Sixty-two years after his death, Mario Lanza is still one of the most controversial singers who ever lived. People either love him or hate him; there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground; but when you grew up, what kind of music you were weaned on, and how you discovered Lanza will have more to do with your emotional and intellectual reaction to his singing than to any other tenor in history.
Born in Philadelphia as Alfred Arnold Cocozza to a family of working-class Italian immigrants on January 31, 1921, the young boy was, for some unexplained reason, given the family nickname of Freddie. Growing up, he was mesmerized by listening to Enrico Caruso’s recordings on the family Victrola. Although Freddie originally studied violin (if you can believe it!), he quickly decided to become a tenor himself. His mother, Maria Lanza Cocozza, took an extra job to pay for his voice lessons with Irene Williams, a local teacher with a good reputation.
Despite anything else that Lanza did later on, it is clear from a set of private recordings (probably with Williams as pianist) made in 1940 that Cocozza had a naturally settled voice, something extraordinarily rare for a 19-year-old. Unless your name was Jussi Björling and you were studying voice with your father starting at age eight, the majority of tenors really don’t mature until they are closer to age 30, but these test pressings show a shockingly well-settled voice for a teenager.
In July 1942, famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky was visiting Philadelphia when he heard Freddie sing. Shocked at the quality of his voice, he offered him the chance to sing Fenton in an upcoming Tanglewood performance of Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sensing the need for a catchy professional name, young Alfred-Freddie decided to use the masculine version of his mother’s maiden name, and so became Mario Lanza.
Although his performance won him critical acclaim, what is often not reported, but which you can find out for yourself by digging up old newspaper clippings (as I did back in the early 1970s), was that the performance date had to be postponed because the young tenor had problems learning his role. This was to be Lanza’s Achilles heel throughout his career. He would quickly and easily learn the most famous arias and duets from popular operas, but had a very difficult time memorizing not necessarily the music, but the words, of the rest of his roles.
Lanza was drafted soon after this performance, but fortunately his singing voice saved him the horrors of having to serve on the front lines. Before he was discharged in 1945 he had sung in two big productions, Frank Loesser’s On the Beam and Moss Hart’s Winged Victory. It was also during this period that he met, fell in love with and married Betty Hicks, the sister of an Army buddy. Eventually, they had four children.
After the war, Lanza took a job (under his birth name, since he had never legally changed it) as a dishwasher at Schrafft’s Restaurant at 54 West 23rd Street in New York City in order to pay for vocal lessons with the famed voice teacher Enrico Rosati, who had previously trained the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Schrafft’s, though moderately-priced, was famous for having a certain air of gentility typical of an upper-middle-class home. Lanza would sing while washing dishes and, needless to say, both the patrons and the staff asked if management could keep the door open to the kitchen so they could hear him sing.
But Lanza had more things to do than wash dishes and sing for the diners at Schrafft’s. He was also busy making demo recordings and sending them around to both agents and classical radio stations, which led to his being hired to sing occasionally on the radio. By the end of 1946, after 15 months with Rosati, he had auditioned for the all-powerful Arthur Judson, director of Columbia Artists’ Management, Inc. (otherwise known as CAMI). According to one source who claimed to hear this, but insists on remaining anonymous, Judson was floored by Lanza’s voice but dismayed by his role-learning shortcomings. He thus decided to package him with two other promising young singers he had recently signed, American soprano Frances Yeend and Canadian bass-baritone George London, as “The Bel Canto Trio” and send them on a lengthy tour of the U.S. and Canada.
In the midst of this tour, Lanza and Yeend were showcased by Judson at a special Hollywood Bowl concert in the spring of 1947. Louis B. Mayer, head of M-G-M, was present at that concert and he, too was overwhelmed by Lanza’s voice. He was also much taken by his handsome good looks and, after undergoing a screen test, with his charisma in front of a camera. He was signed to a long-term deal to make musicals for M-G-M, to begin after this tour was over in 1948.
Oddly enough, however, Mayer failed to sign him to an exclusive contract to make records on the M-G-M label, as famed Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior was doing. This left the door open for RCA Victor to sign him in 1949—not to their popular black label, but to their prestigious Red Label, reserved for the best classical artists of the day. Yet when Lanza’s first records came out, discerning classical music critics were dismayed by his brassy, overloud delivery of arias, sometimes with musical mistakes or erratic phrasing in them. Because of this plus the intense promotion given to him by M-G-M, he began to be dismissed as a mere showoff and not a serious artist.
