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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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o8SZng55T0&feature=related

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcdkJeTBxaQ

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaJAa6Tjhik

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.
_________________________

32 comments:

JD Hobbes said...

How right you are. Years ago there was a comic strip called "Dondi." It was predictably made into a movie that was so bad that one critic reviewed it with one word. "Dweadful."

It reminds me of every Lanza film I ever tried to watch. I tried. I really did. But they were awful.

Your summary is on the mark.

Edmund St. Austell said...

It's all just so sad. What could have been. But then, on the other hand, he was loved by many people, and he inspired many. People still think of him fondly today. It's impossible to judge, but the loss was so great.

Jing said...

Thank you for a touching, really quite moving tribute. I imagine you are right about the fateful decision to embrace Hollywood; and what a great point you make about Lanza thereafter portraying an opera singer, instead a being one. It is interesting that some fine voices, like Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, were able to navigate these treacherous waters, though not many. But during the fifties Mario Lanza really did occupy a special place in popular music - certainly not "cross-over" or broadway, perhaps the last happy days of operetta, but really a niche of his own.

I owned many of Mario Lanza's recordings. I believe his last was one recorded while he was in Italy, and consisted of Neapolitan songs. My LP is long lost, but it seemed to me that, even then, he sang beautifully and quite soulfully as well. If only.

corax said...

'nowhere on earth is the road down more precipitous than it is in hollywood.' truer words, alas ... and we have abundant and repeated reminders of this -- britney spears, lindsay lohan, and so on. it's a terrible shame that lanza was a victim of same. at least we have some record [audial and visual] of his triumphs. and we have now this wonderful entry on GREAT OPERA SINGERS commemorating him. beautifully done! a lovely valentine's tribute to his memory. CIP [canat in pace] ...

Edmund St. Austell said...

Actually, my friend, I remember that LP of yours, because you and I listened to it several times about 52 or 53 years ago. You had it with you during a "King and I" rehearsal, if I remember correctly. I remember commenting on the sadness in the voice, and the darkened color. The range was still there, but it was a different sound. It wasn't the sound of a vibrant young man any more. It was soulful, and...well....tragic. Funny that I can remember after all these years. Yes, he really did have a niche of his own, didn't he? I like your phrase, "the last happy days of operetta..." That's very well said.

Edmund St. Austell said...

"Canat in Pace" indeed. We're all getting very soulful, aren't we? That's always the feeling when Lanza is the subject. It's hard to be joyful, or celebrate, or be very happy about a great voice, career, accomplishment....it's always tinged, because of the near heroic sense of tragedy. All made sadder because he came at the end of something, rather than the beginning of something. He hearkened back....in a way, he was grounded in the 30's, back in the days of the opera singers who made films. The kind of thing that was gone, like so much else, after the war. And that makes it all the sadder, in a way. Popular culture was about to explode onto the scene, and nothing would ever be the same as far as sentimental movies featuring operetta or opera singers is concerned. That was all over. Appreciate the comments...he is always a painful subject to write about.

Derek McGovern said...

Thank you for a most interesting article. I feel that Peter Herman Adler was bang on the money in his assessment of Lanza, echoing the words of Serge Koussevitzky ("Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years") and Lawrence Tibbett, who predicted in 1950 that it would take fifty years for the magnitude of Lanza's gifts to be appreciated.

Just a few minor corrections: Lanza sang at the London Palladium in 1957, not 1958; you were probably thinking of his 1958 recitals at the Royal Albert Hall. Lanza also sang not one but *two* operatic roles on stage. In addition to those two Pinkertons at New Orleans, he sang (to ecstatic reviews) the role of Fenton (twice) in Nicolai's comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor at Tanglewood in 1942.

Also, Lanza didn't sing Serenade from The Student Prince in a higher key than written; the final note is a B-flat, not a B natural. The recording you linked to is running a semitone fast. Here's a vastly superior reproduction of that extraordinary rendition at the right speed:

http://www.4shared.com/file/221422541/40b96adb/Serenade-FilmSoundtrack.html

I would love to know who the publicity agent was who told you "sordid" stories about Lanza! I suspect the culprit was his former manager, the convicted fraudster Al Teitelbaum. Mr. Teitelbaum has never missed an opportunity to sensationalize Mario Lanza.

