Baritone Jake Gardner; Tenor Tony Villecco

Remembering TCO’s Jake Gardner by Tony Villecco

Baritone Jake Gardner; Tenor Tony Villecco. 1998


When I was a sophomore in high school, I started voice lessons with Jake. 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, TCO 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 the arias from DON GIOVANNI and COSI FAN TUTTE. Other young chorus singers like myself,  would also show up at his doorstep, for their lessons, kids I was in the chorus with or had met in the opera.

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 the opera in small parts in 1969, my first encounter was in the 1970 production of TOSCA. I was singing the Shephard 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 also was singing the small but important role of Angelotti. It was obvious by his early voice that his career was clearly going to take off once he was a bit  older and had achieved  more operatic experience.


We did a BUTTERFLY in 1972 where he 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, often returning to TCO when schedules allowed.

But it was 1973’s DON GIOVANNI in which Jake could really not only emphasize his beautiful voice, but incredible acing skills. Carmen did some amazing staging and Jake played the sex craved  Don Juan to a hilt. I will never forget his one entrance as we choristers waited. He came from behind a scrim in these thigh high leather books and an open to the waist tunic that I am sure was very titillating to 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 we were doing 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 Rich Taylor as Faust. Jake’s death scene in Act three was riveting. Other vivid memories here in Binghamton were his excellent Marcello in BOHEME and of course, RIGOLETTO, again with Wohlafka and Taylor.


The voice was hard to accurately describe. It had a sonorous, almost robust but velvety quality as well, sound to it. He possessed a very distinguishable tone quality and all you had to hear were to hear a few notes to be able to say, ‘yep-that’s Jake.’  There were of course, many fine baritones who passed through TCO’s training program throughout the years, but none with the finesse, the spark, that magic 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, Quentin, and to Jill, his second wife and magnificent soprano partner who adored this man and  together, performed several roles together on stage,  but most importantly, shared a love that is almost unimaginable.



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