Lanza gave only one full, legitimate opera performance in his life, as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in New Orleans in 1948. Pinkerton is one of the shortest “star” roles for tenor in the entire repertoire; although he sings on and off through most of Act I, his character does not reappear until the third act, and in that he sings very little. This performance has become a source of controversy. An opera buff who I briefly knew in the early 1970s, Bob Kean, told me that he went out of his way to see this “phenom” since he had heard him on the radio and wanted to see how good he was in person. His assessment was that he really only sang well in the known showpieces, the “Dovunque al mondo” duet with the baritone and the love duet with the soprano, in Act I; otherwise, he was barely audible, in part because he kept looking at the sleeve of his Navy Lieutenant’s costume on which he had a great many of the words written in pen! I’ve not read or heard another first-hand account of that performance, but apparently it was not a success because he was never asked to sing another performance again until 1959.
During his early years in Hollywood, both his directors and fellow cast members came to be leery of the exceptionally talented young man in their midst. Lucy Fischer and Marcia Landy, in their book Stars: The Film Reader (Rutledge, 2004), state that Lanza quickly gained a reputation for being “rebellious, tough, and ambitious.” In her 1963 memoir The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that “his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak.” Apparently, Lanza began eating and drinking to excess the more famous he became—not, as with some performers, to steady their nerves (he was apparently nervy enough for three people), but just because he liked to celebrate his newfound success beyond his wildest dreams. And yes, there are moments in his films when you can see this in his eyes.
Apparently, Lanza had the strange habit of treating young, up-and-coming sopranos with kindness but acting in a superior way towards established veterans. Gloria Boh, a young soprano who was hired as the understudy for Licia Albanese in Serenade, recalled that he was very friendly and down-to-earth with her, but veteran Dorothy Kirsten, who sang with him in The Great Caruso, described him as cocky and arrogant towards her…and Kirsten had worked for nearly two seasons on the radio with one of the (supposedly) most arrogant men in show business, Al Jolson. As for his relationship with M-G-M, that, too became strained. During the filming of The Student Prince in 1954, he was fired for a violent disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over the singing of one of his songs. Lanza, who thought his stardom made him immune to such an action, sunk into a deep depression for nearly a year, taking refuge in drink. It couldn’t have made his disposition any sunnier.
Yet somehow, despite the drinking, the binge eating and crash dieting to lose weight for upcoming film roles, he never damaged his amazing voice. Veteran soprano Licia Albanese, who sang the Act II duet from Otello with him in the film Serenade, put it best. After debunking the rumor that he had a small voice that had to be boosted by microphones, adding that “He had everything that one needs. The voice, the temperament, perfect diction. … Vocally he was very secure. All he needed was coaching. Everything was so easy for him.” But perhaps that was the problem. Because singing came to easily to him, and he was now rich and famous, he didn’t feel any need to refine his approach, to try to sing in a more legitimate fashion. And he didn’t spend the time he really needed to learn a role unless he had to sing it—and he usually didn’t.
In 1957, he moved permanently to Rome and used it as his base for further films and recordings. The following year he gave a concert tour of England, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, where many Europeans who had never heard him sing “live” had the opportunity to do so—and were floored by the beauty and power of his voice (among them soprano Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge). Yet although he gave 22 concerts, he canceled several of them because his health was failing. A year later, diagnosed with heart problems and coming down with pneumonia, he was clearly not in good shape. In September of 1959, wanting a new way to crash diet for another film, he elected to try a medically controversial new program known as “the twilight sleep treatment” in which he was put into suspended animation with drugs. It was too much for his weakened heart, and so on October 7 he died of a pulmonary embolism. His wife Betty was completely devastated by the loss; she and their four children returned to Hollywood, where she died five months later from a drug overdose.
Yet in a sense, Lanza did a lot of good for classical music. He attracted millions of listeners who otherwise would never give the Met Opera matinee broadcasts the time of day, and many of them remained opera lovers for life. The problem was, there was no one with a fifth of his talent to replace him. RCA tried in the 1960s with Sergio Franchi, an Italian-American Las Vegas entertainer with an OK voice who they also signed to their Red Seal label, but who didn’t sell one-fifth as many records as Lanza was still doing after his death. Another singer who tried to fill Lanza’s shoes was Enzo Stuarti, two years Lanza’s senior, who had sung unsuccessfully under the names Larry Laurence and Larry Stuart before picking Stuarti as his professional name. Stuarti, who was one of my customers on a newspaper route I had as a girl in West Paterson, New Jersey, actually sold more records than Franchi, and was more popular on TV, largely due to his affable, down-to-earth personality, but he wasn’t Mario Lanza, either.
