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Video Published: 21 Dec 2022

An Oral History with Justino Díaz

On November 7th, 2022, bass-baritone Justino Díaz sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and his life.

This interview was originally recorded on November 7th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Justino Díaz, bass-baritone

A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, bass-baritone Justino Díaz started performing at the age of eight and made his operatic debut in 1957 as Ben in Menotti’s The Telephone. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1963 and went on to sing 39 roles in 400 performances with the company. Díaz also appeared at houses including La Scala, the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, and the Teatro Colón. He has made many recordings of opera and oratorios, and in 1986, he appeared as Iago in Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Otello.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: So lovely to meet you in this way. As I put in my notes, I first heard you sing at the premiere of The Siege of Corinth at The Metropolitan Opera in the spring of 1975.

Justino Díaz: That was yesterday. Let's see. There's a poster (indicates behind him).

Marc A. Scorca: I remember you, of course. I remember Beverly (Sills), whom I got to know very well. But that night, Shirley Verrett certainly let us know what she could do.

Justino Díaz: Yeah. It's incredible, because that role was, of course, in La Scala, the domain of Jackie (Marilyn) Horne, and she was sensational. And in the same level - totally different - was Shirley, because Shirley's voice sat a little bit easier - maybe a minor second or something like that. But they were sensational, both of them. But Shirley was a very close friend, as indeed (were) all of these people that you're gonna make me remember again in this interview. I loved them all, and I had wonderful memories...for things that I enjoyed and that enriched me, and I say this in all my interviews, most of my great experiences have to do with the people I was working with: maestri, stage directors and colleagues. Just to be in the presence of their accumulated knowledge, taken from them and just milking that experience. That's really what has enriched my soul as a performer.

Marc A. Scorca: What a wonderful statement. Whenever I do these interviews, I always start by asking people who brought you to your first opera, before your great career was even a dream? Who brought you to your first opera?

Justino Díaz: If you are going say, 'opera', it was not necessarily a performance. My father used to have records, those big, old 78...

Marc A. Scorca: ...the 78 RPM...

Justino Díaz: ...when I was a child. And he was a great fan of (Vladimir) Horowitz and the pop classics, and he used to play them and (Arthur) Rubinstein and people like that. And once, for some reason, he brought a record of Leonard Warren, singing the aria from Carmen, Escamillo's aria. And that melody just haunted and haunted my childish mind. And it was so beautiful, so beautiful. And the inner voices, you know. I always used to sing to myself (sings...) I sang all the orchestra, and the music of the responders and Mr. Warren. And I think it was magic. It was magic. Before that, they had taken me to see The Life of Chopin (A Song to Remember) with Cornel Wilde and famous lady (Merle Oberon), and I remember the polonaise, the famous polonaise (sings). And I remember - my childish mind remembers those drops of blood falling on the keyboard, and that was the closing of the movie. Talk about (a) show business ending to a movie? And there was no figure of Chopin. It was just droplets of blood falling on the keyboard. And of course, how old was I? I must have been seven, six, I don't know. And movies like that became magic for me. And I always revisit them to this day. I remember, as I am talking to you, and describing them to you. I still live that awe. I never lost that.

Marc A. Scorca: And when did you start creating? I mean, you were listening and you were touched by the music, but when did you start to make music yourself?

Justino Díaz: Well, as a child, I always sang. In Puerto Rico, we all sing pop music, and, of course, we listen to music on the radio, music in the movies. And I remember I used to listen to those episodes of The Lone Ranger, Superman, Dick Tracy, Batman on the radio - little Hallicrafter. Right after the war, my dad got us a radio. Wow. And I remember The Lone Ranger, of course, the classic (sings William Tell overture) Rossini. And of course, later I learned what it was all about. And, Superman was the best soundtrack for the introduction, because it was (sings Ride of the Valkyries).

Marc A. Scorca: I didn't know that Superman used The Ride of the Valkyries.

Justino Díaz: Well, it was a local (broadcast). It was in Spanish, of course. Superman spoke perfect Spanish. And so did Dick Tracy and The Lone Ranger, and even Tonto.

Marc A. Scorca: It's nice to know that they were multilingual. I'm glad to know that.