If any of your readers are interested, I run a Google Groups Lanza site that focuses on Lanza's career and recordings:

http://groups.google.com/group/mariolanza

Regards
Derek McGovern

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. McGovern, for the comments and corrections. It is always a pleasure to hear from those dedicated to a subject. I'll do an edit on the dates, to bring them into line, and I appreciate the information on the recording of the serenade. Now that you mention it, the tone of his voice, especially at the beginning of that faulty recording, did actually seem a bit brighter than normal. He was really something, wasn't he? I doubt we shall ever hear his like again. That voice was one in a million, or possibly just unique.

Congratulations on the work you do to help keep alive, and accurate, the memory of one of the great singers of all time! Edmund

Anonymous said...

It’s great to know the professional’s opinion on such a controversial singer as Lanza. Thanks for the fine article. I read a lot of criticism on Lanza’s voice , and glowing praise as well, so it’s hard to come to any conclusion, though personally I like him. That’s why it’s important to hear a calm, professional opinion. It looks like there are not too reasonable people , who think that he was not an opera singer at all. Sometimes opera audience is too snobbish. Lanza was a fine opera singer and a his performances of operetta and pop-songs are absolutely brilliant - such artistry and a sense of style. The voice is beautiful and high notes are gorgeous - he deserved his fame. Of course, his story is especially sad because he could have been a great star without L.B. Mayer and his movies.

It’s interesting – did Franco Corelli get invitations to Hollywood?


n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comments. Always appreciated. Yes, Lanza's high notes were absolutely miraculous. He just seemed to be naturally able to do what others tried to hard to do, and always sounded like they were straining. And he's the only operatic tenor I ever heard who could sing English absolutely perfectly, even at the top of his voice. That is so rare. No, Corelli, to the best of my knowledge, did not make any movies of the same kind that Lanza did, even though he was so handsome. I'll look into it a little further, and let you know what I find out. I'm pretty sure I have seen some filmed opera with him in it, probably made for Italian TV. But not feature movies about other singers, or anything like that. He was an opera star himself, and was content to work primarily in that venue. If Lanza had done that, his life would have been a different story.

Plácido Zacarias said...

Please tell us about the story of his death that the guy you know that knew the other guy who worked with the publicity of Mario (LOL). It would be a tremendous loss to leave those gossips die. :-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Perdone que responda en espanyol, pero no manejo muy bien el portugues. En cuanto a los rumores, ojala que pudiera decirselo,pero en primer lugar no tengo las pruebas, y ya que se trata efectivament de asesinos profesionales, vengandose por promesas hechas, cosas dichas, favores no devueltos y dinero prestado, seria prudente no hablar mucho, si me entiende. Los romanos tenian un decir muy potente, que es "manus manum lavat." Que es como decir que un favor prestado implica favor devuelto, y Dios ayude a quien no se lo devuelva. El aparente acepto cierta cantidad de dinero sin entender los compromisos implicitos en establecer negocios con "cierta gente." A lo mejor no es necesario decir mas. Fue una tragedia.

Anonymous said...

Lanza's rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" is the most thrillng, awe-inspiring vocal performance I have ever heard. I get goose bumps just thinking about him singing those last fully enunciated lines in that rich, incredibly powerful voice of his: "for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, for ever, amen." Amen, indeed.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I certainly agree. I have heard it more than once, and it is always thrilling and inspiring. It is not likely that a voice like that will come along again. One of the greats!

Anonymous said...

The greatest gift that Lanza gave to the world was is voice. We must judge him only on voice. He could sing anything when asked, a great loss to singing. We have had many great Tenors who could sing only Opera or Neopolitan song. When the try to sing anything else they go way out of their comfort zone. The Student Prince is a great example of our brilliant Lanza was. All the recorded songs he sung in this film only took one take, thats it. In my opinion he was the greatest Tenor never to have a full time career in Opera. What a pity, if he did I am sure know one could have touched him, past or present. Know one had a voice like his voice

Edmund St. Austell said...

I certainly share your enthusiasm. This was the greatest tenor voice America ever produced, and everyone, even people who did not know anything about opera, knew about him and were fascinated by his great talent. Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Of course a magnificent voice - but taste, and style....? And while Hollywood obviously contributed to his tragedy, it is still the person making choices.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make solid points, I grant. Thanks for the comment.

Robert Scott-Puttock said...

Robert Scott-Puttock writes: Interesting to read your site Mr St. Austell. Many thanks. In my opinion if one wants to get closest to the truth about Mario Lanza, read the writings of Derek McGovern. I followed the work of Mario Lanza from 1952 and saw him twice live at his Royal Albert Hall concerts 1958. Everything that I have seen written by Mr McGovern concerning Lanza has been sensible, logical, certainly accurate as far as my own knowledge extends, and plain common sense. Best wishes, and thankyou for this blog.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, and I urge readers to check out the work of Mr. McGovern for accurate information on the Great Lanza. Thanks again. Edmund

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

You are correct. He was the great Lanza.

