you make your debut at the Met?
I was 23 years old.
And what year was that?
Well, we don't have to talk about that. That was 15 years ago. So there. Put it down and forget it. Let them figure it out.
There are recordings of you from the 60s, man!
Are you an opera connoisseur, sir? ARE YOU?
Well, you could say that.
Well, then, this interview is OVER!
Didn't count on someone who knew what he was talking about!
No, it's just... I've been doing this for so long, and then people think I'm 107 years old. I was 17 when I stepped onstage and did a full-fledged role, which was Ben in The Telephone by Menotti back home in Puerto Rico.
So it's funny because I thought all careers were that easy to begin. But you know what else is difficult is staying there. The voice is something -- it's an ongoing process of maturing, of discarding ways of singing, of adopting new methodologies. Because your body changes, and you have to adapt. It's a constant metamorphosis.
Well, you've sung baritone and bass roles.
From the very beginning, I had what my friend Sherrill Milnes calls "a long voice." So I never really paid too much attention to the subdivisions of bass, baritone.
It was in Italy after Mozart that basses and baritones became two separate categories. There were all basses, except there was a real bass bass and one that couldn't reach so deep, so low.
This separation between bass and baritone is something that came later with Donizetti and things like that.
Also, the pitch was much lower in the 19th century. Now one interesting thing about this role, Mephistopheles in Faust. The first Mephisto in Faust was also the first Posa in Don Carlos. Fiavre, the great baritone, who is also the first Nelusko [in Myerbeer's L'Africaine], and the first -- oh god, there's a whole slew of operas he premiered.
So it gives you an inkling of what kind of a voice he had, which I suspect was indeed a bass baritone. The pitch is so high now, it really doesn't matter. It's the poor real low basses that have problems with the pitch, with the high notes.
They don't keep it down low enough.
Oh yeah, the conductors don't care. The instrumentalists don't care, and they just wind up those little wooden knobs. And one of these days, those bridges are going to collapse, and you're going to hear twang all over the place. They raise the pitch too much.
Is there a special opera... if I could take you any place in the world and you could perform any role, where would you do it and who would you be?
Well, at this point in my career, the most outstanding source of pleasure and fulfillment for me is my relationship with my art, with music, with the works of the great geniuses. They have ceased to include x theater -- Covent Garden, La Scala, the Met, San Francisco, the Paris Opera, the Berlin, you name it. I've sung in all of them. What is most fulfilling is just doing it and growing as an artist. That together with the process of growing as a human being, maturing.
It's like the universe. I remember as a young man reading in a record brochure when I first heard the Ninth Symphony, which was the old Toscanini recording, that he said that he never felt that he got close to Beethoven, that he was something so far away, and he had only skimmed the surface. Well, as a young man, I said, "Come on! You just made a recording of this, and it sounds fabulous -- and what else is there?"
But now I understand what he meant. I would hate to call it... you know, as Richard Tucker used to say: "It's a great responsibility, kid." But it is! It is. If you really take your art seriously, the rewards are so huge, so enormous. People have no idea what it is to be able to put thought, language, mood, everything together and... and open my mouth and create a sound that will paint what Mozart did, what Verdi did.
So there are two things that really absorb you. One, let us say in terms of Mephistopheles that you've done maybe a hundred times, is to preserve it or protect it from deteriorating, and another part is to find something new in it?
Oh yeah, totally. I will never be able to go back and do the same Mephisto I did at the Met when I was 25. It's these constant nuances where you discover new things. And you work with people who demand a different point of view.
For example, I just got through doing Otello with Jose Cura, the new tenor. And his Otello is so different from Placido's, let's say, that I had to completely rethink my concept of Iago. Except, of course, when I was winking at the audience behind his back. That always stays the same.
That's the prerogative of Iagos! And poor Otello, all he does is kvetch all the time.
Is that something that might not happen -- adapting to the other people onstagee --- in a Charlotte production that goes for three nights and doesn't get rehearsed as much?
Nothing is a guarantee. You might do 20 performances and still just skim because your colleagues are not on the same wavelength as you are.
Sometimes the chemistry is bang -- right there. Even if you have rehearsed only twice, it can light up the stage. While I was doing the Otellos, Jose Cura and I only had one rehearsal, which was dress rehearsal. He came in very late. I was sick, so I couldn't rehearse with him for two days preceding the dress rehearsal. So we just got together in dress rehearsal. "Where do you want to fall, here?" "And you go behind the column?" And he'll say, "OK. Fine. Uh huh."
So that's it. He knows what he wanted, and I knew what I wanted. And I am able to be flexible. People came backstage and said, "My god! It looks like you've been rehearsing for a year!"
If your grandchildren's grandchildren are going to be going to opera at the end of the current century, aren't we going to need more and better operas?
Well, unfortunately, my opinion of that is I think the well has run dry. I agree with Henry Pleasants' book, Opera in Trouble, or something like that [Opera in Crisis].
Modern operas, yeah they try. There's [Andrè Previn's] Streetcar Named Desire and the [Ghosts of] Versailles opera [by John Corigliano]. All these operas use the voice in the wrong way, unfortunately.
Voice saw its limit in the bel canto repertoire. Up to and including some verismo and then some modern pieces and by Strauss. But they use the voice in a very traditional way.
The dodecaphonic people, ugh, they leave me cold. I've done 12-tone operas by [Alberto] Ginastera, and, ugh! It just doesn't matter who is singing, you see? It has nothing to do with the ability to sing correctly or beautifully. When that is lost, what is the point?
Then go to Broadway. That's where the future is. Unfortunately, what I see now is Disney-fying of everything, of art and everything. Everything has to be a field trip! It is no longer a commitment of your senses and of growing, and of learning, and of being illuminated by beauty and truth. No, you gotta have popcorn and crackerjack, and you've got to say hello to Mickey Mouse on the way! Unfortunately, these are the shows you see on Broadway nowadays. You know, Lion King is an adaptation, for crissake, of a cartoon! I mean, please.
And there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in opera, so you'd think there would be a resurgence of creativity to satisfy that appetite.
Yeah, it will have to find new venues, though. Tennessee Williams already created a huge masterpiece. You don't have to put music to it.
Now what Verdi did to Otello is quite extraordinary. Because he shortened it, and what music can do is substitute for a lot of words. It opens with a storm, you see, and immediately the storm becomes a metaphor for so many things. Just a suggestion of [Diaz sings] bo-da-de-da-da-da-de-de. You know: the Jaws music...
I never heard it called that!
Sure! Well, that's where they got it!
Jaws came later, don't forget. Handel does it in the Messiah. [Sings] "The people who walked in da-de-da-de..." That's a snake movement, which was a symbol of the devil, of the darkness, of the deep, or whatever you want it. Those things have been done and redone.
That's what Verdi did. With one bar, he already told you what Shakespeare was so eloquently doing with the text.
Well, speaking to you for 45 minutes, I can't help noticing how a career like yours has enriched you just by being involved in it -- the languages you've had to become acquainted with, people you've become acquainted with, the music you've become acquainted with. You must be absolutely tickled to have been able to spend your life using your talents as you have.
That's what I was trying to tell you before. It's such a fulfilling thing. It's been going on for so long! Most careers last... you know Callas was on top of the world for 10 years. To be sure, 10 blazing years. People are still talking about her, and her records are still more expensive than anyone else's. But I'm sure she would have liked to have lived a full life doing it. Just for her own satisfaction.
Lot of people, they sing 15, maybe 20 years. Well, I've been singing [deleted]! Don't put that, that's off the record.
That's off the record, absolutely. But it is amazing.