One of my father’s saddest and most beautiful recollections about his early years as a singer was his friendship with Salvatore Gioia. Gioia was a Sicilian tenor from Villarosa living in Milan. He was about the same age as my father (b. 1934).
They shared an apartment in the City. As Sicilians and tenors, a friendship quickly emerged. Gioia was on the brink of stardom. He was considered at the time one of the best tenori di grazia in Italy. He was a new comer but was making huge waves. Italian critics apparently described him as a combination of Gigli, Tagliavini, and Schipa all wrapped in one. His appearances at the Martini e Rossi concerts propelled him into the spotlight.
Unfortunately, Gioia had a very big problem: mental illness. From my father’s recollections it seems to me he probably was schizophrenic. He would often wake up screaming during the night, or see people in the apartment. My dad was a very light-hearted person and could quickly snap him out of his attacks by cheering him up.
Things got worse. One day, the phone rang. My dad answered. It was the intendant from La Scala. Di Stefano was ailing and needed someone to substitute him in Manon. My dad called Gioia over to take the call explaining the situation, but Gioia answered “tell him I can’t because I need to go conduct Otello in Palermo.” Complete madness. My dad had to tell the intendant of La Scala that Gioia was not well.
On another occasion Gioia was performing, and he decided to pull out of the performance because the soprano was too tall and he insisted that the theater’s administration cut her legs to make her his same height. It would seem almost comical if it weren’t that he was completely serious about the request. He descended rapidly into insanity and was eventually admitted to an asylum in Milano.
The last time my father saw him was during a visit at the Asylum. To my father’s surprise, another great singer was a resident in this asylum: Lina Bruna Rasa. My dad discovered this because upon walking into the courtyard of the asylum there was Gioia and Rasa singing the Cherry Duet from L’Amico Fritz. My dad just sat on the floor and listened not having the heart to go inside. He cried for an hour just sitting there, and then got up, took a look at his friend, turned around, and never returned.
He could barely recount the experience without a tear in his eye. He said that never had he heard anything that could compare to the beauty, elegance, and perfection of that rendition of the duet by these two incredible singers victims of a cruel fate.
I remember today Salvatore Gioia because going through my stuff I found this picture of him and my dad in Piazza Duomo in Milan, just a year before Gioia’s descent into madness.
I don’t know if Salvatore Gioia still lives, or if he has been freed from the mortal shackles to lift up his voice in a better place, more harmonious to his gift, but I remember his name along with the great tenors.