CLEARWATER — For 17 years, an older man with a trim physique sat at a piano and helped promising singers make beautiful sounds.
Before that, Richard Torigi played lead roles alongside the best voices in opera, including Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo and Sherill Milnes, as well as in several musicals. He went on to become a widely respected voice teacher.
Mr. Torigi died April 6 in Sebastopol, Calif., where he has lived for six years. He was 92.
"He was the most influential teacher in my life," said longtime student Todd Donovan of St. Petersburg. "He taught me how to sing."
He credits Mr. Torigi with helping him win a $12,000 vocal competition a year ago, and helping him sing fluidly up and down in range.
"He was absolutely a stickler on making sure you breathe well and correctly," said Donovan, 43.
Mr. Torigi was born in Brooklyn as Santo Tortorigi, the son of Italian immigrants. At 2, he was singing Santa Lucia. He would adopt the stage name Richard Torigi, and study with voice teachers such as Eleanor McClellan, who taught Eileen Farrell.
At a party, he met a nurse named Lorna who knew nothing of opera.
"He had warm, loving eyes," said Lorna Tortorigi, 85. "I knew he wanted to have a career in singing."
Mr. Torigi debuted in 1947 with the Rochester Opera, as the bullfighter Escamillo in Carmen, who sings the martial-sounding Toreador song.
"He was closest to a dramatic baritone, heavier than a lyric but not like a bass," said Jeff Clark, a local baritone soloist who studied under Mr. Torigi for 12 years. "He had a Robert Merrill sound, but to my mind ... a little richer."
He performed as a leading baritone with the New York City Opera, and went on to play leading roles for the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Miami Opera Guild and in numerous other cities.
"After a performance he didn't linger to sign autographs," his wife said. "He would just go home."
A family man, Mr. Torigi often returned from out of town bearing gifts — a necklace or ring for his wife and petrified fossils for his sons, Richard and Douglas. In 1963, he canceled performances in South Pacific, in which he was to co-star with Ginger Rogers, to be with his wife, who was temporarily paralyzed due to Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Mr. Torigi also sang in three operas on NBC television, and in the 1960s sang on stage with a young Placido Domingo. Career highlights included starring in the touring Broadway musical, The Most Happy Fella, and playing Marcello in La Boheme opposite Beverly Sills in the New York City Opera, a role he played more than 200 times.
He also made his mark as a vocal coach, teaching at the Juilliard School and elsewhere. Mr. Torigi gave his last performance in 1986, in Madame Butterfly, and moved to Clearwater that year.
Before he moved to California in 2004, his students held a recital in his honor at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The students reminisced and joked, especially about their mentor's perfectionism. "You never got through an aria in your lesson because he would always stop you," Donovan said.
On occasion, Mr. Torigi would demonstrate the technique he wanted students to master. It was a tough act to follow, even when he was in his 80s.
"Oh, my goodness, he could still rattle the walls with that voice," Donovan said.
If a student sang incorrectly, Donovan recalled, Mr. Torigi might berate them with, "Don't you ever sing like that again!"
But all was well when they corrected their mistakes. "Okay, you have redeemed your honor," Mr. Torigi would say.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]