Sunday, February 14, 2010
Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy
Peter Hermann Adler told me once that there was no doubt at all in his mind that Mario Lanza was the greatest voice America ever produced. That is a mighty claim, but it may be the case. Born Alfredo Cocozza, in 1921, in Phildelphia, Mario Lanza, as he called himself, had a whirlwind career of the kind that can only happen in America, as a rule, and he became such a presence in the popular media that he was known by virtually everyone by the early 1950's. For my generation, who grew up in the fifties, he was the biggest "classical" vocal presence since Caruso. Many singers have told me that he was their main inspiration for wanting to become opera singers. It was not so much that he WAS primarily an opera singer, because in point of fact he was essentially a movie star and radio, TV and recording artist. He only performed in two full length operas. What he did was portray an opera singer, and represent operatic singing. This gave him an enormous audience. And he did have a great voice. No reasonable person can deny that.
Contrary to much popular opinion, he took his studies seriously at the beginning of his career. He had good voice teachers and coaches, and quickly made friends with some very successful singers, including George London, Robert Weede and Francis Yeend. In fact, he went on tour with these singers in 1947, throughout North America, and was successful. In many ways, 1947-48 were years of destiny for Lanza. He had choices to make. Many things were developing at once, and to the degree that he remained East Coast based, he was on solid ground and making progress toward an operatic career. He had been heard by both Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, and both were impressed. In 1947, he sang at the Hollywood Bowl, and was heard by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios. He also appeared the next year in New Orleans as Pinkerton in Butterfly, one of only two full operas he was ever to perform on stage, the other having been a Tanglewood production of Niccolai's Merry Wives of Windsor in 1942. Mayer came up with a typically Hollywood sized offer, and the son of poor and struggling Italian immigrants from Philadelphia was overwhelmed. He made, at that crucial junction, what is in my opinion, and the opinion of many, a tragic mistake that would determine his destiny.
He opted for the glamorous, but relatively undisciplined glitz of the movie world, and began to make some pretty mediocre movies. He was handsome when he was young, but his acting was unschooled, and just not very good, to be honest. The first movie was The Midnight Kiss, done during this early period of 47-48, followed by an RCA Victor recording contract in 1949, and then, in 1950, the movie The Toast of New Orleans. It was in this movie that the song "Be my love" was introduced, and it went on to become his biggest pop hit, selling over a million copies. People still associate him with it:
Incredibly, that is a high C natural at the end! An absolutely perfectly seamless voice, with spectacularly clean, clear, understandable, colloquial English, like any pop singer might deliver. Those who contend that English cannot be sung in an operatic way without distorting vowels beyond recognition should be forced to listen to this recording. It is a great voice, plain and simple. In 1952 he recorded the Student Prince, and operetta in English was an excellent vehicle for his voice. Here is the famous "Serenade," with somewhat updated lyrics.The voice, as always, is almost beyond belief in its naturalness, and seeming ease of production. No pop star ever had clearer pronunciation than Lanza. That is one of the real miracles of his singing:
Following The Toast of New Orleans, Lanza had made—in 1951—his biggest and most popular movie, with which he is still associated, The Great Caruso. He put all his interest and emotion in this film, because Caruso was his boyhood idol, as the great Neapolitan tenor had been for many Italian immigrants. His voice was in superb condition:
This is clearly pre-recorded with movie lip-synch, but then all movies are. It does not detract from the voice. The C's are splendid. The problem is that by this point Lanza has become a portrayer of opera singers, as opposed to being an opera singer himself. Also, movies require much less musical and intellectual discipline. Songs can be re-recorded, sounds can be electronically enhanced, and so on. The money is big, the fame is big, the acclaim is heady, but to a large extent it just isn't the same thing. And not much respect, if any, is garnered from the world of classical music and its artists. This can eat away at a person who wants to take his gifts seriously, but has chosen a tricky venue in which to display them.
The quality of the movies began to decline after The Great Caruso, and Lanza began to show the tell-tale signs of Hollywood stress. He could in fact deliver fine concerts in public when given the chance. He sang with great success in London, for example, at a Royal Command Performance in 1957, to considerable acclaim. He had the goods, but he had made a Faustian bargain early on, and was never to escape from it. He was only going to live one more year, his struggle with weight gain out of control, and his personal habits deteriorating to a disastrous degree. Nowhere on earth is the road down more precipitous than it is in Hollywood. Overnight stars go hand in hand with overnight disaster. He was quickly abandoned by the fair-weather friends who abound in Hollywood, and found himself in deep trouble. He made one last decision to go to Italy and study, with an eye toward a legitimate Italian debut, a decision which, had it been made a decade earlier, might have led him to a great operatic career. But it was too late. He died in Italy, in 1959, at 38 years of age. The details surrounding his death were never clear. I have heard many stories, including some from a man who worked as his publicity agent, but I will not repeat them. They are sordid and unpleasant and cannot be proven. His heart gave out, and he died, still a young man. That is enough to say. He seemed to have it all at the beginning: a truly great voice, very handsome features, good friends and connections. It is impossible, and finally silly, to try to gainsay history and the decisions of other people, or to go on about what might have been, but it seems pretty clear that it was largely Hollywood, with its infamous life-style and all that goes with it, that destroyed Mario Lanza. It was a tragedy; a particularly American tragedy and an unspeakable loss to the world of great singing.
at 1:47 PM