Giuseppe Verdi


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Giacomo Puccini

Saturdee Opry Links # 116: Mario Lanza's 100th Birthday!

Our Mario Lanza 100th Birthday Edition of Saturdee Opry Links (Jan. 31) is here---with lots of extras. Do yourselves and Mario a favor and listen to at least one selection, so as to be amazed by his almost unearthly singing. Overture, plus ten selections and two encores! Live appearances! Lanza spoofs himself! Lanza meets Elvis! Lanza myths dispelled! Even a Rense column! Today's edition is dedicated to Mario's elegant daughter, Elissa Lanza Bregman, and to the memory of Mario's great friend, Terry Robinson.

                                                                Terry Robinson and Mario Lanza

Saturdee Opry Links Overture
Verdi, "Rigoletto."

''If I could sing like that,'' Frank Sinatra once said, "I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn't let anyone near my voice.'' Sinatra was referring to Alfredo Arnold Cocozza of Philadelphia, PA, a fellow who had a voice famously described by conductor Arturo Toscanini as the greatest natural tenor of the 20th century. You haven't heard of Freddie, you say? Probably became he took the masculine form of his mother's first name (Maria), and used her maiden name as his last. Tomorrow, Jan. 31, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of this astoundingly gifted singer, who died at only 38---but not before inspiring the likes of Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo, and countless others. Not to mention making much of the world a happier place. To paraphrase a lyric from the following song, su cantar hecho de fantasia. . .


Lanza was born the year Enrico Caruso died (1921), and went on to play the fabulous tenor in a broad, but well-intended hit film, "The Great Caruso." Just for fun, here is Caruso singing the wonderful Tosti Neapolitan song (Leoncavallo at the piano!), "Mattinata," followed by twenty-four-year-old Lanza with the same. "The dawn, dressed in white, has opened its door to the sun. . ."
¿Quién es más macho?

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!

The Lanza family. From left: Marc, Betty, Damon, Elissa, Mario, Colleen.
As some of you know, I had the privilege of meeting all of Lanza's children (only one, Elissa, remains today), and became good friends with Mario's devoted lifelong trainer, "brother," and later guardian of his children, the late Terry Robinson (a great man.) Terry and Lanza's late daughter, Colleen, were guests of honor at a three-day sellout musical tribute to Lanza that I organized and hosted at the now defunct Gianfranco Ristorante All' Opera in West L.A., back in the '90's. This remains the only tribute to Lanza ever held in Los Angeles, for some silly reason. I was also with all the Lanza children and Terry when they first watched the wonderful documentary, "Mario Lanza: The American Caruso," narrated by Placido Domingo---at the then-family home in Pacific Palisades. A very moving experience, need it be said. . .I have written many times for many publications about Lanza, championing his superb voice and fighting detractors who absurdly claimed his recordings were artificially "boosted." (A backhanded compliment, as they simply could not believe anyone could sing like Mario.) I recall standing with a couple of tenors who sang regularly with Los Angeles Opera, when Lanza's voice came on the stereo system at Gianfranco Ristorante All' Opera. They stopped the conversation, cocking their ears, stunned. Said one: "Who is THAT?" I told them it was Lanza, and they were astonished, having also bought into the false idea that he was a pop singer whose voice was artificially enhanced. But there is no need for Mario to prove himself any longer, as The Three Tenors (and many others) have long exalted his recordings, and performed concert/DVD tributes to him (notably Jose Carreras.) Here is one of many pieces I wrote about Lanza, years ago. It's absolutely true, and I hope it gives you a chuckle.

“I was a small boy of seven, growing up in Barcelona, when I first discovered Mario Lanza through his remarkable film 'The Great Caruso.' That wonderful voice and the charismatic appeal of his personality had a profound effect on my life and I decided there and then that I too would one day sing the great operatic roles so persuasively portrayed on the screen by the young American tenor." So wrote Jose Carreras in his DVD tribute to Lanza. Here, for fun, is Carerras singing Lanza's second-biggest "pop" hit, the welling, "Because You're Mine," followed by Lanza doing the same. (Mario would have loved Carreras's tribute.)
Lanza (rare live performance---note that this was near the end of his short life, and he was singing despite extreme pain from phlebitis in both legs):
¿Quién es más macho?

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!
Elvis loved Lanza's voice, and had hidden operatic aspirations (listen to his "My Way.") And yes, Elvis and Mario did meet!