But how “illegitimate” was Lanza’s style in its time? Actually, he wasn’t any worse than Gigli had been, adding gulps and sobs to break up the vocal line. He just had a more powerful voice than Gigli’s, sort of a cross between Gigli and Mario del Monaco, another large-voiced tenor who was known for singing everything too loudly. His problem was that he often combined the faults of both tenors in his delivery, but when he behaved himself and tried to be artistic—and he clearly could when he wanted to—there was nothing at all wrong with his performances except that the voice is so instantly recognizable that people know it’s Mario Lanza, thus they automatically start picking his performances apart in a more minute manner than if they were listening to a Gigli, a del Monaco, or a di Stefano (who also had his own flaws and foibles).
For me, personally, and I would assume for several others, the one thing that bothers me in many Lanza performances is the way he will suddenly explode his voice at full volume in passages where it is neither called for nor appreciated. He almost gives one the impression of some guy whose face is turning red as a beet and his eyes become crossed the more he belts out those loud high notes. Yet one can find a fairly large number of pretty cleanly-sung performances that, although loud in places, are not tasteless.
The other problem, however, is the almost overwhelming emotional impact of Lanza’s voice. As veteran opera star Placido Domingo put it, “There was a visceral quality to the Lanza voice which, even to this day, grabs one with astonishing force…his voice remains a force of nature.” And this, too, is what bothers people. One simply does not sing in such an uninhibited manner. It’s as if Lanza poured every ounce of the love, rage, excitement or fear that was inside him every time he sang, and this is very embarrassing to many people. It wasn’t that he was a singer who was occasionally a bit sloppy and overloud, it was more that this outpouring of emotion frightened people, and in many cases still does.
So let’s put aside the many distorted, over-the-top Lanza recordings and focus on the ones he did do well…and explain why they’re good.
Bizet: Agnus Dei – 1948, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Miklos Rosza. Here’s a performance that introduces us to two of Lanza’s greatest assets: his matchless half-voice—by far the most beautiful since Caruso’s, though the timbre closer resembles Gigli—and his superb breath control. Many times, one doesn’t notice the latter because of his breaking up the musical line with glots and sobs à la Gigli, but when he had a mind to, he actually had better breath control, and phrasing, than Gigli did.
Begin the Beguine – 1952, from the Coca-Cola radio program. An example of Lanza using his superb phrasing and breath control in a pop song. And here we notice one of his greatest assets: his diction. Not only was it perfect, whether in Italian, English, Latin or French, but it was crystal-clear. I’d give anything to hear a modern American or British tenor sing words this clearly. It was one of the things the old singing masters taught their prize pupils: “Put the words on your lips, and let the breath run them out.” Think about that for a minute. Or two.
Puccini: La fanciulla del West: Ch’ella mi creda – 1940 private recording. Here we have the 19-year-old Lanza, five years before he studied with Rosati, and the voice sounds remarkably well-settled for a 19-year-old tenor. And here, the phrasing is clean. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone with his power, so he just sang the aria superbly.
Verdi: La traviata – Libiamo (1949 movie clip w/Grayson) & Parigi o cara (1947 Hollywood Bowl performance w/Yeend) – Excellent performances by Lanza, particularly the latter which he sings very sensitively and tastefully. There’s a commercial recording of the former with the chorus (which, for some bizarre reason, was left out of the movie version), but he sings much too loudly on that one and the soprano lacks Grayson’s charm. She didn’t have much voice, but she did have charm/
Guardian Angels – 1951 studio recording. This strange song, recorded for Lanza’s Christmas albumin 1951, was written by none other than Arthur “Harpo” Marx with lyrics by one Gerda Beilenson. When I first heard it back in the late 1960s, I was overwhelmed by both the interesting structure of the song and the intensity of Lanza’s performance, but couldn’t figure out how on earth Harpo Marx wrote a song for him. It turns out that Harpo originally wrote it in 1945 for a film titled War Bond Drive, with lyrics by Gerda Beilenson, the wife of Marx brothers attorney Larry Beilenson, and it was Larry who was able to show the song to Lanza, who liked it very much. It is an absolutely stunning performance, so good, in fact, that no one else other than Placido Domingo has ever recorded it, and his version is slower, laid-back, and sung as a duet with Jackie Evancho. He was wise not to try to rival Lanza’s performance. No one can.