Justino Díaz: There, it started. And children in school all learn, and one day, when I went to Robinson School, which was a school, after I came back from (Philadelphia). My dad went to Wharton School of Economics, Philadelphia to get his masters. And I was - what - six years old when I came back to Puerto Rico? And we were there one year. And I went to Robinson School. My Dad wanted me to continue using the English I had learned during that first year in Philadelphia. And I went to Robinson School; it's barely two blocks away from here, which is right across the street from the hospital where I was born. So, I hate to say that, but I'm getting close to completing the circle. We won't talk about that. And, there was a wonderful program. Children used to learn music appreciation at that age. I even took a few lessons in piano and apparently we had a little choir or something, and my piano teacher/choral teacher taught me a little song by Stephen Foster, "Old Black Joe". That is not necessarily a Negro Spiritual; it was a folk song. But I understand that it was picked up by a lot of black people soon after he wrote it in 1860, and they used to sing it. I don't know what the genesis of that song is, or the story, but she taught me that song. I guess it's because it's a little simple song, and I performed it at a Parish Teachers' Association meeting. I got to stay up that night, and my parents went to the meeting, and I sang that for the (event). (Sings) "Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay", and that song was the first time I stood up and sang in front of a small Parish Teachers' Association meeting. And that chapel is still intact exactly with the same steps, the same tiles, the same (stained) glass over the altar. And it was called the Chapel, because it was a Methodist school, run by Southern Methodists, mostly the teachers, and they all had the Southern drawl, and they all were from Texas or Georgia, and I grew up with the Southern drawl, and (it was a) wonderful experience. It's incredible - music appreciation in grammar school: unbelievable. And we used to collect little cards with pictures of Bach, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart - incredible. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, you name it. So I grew up with that.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm gonna move the clock forward here. So with that incredible foundation and wonderful interest in music from your family and from your schools, you find yourself at the New England Conservatory?

Justino Díaz: Yes. I spent one year in college here, which is general studies. The first year, freshman year, I joined the choir here in Puerto Rico of the opera company, because my Dad was very friendly at the university with the choral director. There was a bunch of young people and amateurs that performed in a one week season. And that lasted for about seven or eight years. And I guess it was the third year that they were bringing every summer these people - wonderful casts from Eleanor Steber, Leonard Warren, Giuseppe Taddei, Ramón Vinay, William Warfield - all those people - wonderful - from The Met: Jeanette Scovotti, Mignon Dunn, Rosalind Elias - people that later became my dearest, dearest colleagues. And I used to be in awe of these people, including, I remember, Warren. He came and sang Scarpia and Gérard in Andrea Chénier. And there I was, standing right next to Leonard Warren, that I had heard and cried when (I forgot to tell you) I once sat on that record of Leonard Warren, and I broke it.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh.

Justino Díaz: It was smithereens - those old records. And my dad tells me, you started to cry. I said, "I'm never going to listen to this again", in my little mind. He says, "I'm gonna get you another copy. Don't worry. We'll get you another record". And that same week he went and got (another). And I had that magic.

Marc A. Scorca: And when you were in Boston, you worked with Boris Goldovsky.

Justino Díaz: Boris...

Marc A. Scorca: Just tell us about Boris Goldovsky.

Justino Díaz: Well, I remember seeing one of these programs that Sherrill (Milnes) talks about Boris, too. I was very friendly with Sherrill, and eventually we went on tour together, and we were roommates, because everybody had a roommate in those old little hotels all over America.

Marc A. Scorca: I was gonna ask you if you were in the program when Sherrill Milnes was in the program, because he speaks so much about Boris.

Justino Díaz: We shared together, except I left, and I moved to New York immediately, and Sherrill went his merry way. And he started to sing things in local opera houses in Baltimore and places like that. But at the beginning, we were there with Boris, and we were also in Tanglewood one summer together, a wonderful, wonderful summer. Again, we sang together and he was my buddy. And then after we got busy with our careers, we lost touch because he had his own schedule, and I had my own. But whenever we met, we just looked at each other and broke up laughing, because we have so many - some of them ridiculous - memories of when we were young. I remember both of us were fans of Leonard Warren, and all those people with great voices. And then eventually before I was in The Met, we were a summer in Central City.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. I didn't know that.

