Tito Gobbi (24 October 1913 – 5 March 1984) was an Italian operatic baritone with an international reputation. Here is the interviews from the Gramophone archive with Tito Gobbi, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in October 1968:
Back in 1951 the original edition of The Record Guidedescribed Gobbi’s singing of ‘Era la notte’ from Otello as ‘the most delicate and imaginative piece of singing which has come out of Italy for many years; a masterpiece of characterization achieved by purely vocal means’. Before and since then Gobbi has sung the part more than 400 times and he still finds that it stimulates his imagination more than any other role. ‘Every note and phrase’, he told me, ‘can be expressed in a different way’. And he gave an example with the words ‘mio signore’ from the second act. ‘Iago’s a fascinating chap and there’s no end to the ways that you can sing and play him’.
That is typical of a man to whom routine is anathema in both his public and everyday life. When he says that ‘Life is a wonderful gift and must be used to the full’ it is for him the truth and not merely a truism. Perhaps it explains why after 32 years on the operatic stage his career continues to be as successful as ever.
It all began when one Baron Zanchetta – an Italian composer and musicologist, still living aged 90 – heard the young Gobbi’s voice and urged him to have singing lessons. He was studying law at the time, and although his father – like so many fathers – looked on an artistic career with some scepticism, he was happy for his son to have a go. ‘I was very lucky to have just one teacher – and a very good one – Giulio Crimi in Rome. I stayed with him for five-and-a-half years. In 1936 I won first prize in an international competition in Vienna before I made my debut at the Adriano Theatre in Rome as Germont père in La traviata; the conductor was Antonino Votto, still active today at the Scala. Luckily enough, Tullio Serafin was in the audience and he asked me to audition for him at the Royal Opera. He engaged me immediately and I learnt lots of parts as an understudy before making my debut in Wolf-Ferrari’s Le Donne Curiose. That was in 1937.
‘Serafin was marvellous to me. I was like a young horse champing at the bit and he kept me under control. For six years I sang big and small roles with him in Rome’. Gobbi paid a moving tribute to his old master in last April’s issue of Opera: ‘He was, as we Italians say, truly amaestro concertattore e direttore; an invaluable guide to young singers (he used to call me “my son”); an infallible judge of voice and character’.
Gobbi learnt almost his whole repertory under this ‘invaluable guide’ – Rodrigo, Ford and Wozzeck among the more important roles. During the 1941-2 season the baritone Bevenuto Franci fell ill and Gobbi was thrilled to sing Boccanegra for the first time. He was in the army at this time, along with his fellow-baritones Gino Bechi and Paolo Silveri, but they were released from time to time to make appearances in the big Italian opera houses.
‘I made my first records for Italian HMV during the war – in 1941-2 – a series that included the Serenade from Don Giovanni, “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto, “Di provenza” from La traviata, and Iago’s “Credo”. The first time I heard my voice, I found it quite unrecognisable’.
The war over, he was free to take up an international career. His first appearance abroad was in Stockholm in 1947 after which he appeared at San Francisco in 1948, Covent Garden and La Scala in 1950, Chicago in 1955. Since then he has sung his huge repertory all over the world. Just recently he sang nine Scarpias in 14 days at Adelaide in Australia. Hard work does not daunt him – he will sing every other night in one centre – but he is utterly against commuting quickly back and forth between operatic centres. ‘Crimi once said to me, “If you feel tired at the end of a performance you’re using up the capital of your voice”. To avoid that, you must never force but achieve the same effects by intelligence and control. I think after 32 years I have created a technique – and that is everything. But, of course, today i t’s not enough just to have a voice and use it beautifully. Audiences expect a fully rounded interpretation and that I achieve by long study, by personality, by make-up.
‘I think that too many young singers accept roles before they have really got inside them. I always studied a part and found out if it was good for me without any chance of singing it, so that when the opportunity came along I knew it inside out. Today, singers accept a part and only then begin to study it. That’s certainly the wrong way round.
‘Even then I didn’t always get it right on stage immediately. When I first sang Scarpia, a friend came up to me and asked me how old I thought Scarpia was. I said “About 45”. He said, “Well, you walk like a young man of 25”. So I went home, watched how my father moved, and got it right the next time’.
There are two Verdian baritone parts he has never sung on stage because he does not feel they are for him – di Luna in Il trovatore and Carlo in La Forza del Destino. Less surprisingly, he has not sung two parts that De Sabata once asked him to undertake – Tristan and Siegfried. ‘I told him “Yes, maestro, I will sing them once – but then I would never sing anything again. I’m a baritone and they’re not for me’. However, he did sing Telramund a couple of times early in his career.
He has never consciously followed another singer’s interpretation because he makes a point of never going to their performances or listening to records. ‘That’s not pride. It’s just that if I saw someone else’s Falstaff or Boccanegra and liked something about it, I would automatically try to do the same and that would be imitation. In consequence, my own interpretation would be less genuine. I must have my own reason – derived from study – for everything I do in a part’.
For records, he does make some changes in his singing. ‘Everything has to be expressed by the voice – you have to make the audience understand the action they can’t see – and personally I don’t think moving people about, as happens in stereo records, helps very much. It’s up to the artists to achieve dramatic effects’.
He has sung in 27 complete opera sets and, as with so many artists, would like to do them all over again so as to improve on them. One of the few that still pleases him is the famousTosca set with De Sabata conducting. Another is Nabucco. ‘You know, recording is like a lottery, a matter of chance. For instance, Falstaff with Karajan, although we were performing it at the time, sounds too much like a recording and not a real performance. That’s a part I would love to do again on disc. Zeffirelli opened my mind to a new conception of the part’.
Two roles which he has never recorded complete, but would like to, are Don Giovanni and William Tell. ‘Rossini’s opera is a source from which all composers drank and it badly needs a really good recording’.
He sees great possibilities, so far hardly realised, in television opera and he would like to do more work in that field. He hopes, God willing, to carry on his active career for another five or ten years. After that, he would like to pass on his knowledge to a few selected pupils, not as a singing teacher – ‘so boring’ – but as an interpreter. ‘I would like to work with a young baritone and discuss roles with him – not so that he should copy Gobbi but so as to help him build up his own ideas’.
At present, as well as enjoying his career, he loves the travelling. ‘Not as a musical parcel, however, moving from one place to the next without seeing anything. For instance, on my way back from Australia, I spent a week looking at the temple at Ankor Wat and taking a thousand slides. Every stone there tells a story – it’s fantastically beautiful. I must know the history and background of every place I visit’.
He also enjoys painting and has been asked to exhibit several times. ‘But I shall wait until I’ve stopped singing, then I can exhibit as a painter and not as Tito Gobbi, the singer’.
He is very interested in archaeology and antiques and recentIy spent a long time at Luxor. ‘I don’t do these things to show off what I know in conversation but purely for my pleasure – and the art there is to learn how to look, how something is done or made – there’s always something more to be seen in a great work of art’.
We can apply that maxim to his own performances as well and let us hope that more of them will find their way on to records while he is in such good voice and there is still time.