Der Rosenkavalier: Di rigori armato – 1955 film recording w/Jacob Gimpel, pianist. I’ve heard dozens of legitimate tenors sing, or try to sing, this famous aria. If you can name me ONE tenor other than Helge Rosvaenge who has sung it this well, I’d like to hear it.
Verdi: Rigoletto – Questa o quella (1950), E il sol dell’anima (1949 Hollywood Bowl w/Mary Jane Smith), La donna è mobile (1957) – Lanza over-belted his other excerpt from Rigoletto, the aria “E il sol dell’anima,” but in these three excerpts he is marvelous. I’ve never heard anyone sing the rhythms in the first and third of these with the kind of insouciant syncopation that Lanza does, and it suits the music and the character of the Duke. In “E il sol,” he again shows off his Gigli-like half voice to great effect. Unfortunately, soprano Mary Jane Smith is nothing to write home about: she sounds like a bad church soprano.
Puccini: La bohème – O soave fanciulla (1955 w/Jean Fenn, soprano) – As a soprano, Jean Fenn is a cut, maybe a cut and a half, above Mary Jane Smith but she’s not first-rate. Lanza is. His phrasing is clean, his tone seductive, and he does NOT try to compete with the soprano’s high note at the end—as written.
I’m Falling in Love With Someone (1954 test pressing) – another excellent performance that should have been issued long ago.
Mozart: Cosí fan tutte – E voi sapete (1958 w/Paolo Silveri, baritone, Plinio Clabassi, bass & Rome Opera Orchestra) – Huh? What? Mario Lanza singing MOZART??!? Yes, indeed – a full minute of the trio from Act I of Cosí fan tutte. And he does a great job on it. Play THIS one for your Lanza-hating friends without telling them who the tenor is. They’ll probably choke when they find out.
Romberg: The Student Prince – Serenade. 1946 radio performance from “Great Moments in Music.” I really like this performance, a lot better than his more famous recording from the mid-1950s where he seems to be trying to outshout the entire orchestra. Superb legato phrasing and, as always, perfect English diction.
Roses of Picardy – 1952 Coca-Cola Show transcript. This sweet, touching song from the late Victorian era about a flower seller in Covent Garden has been sung by dozens of tenors, both legitimate and pop, as well as a few baritones, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it this well, and with this much feeling without overplaying his hand. This is truly one of Lanza’s masterpieces,
Giordano: Fedora – Amor ti vieta – Another 1952 Coca-Cola Show broadcast (it may be from the same show as above; I don’t know one way or the other). The most beautifully and rhapsodically sung version since Caruso’s 1902 G&T recording.
For the First Time [Come Prima] – One of his last recordings, made for the soundtrack of the film of the same name. If there is any tenor on earth today who could sing as seductively as this, I’ve yet to hear him.
Verdi: Otello – Già nella notte densa (1945 broadcast w/Jean Tennyson, soprano), Dio ti giocondi (1955 film recording w/Gloria Boh, soprano), Dio mi potevi scagliar (1955 film recording), Niun mi tema (1958 w/Rome Opera Orchestra) – Jean Tennyson was a popular radio singer of the 1940s who was considered to be an “operatic soprano.” If you know the opera company that would hire this miserable specimen, please post a message on this article. But Lanza is utterly fantastic; his interpretation is sensitive, his phrasing superb. In fact, he sings this difficult duet better than Mario del Monaco ever did. He is also superb in “Dio ti giocondi.” I prefer this outtake with Gloria Boh better than the issued version with Licia Albanese simply because Albanese’s voice was too bright for Desdemona; her tone had no depth or richness. I do, however, like the “Dio mi potevi scagliar” from that session: a bit overplayed, but not much; and Lanza’s 1958 recording of Otello’s final aria, “Niun mi tema,” is also exemplary, forsaking his usual tear-passion-to-tatters style. There is no better way to end this survey than these recordings. From any angle you look at it, Lanza was a superb Otello, far better than anyone I’ve heard in the post-Jon Vickers era.
All the above recordings are available on YouTube for free streaming. Happy listening!
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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