Tenor Frederick Jagel was one of the few who could claim to have taught Mario Lanza (who learned to sing mostly from listening to Caruso recordings.) Here's a funny story involving Mario and Jagel. Early in his career---at the start, really---Lanza---U.S. Army Private Alfredo Cocozza at the time---was scheduled to sing at his army base in Texas. The year was 1943. A highly strung guy with binge impulses (involving pasta, pretty ladies, and booze, not necessarily in that order), Lanza was also way out of shape at a whopping 260 pounds. He tried to get out of the proceedings by pleading sore throat---a common consequence of Texas climate. Never mind that this would have cost him a gig with a traveling Army/Air Force revue put together by Peter Lind Hayes. Well, maybe he did have an "inflamed throat," as he would often say when nerves got the best of him, but Mario's de facto agent, one Corporal Joe Silver, wouldn't have it. He got a record of Jagel singing "E Lucevan Le Stelle," from Puccini's "Tosca," stuck a new label on it with Lanza's name, and gave it to Hayes as an audition! Bingo---Hayes invited Lanza to join the show, which was called "On the Beam." At the first tour stop in Phoenix, rumors flourished that Lanza was a fake. Mario, delighted to be out of Texas, and in good fettle, assayed the same aria that was on the Jagel record. The crowd was absolutely stunned, and an ecstatic Hayes told Mario afterward, "You sound even better than you did on the record!" Har! Jagel's recording of "E Lucevan le Stelle" is not available, but here is Lanza with it, on stage in London in 1957---and live in 1947. By the way, while on the subject of the unique power of the tenor voice, Mario used to say that "you have to sing from your balls." Take that however you wish.
Setting: The ramparts of a fortress
Synopsis: Cavaradossi trades his last possession, a ring, to get a guard to take a letter to the imprisoned Tosca. As he writes the letter, he sings of his love for Tosca and for life.
Lanza with the aria in 1957:
Lanza on stage ten years earlier with the same aria!


To say that Lanza could be temperamental was like saying cats sleep a little. Perhaps better to say that he was acutely sensitive, and highly intelligent, both of which added up to rejection of stupidly administered authority. Louis B. Mayer, who famously signed Lanza after his astounding Hollywood Bowl debut in 1947, had the right personality for handling Mario. He was affectionate, respectful, a kind of father figure, and Lanza responded with enthusiasm---the combination producing a string of hit films: "The Toast of New Orleans," "The Great Caruso," and "Because You're Mine." True, Lanza could be particular in expectation and demand, but that was hardly unusual in Hollywood. When it came time to film the Sigmund Romberg operetta, "The Student Prince," one Dore Schary was head of MGM, and his inflexible, dictatorial ways effectively destroyed Lanza's Hollywood career. The problem arose when director Curtis Bernhardt tried to tell Lanza how to sing(!). It was one thing to be given acting coaching (which Lanza needed), but Bernhardt had no business giving Mario singing advice. He rejected Mario's preferred rendition of "Beloved" in favor of a tamer one, and that was all she wrote. Lanza refused to come to the set, and stupid Schary replaced him with Edmund Purdom---who, quite incredibly, lip-synced to Lanza's recordings! This fiasco was too much, driving poor Mario to reclusion, drinking, and breakdown, with attendant lawsuits, scandal, etc. What a pity! As Terry Robinson, who as at the recording session, told me, years ago:
""That's the one that caused all the trouble. He sang it too sexy, they said. Bernhardt said, 'You know, Mario, you are a Prussian prince---don't do it so exciting!'' said Robinson. "Mario said, 'look, when I tell a girl I'm going to take her tonight, and throw the mask away, well, I'm an Italian!' Mario walked out, and said to Bernhardt very simply, 'If you want to direct me, you direct my acting, not my singing.'"
Lanza eventually settled the dispute by completing the soundtrack, but backing out of the film. Here is a clip of Purdom lip-syncing both versions: first, the one imperiously rejected by Bernhardt (who, by the way, was fired and replaced, ironically, by the man Lanza asked for: Richard Thorpe), and the one used in the film. There really is no comparison.

Continuing our 100th birthday celebration of Mario Lanza. . .let's go back to opera. Mario could easily have had one of the stellar operatic careers of all time---so said, in essence, soprano Licia Albanese, baritone George London, soprano Frances Yeend (all of whom sang with Mario), and many other notable opera singers, conductors. Yet he sang only in two live performances of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" with the New Orleans Opera. A subsequent engagement to sing Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" with SFO was cancelled by Lanza due to conflicts with Hollywood---although he was often skittish about commitments. Said soprano Dorothy Kirsten, who worked with Lanza on "The Great Caruso": “He could have sung in any opera house in the world, and his career could have been sensational.” London concurred: "In my opinion, Lanza, with the possible exception of Jussi Bjorling, had the greatest voice of his time. His singing could move people to tears and, in my presence, frequently did. His Hollywood experience undermined his inner security, which is why he avoided performing in public. I would venture that if he had not gone to Hollywood he would, at least for the beginning, have had a major operatic career." After the "Chenier" cancellation, it was all movies from then on, plus the occasional recital, and a European tour in 1958. But Mario loved "Chenier," undoubtedly identifying with the title character, a poet whose rejection of aristocratic authority led to his execution during the French Revolution (true story.) Here are two versions of the great, great aria, "Un di all'azzurro spazio," in which Chenier tells off the bigwigs: first, a rehearsal, and second, his landmark 1950 studio recording.
1952 rehearsal:
1950 studio recording:
AND. . .if you go to the 19:00 mark, you will hear him sing the same aria in his Hollywood Bowl debut in 1947! This was the concert where Louis B. Mayer's executive secretary heard him, paving the way for a seven-year movie contract.                                      
Synopsis : The Countess has asked Chénier to recite a poem but he refuses until Maddalena asks him. He contrasts the beauty of nature with the evil and misery created by man. He denounces those in authority as self-serving.

