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Music mentorship and the learning process

At age 23 I had finished my second degree in vocal performance from a distinguished music program, but so what? I felt that I was too young and inexperienced in the professional world to embark on a solo career. As luck (and connections) would have it, a well-known recording group in the Midwest, The Roger Wagner Chorale, eventually offered me that on-the-road experience and performance confidence that would also allow me to meet one of the greatest singing actors of the 20th century.

After returning to Los Angeles from one of our tours, I saw a primitive handbill in a bank in LA. It announced that the singer Giorgio Tozzi would be speaking one night in Santa Monica at a school I had never heard of. I could not believe it. Giorgio Tozzi was my hero growing up. He was a star singer at the Metropolitan Opera for many years, and I had all of his recordings. He was one of the world’s greatest opera singers to act onstage. I went to the address listed on the handbill. It was hard to find-a walkup to a multi-purpose room — not a place where you would think you would find a man like Tozzi. I will never forget it when he walked into that room. He had an aura about him, a way of speaking and moving that was purposeful in action and so very clear and resonant in every sense of that word.

I realized soon that the audience in Santa Monica that evening did not even know who Tozzi was, the greatness of that powerful voice and stage presence. A talent that was so immense that the American composer Samuel Barber, when readying the musical score for the world premiere of his new opera, Vanessa, would write an extra aria just for Tozzi when he was cast as the Doctor in the world premiere of the opera, enlarging the role.

The group of folks gathered there in Santa Monica didn’t know who Tozzi was because they were not opera goers. In fact, most were not even remotely interested in classical music. However, his words that night spoke directly to all of us. He was what you would call a Mensch. He had a quality of warmth and joy and intelligence, and the way he spoke, his delivery-was forceful and gentle at the same time. He knew how to communicate, which was the main point that he conveyed that evening: all of the arts are primarily communication.

I could not wait to speak with the man in person, feeling that it must be fate that we were drawn together, and it was clear that he had to be my mentor and teacher. However, my excitement turned to disappointment when Mr. Tozzi told me that he was now living in Southern California to follow his new acting career in film and TV. He would be busy and on the road, and although he had taught while singing at the MET a few choice singers at Juilliard, he clearly was now moving in a different direction. While I had to respect the man’s decision, of course, it didn’t take long for me to pick up the phone the next day and call him (his number was listed in the phone book!). After much hyper-ventilated pleading, Mr. Tozzi finally agreed to hear me sing in his Malibu home. He could easily see how eager and excited I was to work with him. The generous man stopped working with me after more than two hours, and invited me to come back the following week! When I offered to pay him, he declined. Instead, he offered me the official “Tozzi scholarship.” That involved me housesitting at his Malibu house overlooking the Pacific Ocean when he and the family were out of town on location.

This began a beautiful and life-changing experience of mentorship by the great man, not only learning about opera and singing, but also giving me the opportunity to see how important a broad knowledge of arts and humanities is to a performer when pursuing a life in the arts. Tozzi’s curiosity and interests covered philosophy and languages and history and literature and all of the fine arts. The discussions that he led after our lessons in his house-having drinks and sharing dinner were stimulating sessions that I lived for during those five years before I was to move to Germany.

Although I had just left the university after earning two degrees in music, Giorgio taught me what learning was at its core. Everything I had learned in my years at college did help me with skills and developing “the craft,” but I realized just how narrow my pursuits were within the music school curriculum. You see, skills and craft became tools in Giorgio’s view. Music and all of the arts were about communication, whether it was on the opera stage or on Broadway or acting in films or in TV. Giorgio did it all, never limiting himself or cared about what anyone else thought. To him it was a learning process. And that is what he would always say as he began his master classes later in his life. He said, “I expect that today I will learn more than you will.”

Featured image: Santa Monica. CC0 via Pixabay.

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