Justino Díaz: Oh, yes. And that company was wonderful. The music director was Emerson Buckley, the father of Richard. And in that season, Lucine Amara, Margaret Ruggero was there. Richard Cassilly, Norman Treigle was there. And we, Sherrill and I, were in Don Giovanni. The two Don Giovanni's were Norman and Richard Cross. Thank you very much. I mean, those people at that early age. Well, I was the youngest, because I was only 23 when I went to Central City. And I gotta tell you this. I learned later, there was a kid in the chorus, who had a very nice career afterwards. And his name was Samuel Ramey - and he was in the chorus. So, hello. I never heard him 'cause he was in the chorus, and I was doing the Commendatore, and Sherrill was Masetto. Sherrill was fighting with those low notes in Masetto, but come on. He had a fabulous voice back then. And I remember we used to sing baritone arias. I used to sing them in the original key and he used to sing it a third higher, 'cause he always had great high notes. And, we loved to listen to our thirds, singing high notes. I used to be singing high F, and he was singing a high A flat, or an A, or whatever it was. Things like that.

Marc A. Scorca: I cannot imagine a Richard Cassilly, Norman Treigle, Lucine Amara, you, Sherrill Milnes, Sam Ramey, all in the same place in the same summer. It's just incredible.

Justino Díaz: Yeah. I have pictures of the - what do you call it? Everybody's name in the company.

Marc A. Scorca: You have the rosters.

Justino Díaz: Spiro Malas was there. He was one of the Leporellos.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

Justino Díaz: How can you go wrong at 23? I had already won The Met auditions, so I was scheduled to do my debut at The Met that following Fall.

Marc A. Scorca: In the fall. Exactly.

Justino Díaz: You're making me remember all these wonderful coincidences and all these wonderful people.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm so glad you're sharing it with us. So you were 23 and you won The Met auditions in the spring, and then in the fall, I think as Monterone in Rigoletto, you made your debut. And three years later, you are opening the new Metropolitan Opera House.

Justino Díaz: It's a crazy, crazy progression of events. I met a lot of people. My voice teacher in the New England Conservatory had been the great American tenor, Frederick Jagel, who happened to be the first Peter Grimes in the United States. And things like that. He was the partner of Rosa Ponselle, and he was the tenor that took over for Giovanni Martinelli, when he fainted. During "Celeste Aida", he had an upset stomach, and they called him at home, and he was ready to take his kid to the Yankees game. And they said, "No, no. Take a subway down to 39th Street, because you're gonna have to take over for Giovanni who doesn't feel well".

Marc A. Scorca: Now you mentioned 39th Street, of course, which is where you made your debut.

Justino Díaz: Three years I sang in the old Met.

Marc A. Scorca: What was the old house like?

Justino Díaz: You can imagine, you can imagine. Your face is telling me everything that I thought. You hear about The Met, The Met, The Met, blah, blah, blah. And all of a sudden, I have a job there. And very easily I got used to that. I got used to that kind of life of being a soloist at The Metropolitan at the age of 23. So, wow, you got a problem with that? Everybody was very happy for me, of course, but I took everything in stride. People tell me, "Did you get nervous for your debut?" You know, your entrance as Monterone is so dramatic, and the chorus is singing away in ensemble. And then I start singing backstage (sings), and then I push myself onto the stage. I start singing and giving hell to everybody on stage, including Rigoletto, the Duke and all the chorus in "Cortigiani" were there. "Weren't you nervous?" I said, "Just before I sang my first line, my heart was going boom, boom, boom The minute I opened my mouth to sing, I lost my stage fright". And I have never - believe me or not - never, ever been nervous before a performance,

Marc A. Scorca: Even the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House?

Justino Díaz: Oh, no. I had learned it. I did my job. According to my reasoning, I did my job. I learned it. Nobody told me it was supposed to be difficult; it was supposed to be impossible; that it was going to be full of deceptions and contretemps. I kept growing. Soon after I sang Monterone, I sang Sparafucile, and at the end of my first year, I sang Prince Gremin in the last performance of Eugene Onegin. And then I started to sing elsewhere. (In) '65, '64, I sang my first Verdi Requiem in London with Lorin Maazel and the London Philharmonic, hello. That same year I sang at La Scala the Italian premiere, in Italian, of The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, an oratorio by Menotti, which had just had its world premiere in Cincinnati by George London. But right around that time, George was starting to have difficulties with his instrument, so he couldn't make the Italian premiere. So they called me. I learned it, and again, I felt so comfortable in my skin, and no nerves at all. I occupied my efforts and thoughts, not about how I was going to sound. I knew it was gonna be okay. I didn't know how good or how bad, but I was being accepted. And I did it. And the oratorio in La Scala was part of course, of the symphonic season. I later did my operatic debut with Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne in Siege of Corinth.

