It started and ended with 'Old Black Joe'
Published on Friday, March 28th 2003 on The San Juan Star
Enter Justino Díaz Villarini, soprano, ten years old, singing Old Black Joe, at a PTA meeting, Robinson School. Exit, divo Justino Díaz, bass baritone, next birthday will be 64, singing Old Black Joe, at UPR Centennial Concert of the Coro Ex Alumnos Augusto Rodríguez, Bellas Artes, Guaynabo. Historic poetry.
When Justino was around twelve, his father, Professor Justino Díaz Morales, took him to a concert of the Coro de la Universidad, conducted by its founder Augusto Rodríguez. Justino promptly fell asleep. His father woke him up to listen to Old Black Joe. Soloist was Iván Irizarry. Justino enjoyed it, applauded, and went right back to sleep.
Sometime later while at Robinson, Justino's teacher had to step out of the classroom to take a phone call at the office. While she was out of the room, Justino climbed atop the biology lab table and started singing and dancing before his classmates: performing, as he would do so brilliantly for 46 years. But that performance got him expelled from Robinson. His father managed to then get him into University High School.
At UHS his school chums suggested he join the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera summer season at the UPR Theater. The thought of wearing makeup, a costume, and branding a spear in Aida convinced him. While on tour, the Met traveled with very few chorus members. The rest of the chorus was made up by local talent, which was prepared and rehearsed here months in advance by Augusto Rodríguez. One of the operas performed here and in which Justino participated was Rigoletto, and baritone Cornell MacNeil sang Monterone. As an aside, when MacNeil visited El Yunque, and while attentively listening to the coquí, he asked, "What bird is that?" When told that it wasn't a bird, but a frog, MacNeil remarked angrily, "No frog should have a voice like that!"
After the opera season, Justino joined the Coro de la Universidad while still in high school. Same opera chorus bunch, and same director (Augusto). Many of his neighbors at the Faculty Residences of UPR and later at Dos Pinos had their eyes on Justino and were persuading him to seek a career in opera. Among the many, he remembers Gustavo and Graciela Candelas, and Bobby Sackett. Within the Coro UPR, he made many lifelong friends. Among those he mentions dearly are José Freire, Norman Veve, Paco O'Neill, Guiso Cosme, Carmencita Collazo, Sonia Cordero, and Lysette Alvarez. Justino became soloist for Shangó, La Comparsa, and, of course, Old Black Joe. Shangó was a bit trying and Justino's stomach would often get upset from pre-performance jitters. We would kid him that he was suffering from shangotitis. For therapy, we would sometimes skip class and escape to go water skiing at Luquillo.
Jesús María Sanromá and Augusto Rodríguez helped get Justino a UPR scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music. Though he never finished there -he left for New York and the Met and, at 23, sang Monterone in Rigoletto -the Conservatory awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1987. Justino has performed no less than one hundred and twelve roles, throughout all the major opera houses in the world.
Alumni from the Coro UPR that sang with Augusto Rodríguez reunited to celebrate the fiftieth (yes, 50th!) anniversary of their first appearance in Carnegie Hall. Then they decided to stay together and keep on singing, with Norman Veve as director, and incorporated as the Coro Ex Alumnos Augusto Rodríguez, also known as the Geriatric Chorus. After all, add fifty years to college age (about 20) and then some more years, and the average age of that chorus is at least Justino's age. Some of us are a bit older.
Justino and Margarita Castro Alberty have rejoined the Coro Ex Alumnos to commemorate the Centennial of the University in Puerto Rico in a concert in Bellas Artes de Guaynabo tonight. Margarita will do solos in O Lord What a Morning and Campanas Vespertinas. Justino will do solos for Shangó and, of course, Old Black Joe. And Justino, with great professional honesty and bravery, will bow out.
Justino does not "retire." He "transforms." Justino will now devote his time and efforts to the Festival Casals, where he has co-directed the 47th festival and is looking forward to the fiftieth anniversary of that event. He wishes to bring forth all the cultural contributions that Pablo Casals bestowed upon us and that most do not realize, like the Conservatory, the Symphony Orchestra, the Festival itself, and, yes, even Justino. Casals admired Justino and distinguished him highly. Justino will also share with the talented students at the Conservatory -where he occupies the Guillermo L. Martínez Endowed Chair of Visiting Professor- his 46 years' worth of many and beautiful experiences that he has had the world over, and among the greatest.
The highlight of his career? "Too many, too great, and everything happened too fast." he will reply. But deep inside, I think his being Iago in Franco Zefirelli's movie Othello, with Plácido Domingo, scores high. Besides, that is the one performance that will outlive him long after he is gone.
The people of Puerto Rico, and the world of opera, of music, and of culture owe a vote of thanks to Justino Díaz, a great Scarpia, a great 111 other roles, and a great Shangó.
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