Article 1: Diaz And The Devil By Perry Tannenbaum. In: Creative Loafing (March 2000)
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);
p.204-208


Justino Diaz

by Erik Myers

In: Opera News  Vol. 70, Issue 9 (2006) p. 14-16

Section: Reunion

"I didn't come from a musical family," says Justino Diaz, "but my family loved music. I'll never forget when I was five years old and I accidentally sat on my father's record of Leonard Warren singing the toreador song and broke it. I was heartbroken! I loved that record, and I thought I would never hear that wonderful music again!"

Eighteen years later, in October 1963, twenty-three-year-old Justino Diaz stepped onstage for his Met debut, as Monterone in Rigoletto. Tall, rangy and the possessor of vulpine good looks, he would go on to build a career as a bass in the tradition of Pinza and Siepi -- a sexy stage animal whose presence gave off a hint of danger. That unmistakable star quality, along with his rich, expansive voice, made him a Met favorite over the next twenty years, through 400 performances of thirty-nine roles.

Today Diaz lives in a penthouse high above Condado Beach in his native San Juan, Puerto Rico, with his wife, Ilsa. ("She was born the night after her parents saw Casablanca," he laughs.) He's retired from singing but not from music: he is the musical and artistic director of the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico, and he is also a voice professor for advanced students at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. "I had to curtail my singing after some health problems," he volunteers. "I'm okay now. But not only did I have problems with my health -- I was getting older, and I started thinking, 'I don't want to sound like a wreck! It's embarrassing! Come on, have a little dignity, for Christ's sake!' It's very tempting to hang on. Some people last forever, like Plácido. There's a famous baritone, who shall remain nameless, and the last fifteen years of his career were a disaster. I didn't want to sound like that."

Settling into an armchair by a window in his house, with a vertigo inducing view of the Caribbean far below, Diaz is no longer the blade-thin rake of his youth. He now sports a burlier frame, and his head of hair, thick and full as ever, has more salt than pepper. Peeping out through rimless spectacles, he projects a playful, avuncular quality, and he frequently flashes a killer grin.

He's earned the chance to laugh at life a bit, because he's recently stared down some pretty big demons. His open shirt collar reveals the top portion of a long zipper scar that runs down his chest, the remnant of a quadruple bypass. "I also had surgery for lung and colon cancer," he states matter-of-factly, "and apparently it was contained. Now I go through preventive chemotherapy. The heart was in early '95. Colon was '91, and lung was last year. I feel wonderful now. So far so good! I'm having a wonderful time." In fact, he was singing as recently as March 2003, when he made his opera farewell as Germont in San Juan at Opera de Puerto Rico.

"But can you imagine -- I was a smoker! All my life! Not a good thing to do, obviously. When I was young and starting out, I took everything for granted. There I was working with Casals, Stravinsky, Böhm -- I didn't understand how magnificent the whole thing was, how overwhelming! Such incredible advantages. Dangerous, dangerous, because you think it's as easy as pie. And you tend to minimize the importance -- you don't see it in perspective. To me, it was all just fun! There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but I should have taken better care of myself and applied myself. I hate to talk about myself this way, but I was so lucky. I had instincts. I had a natural voice with a natural extension. Now I say to kids, 'Don't do as I did. Don't think it's always that easy.' I admit, for me it was easy -- it was extremely easy, and careers are not made that way. I started at the Met at twenty-three. I was the youngest bass ever to sing at the Met. They groomed me. They had great faith in me. My colleagues were Siepi, Tozzi, Hines, Ghiaurov. And sopranos like Price, Sutherland, Nilsson -- and here I was, a child! Conductors like Solti, Schippers, Böhm! Carlos Kleiber, the greatest conductor ever!"

If Diaz is so comfortable expressing himself in his lightly accented, rapid-fire English, it's because he spent a good bit of his youth in the U.S. His father, an economist, studied for his masters in Philadelphia and his doctorate at Harvard, and he took the family with him each time. Young Justino attended several years of high school in Cambridge. At nineteen he entered the New England Conservatory of Music, where his teacher was tenor Fredrick Jagel. He received his Met contract as first-prize winner of the National Council Auditions and started in small roles. "It was when I was the Second Soldier in Salome that I first worked with Birgit Nilsson," he says. "I stabbed her with my spear in the first rehearsal, instead of crushing her with my shield. And I heard her yell, 'Ow! Somebody stabbed me in the popo!'"