Marc A. Scorca: So that was your Scala opera debut as well?

Justino Díaz: Opera debut in '69. And then I came back in the '70's and sang La Pietra del Paragone (Rossini). And I went on tour with La Scala to Bulgaria and to Glyndebourne doing the Pietra del Paragone.

Marc A. Scorca: It's so interesting because if we look at your repertoire, and we think of Rossini, which means you have to move the voice, and we think of Verdi, which means it is not moving the voice, in the same way, and Ginastera and Samuel Barber, your repertoire really covered the gamut of vocal styles.

Justino Díaz: I was very much aware of all of the repertoire there, that I could sing. Now, this phrase, I could sing. I slowly was trying everything. I learned the complete Bach cantatas, and Bach St. Matthew, St. John, B minor Mass, everything, Magnificat. Oratorios and canatas by Handel. Of course, at the same time, from my Met debut, Pablo Casals, the great cellist, had established a festival here. Since I was at The Met, I was invited immediately. So I sang my debut with Casals, conducting, doing the bass part in The Creation. I was, what? 24. Piece of cake.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

Justino Díaz: A few years later, I did Rocco in Fidelio with Jon Vickers and Zubin Mehta conducting; crazy things like that.

Marc A. Scorca: And you were a great singer, and you worked with such great singers.

Justino Díaz: I was very useful. I could manage a lot of repertoire, and learning new operas or oratorios...then came Ginastera (of course later on), and 12 tone. Piece of cake. I just sat there with the repetiteur, "Play that again; play that again". And then I discovered by talking to the famous Ginastera, the Argentine composer...he said, "Call me by my first name". Crazy. He's like Lenny (Leonard Bernstein). You know, he insisted you could call him Lenny. "Okay, Alberto". And then later, much later, when I met Carlos Kleiber, the famous conductor, he said "Por favor, Justino..." He spoke Spanish like better than I did, because he was raised in Argentina, because his father Erich Kleiber was escaping Hitler et cetera, et cetera, and they went to live in Argentina. And so he told me, "Call me Carlos". And I said, "No, here I draw the line". I adored that talent. That conductor is to me, probably the best conductor. The whole package, the whole experience of doing music with him. I remember Plácido (Domingo) and I used to sit in the wings when we were not singing in Otello - we did Otello together in a new production in Covent Garden, and then later we repeated it at the Met. But we were constantly and listening to him speak of musical metaphors and inspiration of what Verdi was trying to do about the stars shining at the end of the love duet at the end of act one. And Plácido and I used to say, "Listen to what he's saying". His poetry, he was all poetry. And at the same time, he was all music. Now tell me a better combination than that for opera, or for anything?

Marc A. Scorca: How incredible to hear. I know you worked (with) (Franco) Zeffirelli, (Herbert) von Karajan. You've mentioned Maazel, Mehta, Pablo Casals, Carlos Kleiber...All of these people had to...

Justino Díaz: Charles Munch, Eugene Ormandy, (Georg) Solti...

Marc A. Scorca: So, they all contributed to your development as an artist?

Justino Díaz: Oh, totally. And that, of course, is what Boris had in mind when he used to tell us our duty, our job here is to do our part in what he used to call 'Partnership in Greatness'. And Sherrill knew that phrase very well also, and it means exactly that - what the words mean. You are partners with Beethoven, Bach, Verdi, Puccini, Mozart etcetera, because you help recreate his genius. And those names I have mentioned were certainly geniuses. And that's what Boris called 'Partnership in Greatness'. So he used to inculcate to us, we have a job to do. We have a sacred duty almost to try to recreate, if not exactly what these geniuses had in mind, but his intent and his offering to the greatness. And you get to be a party in greatness. It's a very simple concept.

Marc A. Scorca: And it's funny, when I read that 'Partnership in Greatness', I wasn't sure whether he meant partnership with the creators of the works, like Verdi, Puccini, or partnership with your colleagues.

