Mario Lanza (January 31, 1921 - October 7, 1959) was an Italian American tenor and Hollywood movie star who enjoyed success in the late 1940s and 1950s.
His lirico spinto tenor voice was considered by his admirers to rival that of Enrico Caruso, whom Lanza portrayed in the 1951 film The Great Caruso. Compared with Caruso, however, his operatic career was negligible. Lanza sang a wide variety of music throughout his career, ranging from operatic arias to the popular songs of the day. While his highly emotional style was not universally praised by critics, he was immensely popular and his many recordings are still prized today. He died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 38 and was entombed in Holy Cross Cemetery.
Born Alfred Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was exposed to opera and singing at a young age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian immigrant parents, and by the age of 16 his vocal talent had become apparent. Starting out in local operatic productions in Philadelphia for the YMCA Opera Company while still in his teens, he later came to the attention of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who in 1942 provided young Cocozza with a full student scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. Koussevitzky would later tell him that, "Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years."
His operatic debut, as Fenton in an English translation of Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, was at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood on , 1942, after studying with conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. It was here that Cocozza adopted the stage name Mario Lanza, which was the masculine version of his mother?s maiden name, Maria Lanza. His performances at Tanglewood won him critical acclaim, with Noel Straus of The New York Times hailing the 21-year-old tenor as having "few equals among tenors of the day in terms of quality, warmth, and power." Herbert Graf subsequently wrote in the Opera News of October 5, 1942 that, "A real find of the season was Mario Lanza He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera." Lanza performed the role of Fenton twice at Tanglewood, in addition to appearing there in a one-off presentation of Act III of Puccini's La Boh?me with the noted Mexican soprano Irma Gonz?lez, baritone James Pease, and mezzo-soprano Laura Castellano. Music critic Jay C. Rosenfeld wrote in The New York Times of August 9, 1942 that, "Miss Gonz?lez as Mim? and Mario Lanza as Rodolfo were conspicuous by the beauty of their voices and the vividness of their characterizations." In an interview shortly before her death in 2008, Ms. Gonz?lez recalled that Lanza was "very correct, likeable, with a powerful and beautiful voice."
His budding operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory. He also appeared in the film version of the latter (albeit as an unrecognizable member of the chorus).
Lanza resumed his singing career with a concert in Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in September 1945 under the baton of Peter Herman Adler, who subsequently became a mentor to him. The following month, Lanza replaced tenor Jan Peerce on the live CBS radio program Great Moments in Music, on which he made six appearances over a period of four months, singing extracts from various operas and other works. He then studied with noted teacher Enrico Rosati for fifteen months, acquiring a solid vocal technique that enabled him, in his own words, "to sing for hours without becoming tired." His friend and colleague bass-baritone George London later recalled that prior to working with Rosati, Lanza's voice "was unschooled, but of incredible beauty, with ringing, fearless high notes. Rosati taught him to sing more lyrically, with less pressure, to good advantage."
His studies with Rosati completed, Lanza embarked on an 86-concert tour of the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948 with George London and soprano Frances Yeend. Reviewing his second appearance at Chicago's Grant Park in July 1947 in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the respected music critic Claudia Cassidy praised Lanza's "superbly natural tenor" and observed that "though a multitude of fine points evade him, he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama."
In April 1948, Lanza sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association. The conductor was Walter Herbert. Writing in the St. Louis News, critic Laurence Odel observed that, "Mario Lanza performed his duties as Lieut. Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably." Following the success of these performances, Lanza was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi's La traviata. However, as biographer Armando Cesari observes, by 1949 Lanza "was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned the role ."
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 had brought Lanza to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed Lanza to a seven-year film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This proved to be a turning point in the young singer's career. The contract required him to commit to the studio for six months, and at first Lanza believed he would be able to combine his film career with his operatic and concert one. In May 1949, he made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. His rendition of the aria Che Gelida Manina from that session was subsequently awarded the prize of Operatic Recording of the Year by the (United States) National Record Critics Association.
Lanza's first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, were commercial successes, and in 1950 the tenor's recording of "Be My Love" became the first of three million-selling singles for the young singer, earning him enormous fame in the process. While at MGM, Lanza worked closely with the Academy Award-winning conductor, composer, and arranger Johnny Green. In a 1977 interview with Lanza biographer Armando Cesari, Green recalled that the tenor was insecure about the manner in which he had become successful, and was keenly aware of the fact that he had become a Hollywood star before first having established himself on the operatic stage. "Had been already a leading tenor, if not the leading tenor at the Met, and come to Hollywood in between seasons to make a picture, he would have had the Met as his home," Green remarked. According to Green, Lanza possessed "the voice of the next Caruso. had an unusual, very unusual quality...a tenor with a baritone color in the middle and lower registers, and a great feeling for the making of music. A great musicality. I found it fascinating, musically, to work with ."
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso, which proved an astonishing success, though it did not adhere to the facts of Caruso's life. At the same time, Lanza's increasing popularity exposed him to intense criticism by some music critics, including those who had praised his work years earlier. Nevertheless, Lanza's performance earned him compliments from the subject's own son, Enrico Caruso Jr., a tenor in his own right. Shortly before his death in 1987, Enrico Jr. wrote in Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family (posthumously published by Amadeus in 1990) that, "I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography. Mario Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural voice placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct." He went on to praise Lanza's tempi and phrasing, "flawless" diction, and "impassioned" delivery, adding that, "All are qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain." In conclusion, he wrote that, "Lanza excelled in both the classical and the light popular repertory, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father's exceptional talents."