Here is essayed everything about his singing, so I will add a diverse point that I know interests you Edmund:

If Caruso had never lived, what would Mario Lanza's career have been like?

More broadly, think of him as a historical figure of tenor singing in relation to Enrico Caruso and Fernando de Lucia. It is an interesting idea, no?

EdmundStAustell said...

Thank you. Yes, I admit, that is a very interesting idea indeed! Certainly the shadow of Caruso lay over him for his entire career. I think this idea blends into an impression I have always had--and which I mention in the article--that Lanza's career was primarily one in which he portrayed the concept of an opera singer...specifically E. Caruso. He had great talent of his own, certainly, and I have always thought that if Caruso had not existed, and Lanza had never opted to portray him and model upon him, there may have been a great career in which Lanza himself became a great opera singer. It would have been an entirely different story. Fascinating idea! Thank you!

michaelbos said...

Lanza's voice was the 1st voice my brain recorded as talent when I was 8 years olds. I'm 55 now and he still is my favorite voice.

William Melton said...

I enjoyed all of Mario Lanza movies. His voice was beautiful but
as an all around Opera star he did't compare with American born
John Alexander that Beverly Sills called the Met's Rock of Gibraltar. Alexander was with the Met for 26 years and could sing many roles.He was elected to the American Opera's Hall of Fame. He was my dear friend in fact he died
in my arms after having performed
on the Temple Theatre's stagemany years ago.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Oh, dear! What a fascinating but utterly tragic story you have to tell. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, although I'm sure in a certain way it was comforting having your dear friend in your arms at that painful but unavoidable moment in life.

You are right about the quality of his work. I have been thinking about doing a blog on Alexander. I heard him do a Messiah once in Cincinnati; I think it was possibly the best singing of the tenor part I ever heard. Yes, he was excellent; there is no doubt about it. Thank you for a most interesting and poignant comment!

Patricia Erwin Nordman said...

Thank you so much for bringing back wonderful memories. I fell in love with Mario Lanza when I was 15 years old, "The Great Caruso" was in theaters, and I sat through three showings in one afternoon, enthralled! For years that movie was my all-time favorite, spent $60 for the video years later! His Lord's Prayer and Ave Maria sent me straight to heaven. Thank you for not publishing the sad details of his death, also. It was heart-breaking enough to lose him, but to attach gossip to it was too much.
Can you give us some information about his children. A number of years ago I tracked down a son. I know he had four children, and that his wife died within months of his death.
Again, thank you so much!
Patricia

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment! It is much appreciated. I'll see what I can find about the children and let you know.

Lindsay Perigo said...

Mr St Austell

I just found your excellent site through googling Gianfranco Cecchele. Your feature here on Lanza is unusually fair and appropriately generous, especially in pinpointing Mario's exceptional diction as one of the "great miracles" of his singing. Bravo!

I'd be wary of generalising that his singing went into decline after The Great Caruso—there were many more miracles to come, including a 1958 recording of Neapolitan songs that I think someone has already cited. The fact is that Mario was erratic at all stages of his career; even his very last recording, The Desert Song, shows intermittent flashes of the unique Lanza sound and spirit.

It's easy to blame Hollywood for his early death; personally I believe any possessor of the volcanic passion we hear in Lanza is going to die young.

My interview with Mario's conductor and accompanist, Constantine Callinicos, can be heard here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnsILlurEJE

Lindsay Perigo said...

PS—Regarding the children: Colleen, Marc and Damon are all deceased; Ellisa is the sole surviving child of Mario and Betty Lanza.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thnk you very much, sir, for excellet observations, which I will take very seriously. I will listen to your interview. I greatly appreciate your visiting my site. Edmund StAustell

Mike Pincher said...

Lanza's gift was decidedly underappreciated and Tibbett's comment was right on. This was a brilliant voice unmatched before or since, the greatest combination of beauty and power I've ever heard. Pavarotti was very harmonic and he had excellent squillo but his voice was small by comparison. I disagree that his films were bad ... they were mostly pleasing and feel good. They were mostly designed with fun in mind. In "Serenade" he showed signs of some genuine acting talent, though of course it's sporadic. Anyway, I'm so glad his remarkable voice was recorded so often, as he was very prolific for such a brief career. But in our hearts, it was always read, "Long live Mario Lanza!"

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent comment! Thank you very much!