Baritone Jake Gardner, tenor Tony Villecco (1998)

EDITOR’S NOTE: TCO baritone Jake Gardner passed away Nov. 2. Please scroll down through BAMirror for an obituary article.

By Tony Villecco

Starting out

When I was a sophomore in high school, I started voice lessons with Jake Gardner. This would have been around 1972-73. I remember he had a small studio apartment on Main Street in Binghamton, a stone’s throw from his teachers, Tri-Cities Opera founders Carmen Savoca and Peyton Hibbitt. In lessons we mostly worked out of the Nicolai Vaccai vocal exercise book, a staple for young singers that he no doubt had learned from Carmen and Peyton. Eventually we moved into some Mozart, specifically arias from Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte. Other young singers like myself would also show up at his doorstep for their lessons, kids I was in the chorus with or had met at TCO.

There are many memories of Jake and of those days when we were all delightfully cramped into the Masonic Temple, but I will just concentrate on a few. Although Jake started with small parts in 1969, my first encounter was in the 1970 TCO production of Tosca. I was singing the Shepherd Boy, whose small song opens up the last act. Jake was the one by the little black-and-white television backstage watching Peyton’s conducting and cueing me in. He had sung the small but important role of Angelotti in the first act, and it was obvious that his career was clearly going to take off once he was a bit older and had achieved  more operatic experience.

His performances

In TCO’s Madama Butterfly in 1972, Jake sang Sharpless with Mary Jo Anthony’s moving and beautifully sung Butterfly. By this time, the ‘big three’ were gaining a large local following; soprano Louise Wohlafka, Jake and tenor Richard Taylor. Eventually all three would leave Binghamton to establish major careers, returning to TCO when schedules allowed.

But it was 1973’s Don Giovanni in which Jake could really emphasize not only his beautiful voice but his incredible acting skills. Carmen did some amazing staging, and Jake played the sex-crazed Don Juan to a hilt. I will never forget his one entrance as we choristers waited. He came from behind a scrim in thigh-high leather books and an open-to-the-waist tunic that I am sure was very titillating for the female audience members. He WAS Don Giovanni in the most sensual and sexy characterization, I am sure, that opera audiences had witnessed. During these years, TCO productions ran for three weekends (nine performances!). Poor Jake got the flu, and I will always remember him coughing himself almost hoarse through a couple of the shows until he recovered. There was no cover for the role.

In 1974 we did a great production of Faust with Jake as Valentin, Louise as Marguerite and Richard as Faust. Jake’s death scene in Act III was riveting. Other vivid memories here in Binghamton: Jake’s excellent Marcello in La Boheme and, of course, the title character in Rigoletto, again with Louise and Richard.

The voice, in memoriam

The voice was hard to accurately describe. It had a sonorous, robust but almost velvety quality. Jake possessed a very distinguishable tone quality, and all you had to hear were a few notes to say, “Yep, that’s Jake.”  Many fine baritones passed through TCO’s training program throughout the years, but none with the finesse, the spark, the magic, the indescribable beauty of tone that Jake had.

We remember him and honor him. We express deep sympathy to his first beautiful wife, mezzo Cynthia Clarey; their beloved  son, Quinton, and to Jill Bowen Gardner, his second wife and magnificent soprano partner. They frequently performed together on stage,  but more importantly, they shared a love that is almost unimaginable.