His soccer team had just lost a big game and Bonaldo Giaiotti, a 20-year-old furniture design apprentice, tried to clear the melancholy in the bar for his teammates by imitating a Russian operatic bass he had heard on the radio. A member of the local opera’s chorus near Udine, in northeastern Italy, was there and took note.
He suggested that Mr. Giaiotti sing for the chorus’s director, who not only took him on but also started giving him lessons.
The fledgling bass had talent. He soon quit his furniture job and began a rapid rise to the international opera stage.
Mr. Giaiotti became a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, singing more than 400 performances from 1960 to 1989 in mainly Italian operas. He also performed in other major houses, including the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, the Teatro Real in Madrid and the Zurich Opera. He was a special favorite at the Arena di Verona, where he appeared for more than 30 seasons.
Mr. Giaiotti died on June 12 at a hospital in Milan after a kidney blockage, his nephew, Vanni Giaiotti, said. He was 85.
Oddly, Mr. Giaiotti did not make his debut at La Scala in Milan until 1986, probably because of all the time he spent in New York earlier in his career. But he did make a notable Italian debut in 1973, when he appeared in Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” to open the Teatro Regio in Turin in a production directed by Maria Callas.
Mr. Giaiotti performed stalwart duty at the Met at a time when both the Met and its Lincoln Center neighbor, New York City Opera, served up a cornucopia of great basses, among them Cesare Siepi, Jerome Hines, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Samuel Ramey.
While Mr. Giaiotti may have been outshone by the big names of his generation, keen opera observers knew his value.
In 1974, the critic Peter G. Davis, writing in The New York Times, called him “outstanding” in his two arias on an RCA recording of Halévy’s “La Juive,” numbers that “almost every ‘golden age’ bass of any consequence recorded.”
“I can’t think of many other contemporary singers in his range who possess such columnar solidity over two full octaves,” Mr. Davis wrote. “Giaiotti inflects the words with real majesty.”
No matter the assignment, Robert Lombardo, a former manager, said by email, Mr. Giaiotti stood out for his “consistency and class,” both stylistically and vocally.
Mr. Giaiotti was a basso cantante, according to the classification of vocal connoisseurs. That is, his voice was lighter and more agile than a basso profondo. Critics described his voice as resonant, firm, sonorous and rock-solid.
At the Met, Mr. Giaiotto’s signature roles included Timur in Puccini’s “Turandot”; Colline in Puccini’s “La Bohème”; the Commendatore in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; Ramfis in “Aida” and Banco in “Macbeth,” both by Verdi; and Raimondo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
In an interview with the Italian website OperaClick, Mr. Giaiotti said he gravitated to the more serious bass parts because the comic ones just weren’t him.
“It would be false,” he said. “You have to express character with your voice.”
Bonaldo Giaiotti was born on Christmas Day 1932 in Ziracco, a village just outside the northeastern city of Udine. His father was said to have a naturally beautiful voice. Young Bonaldo sang in a church choir until his voice changed at 14, when he put singing behind him.
Then came his Russian bass imitation, recounted by Mr. Hines in his 1982 book, “Great Singers on Great Singing.” After about six months of lessons, Mr. Giaiotti gave his first recital and, over the objections of his father, decided to go into opera. His studies were interrupted by two years of military service, after which he moved to Milan to continue lessons and in 1958 made his professional debut as Colline.
He did so well that he was encouraged to enter a singing competition, which eventually led to an artists’ exchange between the Cincinnati Summer Opera and Italian companies. He made his American debut in Cincinnati as Don Basilio in “The Barber of Seville.”
But it was an encounter in Milan that sealed his American career.
Rudolf Bing, the Met’s imperial general manager, was returning from a vacation in the Dolomite mountains in Italy when he stopped off in Milan to discover new voices, as he regularly did. He heard Mr. Giaiotti and hired him for the 1960-61 season, slotting him to make his debut as Zaccaria in Verdi’s “Nabucco” on the season’s opening night — the first time the Met had put on that opera. Mr. Giaiotti went on to sing 29 roles in 28 operas at the house.
The security that came from steady work at the Met helped Mr. Giaiotti to develop as a singer. He had, after all, little formal training.
Four years into his Met employment, he married Alice Weinberger, who died last year. He is survived by a brother, Marziano.
Early in his career, Mr. Giaiotti’s gift for mimicry helped him, because he could imitate other singers. But an insecure technique led to an early crisis in his singing — “a serious vocal collapse,” as Mr. Hines put it in his book.
Unlike many singers, who often keep vocal distress private, Mr. Giaiotti did not hesitate to seek help.
“This is what saved me,” he told Mr. Hines. “When I was in trouble I readily admitted it to myself and my friends. I asked help from everyone, and they all gave me bits of advice. I put it together and developed my technique.”
He rarely had problems after that. Mr. Giaiotti sang into his 80s, giving one of his last performances, at the Casa Verdi, a singer’s retirement home in Milan, in 2015. It was a rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
“It’s the voice I heard 30 years ago,” his former manager Mr. Lombardo said.