In 1952, Lanza was dismissed by MGM after he had pre-recorded the songs for The Student Prince. The reason most frequently cited in the tabloid press at the time was that his recurring weight problem had made it impossible for him to fit into the costumes of the Prince. However, as his biographers Cesari and Mannering have established, Lanza was not overweight at the beginning of the production, and it was, in fact, a disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over Lanza's singing of one of the songs in the film that led to Lanza walking off the set. MGM refused to replace Bernhardt, and the film was subsequently made with actor Edmund Purdom miming to Lanza's vocals. Ironically, the eventual director of the film was Richard Thorpe, the same man whom Lanza had pleaded with MGM to replace Bernhardt, and with whom the tenor had enjoyed an excellent working relationship in The Great Caruso.
Depressed by his dismissal, and with his self-confidence severely undermined, Lanza became a virtual recluse for more than a year, frequently seeking refuge in alcoholic binges. During this period, Lanza also came very close to bankruptcy as a result of poor investment decisions by his former manager, and his lavish spending habits left him owing about $250,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
He returned to an active film career in 1955 in Serenade. However, despite its strong musical content, which included the Act III duet from Verdi's Otello (performed with soprano Licia Albanese), and arias from Otello, Der Rosenkavalier, Fedora, and L'Arlesiana, it was not as successful as his previous films. Lanza then moved to Rome, Italy in May 1957, where he worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome and returned to live performing in a series of acclaimed concerts throughout Britain, Ireland and the European continent. Despite failing health, which resulted in a number of cancellations during this period, Lanza continued to receive offers for operatic appearances, concerts, and films.
Tenor Richard Tucker (left) speaking with Mario Lanza in 1958 at Tucker's Covent Garden debut.
In September 1958, he made a number of operatic recordings at the Rome Opera House for the soundtrack of what would turn out to be his final film, For the First Time. Here he came into contact with the Artistic Director of the Rome Opera, Riccardo Vitale, who offered him the role of Canio in Pagliacci in the theater's 1960/61 season. Lanza also received offers from the management of the La Scala and San Carlo opera houses. At the same time, however, his health continued to decline, with the tenor suffering from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis and acute high blood pressure. The old habits of overeating and crash dieting, coupled with his binge drinking, compounded his problems.
In April 1959, Lanza suffered a minor heart attack, followed by double pneumonia in August. He died in Rome in October of that year at the age of 38 from a pulmonary embolism after undergoing a controversial weight loss program colloquially known as "the twilight sleep treatment," which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. Attendees at his funeral were the singers Maria Caniglia and Lidia Nerozzi and the actors Franco Fabrizi and Enzo Fiermonte. Frank Sinatra sent his condolences by telegram.
Lanza's widow, Betty, moved back to Hollywood with their four children, but died five months later at the age of 37. Biographer Armando Cesari writes that the apparent cause of death, according to the coroner, was "asphyxiation resulting from a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving medication". In 1991, Marc, the younger of their two sons, died of a heart attack at the age of 37; six years later, Colleen, their eldest daughter, was killed at the age of 48 when she was struck by two passing vehicles on a highway. Damon Lanza, the couple's eldest son, died in August 2008 of a heart attack at the age of 55.
Lanza's short career covered opera, radio, concerts, recordings, and motion pictures. He was the first artist for RCA Victor Red Seal to receive a gold disc. He was also the first artist to sell two and half million albums. A highly influential artist, Lanza has been credited with inspiring successive generations of opera singers, including Pl?cido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and Jos? Carreras, as well as singers with seemingly different backgrounds and influences, his RCA Victor label-mate Elvis Presley being the most notable example. In 1994, tenor Jos? Carreras paid tribute to Lanza in a worldwide concert tour, saying of him, "If I'm an opera singer, it's thanks to Mario Lanza." Carreras' colleague Pl?cido Domingo echoed these comments in a 2009 CBS interview when he stated that, "Lanza's passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera thanks to a kid from Philadelphia."
Winged Victory, 1944 (uncredited chorus member)
That Midnight Kiss, 1949
The Toast of New Orleans, 1950
The Great Caruso, 1951
Because You're Mine, 1952
The Student Prince, 1954 (voice only)
Seven Hills of Rome, 1958
For the First Time, 1959
Mario Lanza as Giuseppe Verdi's Otello.
The Mario Lanza Collection, RCA, 1991
Mario Lanza: The Legendary Tenor, RCA, 1987
The Great Caruso And Other Caruso Favorites, RCA, 1989
Mario! Lanza At His Best, RCA, 1995
Mario Lanza Live at Hollywood Bowl: Historical Recordings (1947 & 1951), Gala, 2000
Mario Lanza Sings Songs from The Student Prince and The Desert Song, RCA, 1989
Serenade/A Cavalcade of Show Tunes, RCA, 2004
Mario Lanza: Opera Arias and Duets, RCA, 1999
Christmas With Mario Lanza, RCA, 1987
References In Pop Culture
The song "Danny Boy" written by Frederick Weatherly, and sung by Mario Lanza, appeared in the hit game "Bioshock", released in 2007 for the PC, Xbox 360, and the PS3
In the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures the two main characters are obsessed with Mario Lanza and at one point fantasize about a character who looks like Lanza.