His charm made him a lot of friends. "One of the things I treasure," he says, "is that I always had the respect of my colleagues. I always got along with everybody. That was a source of great satisfaction. But my life got complicated -- my first marriage especially. My energies and concentration got a little bit watered down, let's put it that way. But marvelous things began to happen, and I started to sing outside the Met, at La Scala and Vienna, and 1 started to make records. All in all, it was a great ride."

When he gets to thinking about the greats he met and worked with, the anecdotes start to flow. "Oh, the things I witnessed, the people I got to know! Georg Solti once introduced me to Zinka Milanov. He said, 'Zinka, do you know the newest member of our company?' And Zinka, who was a very special woman, said, 'No I don't know who he is, but I'm sure he knows who I am!' Jesus Christ, what an ego!"

He also remembers a particularly moving moment he was privy to during the career of Leontyne Price. "It was on my first Met tour. I was doing the Commendatore in Don Giovanni with Siepi. Leontyne was Donna Anna. It was a tour that almost didn't happen, because Bing had cast Leontyne, a black woman, in the part, and we were going to play Atlanta. It came time for Donna Anna's big recitative and aria, 'Or sai chi l'onore.' And she sang it so wonderfully that there was a standing ovation. It seemed to be unending. Bing was in the wings. She fell into his arms. She used to call him 'boss.' 'I did it, Boss, I did it,' she said. And they both had tears in their eyes. Bing said, 'I knew you could do it. I knew you could.'"

Price was Diaz's Cleopatra when he opened the new Met at Lincoln Center in 1966 as Antony in the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Thomas Schippers. That production has gone down in the pages of history as an overproduced fiasco, burdened by ungainly mechanical scenery that often malfunctioned during set changes. But Diaz begs to differ. "People tend to simplify things," he says. "They blame the production. It was a magnificent production! I'd never seen anything like it! It was gorgeous, fabulous! Think of the production of Turandot, and multiply it by ten. We used the entire stage, all the way to the rear wall. I analyzed things, trying to find out what went wrong. Philip Burton, the adoptive father of Richard Burton, had been brought in by Bing to coach us. He told us that this was Shakespeare's most complicated play. It's full of short, small scenes, and a story that begins at the beginning of the end. Right at the beginning of the opera, Antony is singing that he's got to get away from this woman -- that she's castrating him. Both characters go straight downhill. And the language is especially Elizabethan, full of archaisms and puns that you're not going to get unless you're a real Shakespeare student."

Rehearsals for the production were unusually hectic, with Barber constantly rewriting the vocal line. Diaz, a gifted mimic, does a dead-on imitation of Barber complaining to him, in his Long Island- lockjaw accent, "Justiiino, whaaat are you doing to my aaaria? You and Tommy are killlling it!" Barber later apologized to him, saying, "I'm sorrrry, Justino, you're riiiight. The aria sounds much better yourrrr way."

Diaz's magnetic, stagewise presence can be seen on DVD in two opera films he made nearly twenty years apart -- Herbert von Karajan's Carmen, with Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers (1967), and Franco Zeffirelli's Otello, with Plácido Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli (1986). As Escamillo, he is his youthful, sexy self, and it's easy to see why Grace Bumbry's Carmen falls for him. But as a bearded, brooding Iago -- the first he had essayed anywhere -- his performance is a model of scary elegance. Like the best stage and film actors, Diaz subtly allows you to see Iago's evil machinations as they form behind his eyes. It was enough to give his own director the creeps. "After we'd filmed the first few scenes, Franco said, 'There's something wrong with you. You seem like a nice guy, but you're so naturally evil.' I said, 'Franco -- come on! Maybe it's called acting!'"

Diaz is proud of the new turns his career in music has taken; proud of his posts at the University and especially at the Casals Festival, Casals himself having been one of the bass's early mentors. "He helped me learn how to make music, how to be an artist. It's very difficult for singers to be artists -- it's too physical, too visceral. You feel every vibration -- the air, the whole mechanism. We're affected by moods. You have to be tough. You have to learn how to sweep away all the bullshit and go to work."

But he admits to a certain disappointment when it comes to many young classical singers and their lack of vision. "I am afraid for young singers starting out now. I don't see them receiving the education. I don't see them being preoccupied with culture in general. I don't see them going to museums, or being interested in the broad aspects of culture. I would hope that superficiality never really takes hold the way it's threatening to. You know, Boris Goldovsky used to talk about the very great privilege we have in being partners with Mozart. We are helping him, in our own little way, and helping ourselves at the same time. We are partners in greatness. To really be able to do this to the best of your ability, you've got to be a little bit humble. It can't all be about you."

 

 

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