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!"
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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!'"
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!"
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.'"
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
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."
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
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."
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."