Justino Díaz: Hey - also, also. But that was more a personal experience for me, of my enjoyment. Well, I enjoy the music and recreating also, but excuse me: I mean, at that age, from those three first years in The Met, from '63 to '66, I made a list somewhere. I have the list of singers who sang those three years. And we're talking about (Joan) Sutherland, (Renata) Tebaldi, (Leontyne) Price, (Birgit) Nilsson, (Lisa) Della Casa, (Elisabeth) Schwarzkopf, (Régine) Crespin, Giulietta Simionato, (Franco) Corelli, (Richard) Tucker, Giorgio Tozzi, Jerome Hines, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Robert Merrill, Licia Albanese. Excuse me. You take any three years in the history of The Met, or any opera house for that matter. Nowadays, you gonna find that? I don't know. Maybe, maybe. I hope so. Up to now I haven't heard.

Marc A. Scorca: But you know, you had the advantage of being such a young person.

Justino Díaz: Totally. That was really what it was all about.

Marc A. Scorca: You could absorb it all as a youngster on the rise with all of these great artists surround you.

Justino Díaz: All of these people were my quote unquote 'teachers, parents' by the mere description of being my colleagues, and I could talk (to them). Cesare Siepi, who was my idol, together with Giorgio, and also Ghiaurov and Jerry Hines - they were all enormously talented, enormously talented. I never cease to think about how lucky I was. And I could ask, "Giorgio, why do you open this note, and you don't cover that E flat?" For example, that's just a little stupid moment in Aida, because I was The King and he was Ramfis in one performance. And when he said (sings), "Fatti audaci dal perdono", very short notes. I said, "But you open those E naturals", and he looked at me and said, "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't". You know, with this selfless pieces of advice and encouragement by all of them. Tucker. I remember. Tucker was a character, of course. Richard Tucker was the same as Bob Merrill and Jan Peerce, and all these great singers. Tucker used to call me, "Hey kid, you were good". At that point, I was a child, vocally, and "Hey kid, good job". That kind of rapport, and then it would end there. But I used to think about that.

Marc A. Scorca: That would mean so much to you as a young singer, to have someone like Richard Tucker just say, "Hey, good job".

Justino Díaz: Totally. Totally.

Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful. How wonderful.

Justino Díaz: And later on, with little stories...we could be here three days talking about stories about personal experiences of Tebaldi, Franco Corelli. Each one of those super superstars and more than the fact that they were superstars, they were generous, and with encouragement, with a smile, with a 'good morning, how are you?', You know, just being there. That's one thing that Katia Ricciarelli, the famous Italian soprano told me while we were doing the Zeffirelli movie of Otello, with Plácido, and we were doing all the panoply of the movie: the premiere in Cannes, in France, and newspapers and photographers. And Katia used to say to me, "Basta esserci" (It is enough that we are here). And yes, that is (true) indeed. We are here. We are present during this whole fabulous trip.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. I may book a ticket to Puerto Rico, 'cause I want to hear those three days of stories. But, I'm kind of curious, 'cause we could go on all day with these...I'm so enchanted by these stories. When you speak to young singers today, what's the advice you give them?

Justino Díaz: Well, each singer that seeks advice has a different problem or a different question to be sure. So, there is no blanket advice to young singers, besides the obvious - study hard; listen to your teachers. At the same time, you listen for advice, you absorb good information...there is also bad information, but you learn the fact that they are bad, or the fact that they are good later on, when you apply whatever it is that was discussed. It's difficult. But, deep down inside, you must know thyself...the famous phrase 'Unto thyself be true'. You must know your voice. Each voice has a set of different facilities and difficulties, and you must discover how to go about solving. Life is all about solving problems of all sorts. That is life. "Oh, I'm gonna be happy doing this or doing that". No, you're not. Life is a process of learning, writing down and erasing, and writing again, and erasing again, and writing again. And then you learn the process of learning. You've gotta eliminate the bad advice, go with the good, but you must teach yourself to be a good judge of which is which. So this is why you must know your voice. I hear so many terrible, horrible advices that some coaches give on the internet, masterclasses. I said, "Oh my God, how could they be so stupid? How could they treat youngsters this way?" And then I say, "Hey, they gotta learn to protect themselves". Take the good with the bad.

Marc A. Scorca: And, as you say, and learn the difference between the two. Justino Díaz, I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to know you this way, thanks to Zoom.

Justino Díaz: I wanna to thank you and your organization and wish them the best of luck, because information is very important to young singers and they must teach themselves to learn the correct things. That's all.