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!
1965 interview with Mario's mother, Maria, remembering the singer's youth.

For those who enjoy Lanza, I commend their attention to the CD, Be My Love: Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM, which comes with a nice 22-page booklet of rare photos. The album features the outtake of "Beloved" (see previous post), and a wonderful recording of the sextet from Act II, scene 2 of Donizetti's "Lucia Di Lammermoor," in which Mario was joined by the Metropolitan Opera's Dorothy Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Nicola Moscona, and Gilbert Russell. Terry Robinson was at this session. As he told me:
"I remember that recording session. All the other singers were right on their microphones, but Mario said, 'move it back, move it back.' And the Met singers were amazed. They had no idea what kind of voice he had. They wanted him to come to the Met."
Here is the sextet recording, followed by the endearing way it was used in the movie, "The Great Caruso."
Studio recording:
Movie clip:
Arturo arrives for the marriage. Lucia seems distressed, but Enrico explains that this is due to the death of her mother. Arturo signs the marriage contract, followed reluctantly by Lucia. At that point Edgardo suddenly appears in the hall, which leads to the celebrated sextet Chi mi frena in tal momento. Raimondo prevents a fight, and he shows Edgardo Lucia's signature on the marriage contract. Edgardo curses her, demanding that they return their rings to each other. He tramples his ring on the ground, before being forced out of the castle.
Link to the CD:

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!
1998 NYT article about the Lanza mystique.

Lanza was forever between two worlds. On the one hand, he was crowned the "voice of the century" by Toscanini. On the other, he was an adored pop star/matinee idol and crooner with films like "The Toast of New Orleans" and "Because You're Mine"---which propelled "Be My Love" to the top of the pop charts. After MGM dictator Dore Schary destroyed Lanza's movie career---and before Mario courageously resurrected it in Italy---he fell into almost two years of alienation, depression, quasi-seclusion. This was in the mid-'50's. There is a wonderful story that Terry Robinson used to tell, which I will summarize here. The press pretty much staked out Mario's Beverly Hills home, but one day, Terry arrived to find Lanza in false nose, glasses, moustache, and hat. "We're getting out of here," he announced. And so they slipped out, driving all the way to Tijuana, where they enjoyed a great dinner, undisturbed---that is, until they stepped back outside. Seems the waiter had tipped off everybody in the neighborhood that the great Lanza was there. Mario was delighted, and gave the hundred-or-so people gathered an impromptu concert. You can just imagine the astonishment. Afterward, as they drove home, Lanza told Robinson (quoting from memory here) "These are my people, the real people who love my singing---not those Hollywood phonies." (Hear, hear!) One of the songs in the street serenade was "Granada" (see first post), and the others are not known, but likely included this:

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!

               Mario brings home the bacon---Jim Bacon, that is. The Hearst columnist is fifth from the left.
Toward the end of the period of Lanza's reclusion, he made one television appearance---but made the mistake of lip-syncing! The press went nuts, charging fraud, etc., so Mario invited a select group of reporters and columnists to his home, and sang for them live. End problem. That's famed L.A. Examiner columnist James Bacon in the tan suit. I asked Jim about this when I worked with him at the L.A. Herald Examiner. He said something along the lines of, "It was the most astonishing thing I've ever heard in my life!"


Mario Lanza died in Italy Oct. 7, 1959, at 38 from (take your pick): heart failure due to a blood clot related to phlebitis; an IV that was left unattended, accidentally causing an embolism; an IV that was deliberately left unattended---a mob hit by Lucky Luciano in payback for Lanza jilting him in a planned appearance. No one knows for sure. Every day, however, inside the chilly mausoleum at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Mario still sings. His recordings play from opening till closing outside his crypt, echoing poignantly off the white marble walls. This brilliant, much loved, almost supernaturally gifted man popularized opera more than any other singer, and crossed over into the pop realm as no other opera singer ever has. Thank goodness for the immortality afforded by film and recording. There are so many superb recordings of operatic arias and excerpts by Mario, and they are a superb legacy, especially considering the brevity of his existence. I am especially fond of his rendition of "Ella mi fu rapita... Parmi veder le lagrime," from Verdi's "Rigoletto." Not too many arias, I dare say, pack so much lyricism and variety of expression as this. It's inspired, it's moving, it's anguished, it's hopeful, it's despairing, it's lovely. And it is often. . .a waltz! Just an amazing composition. Here is the Mario version, which packs more punch, and imbues more gorgeous lyricism, than any other I can bring to mind.
In this scene, the womanizing Duke laments that Gilda has been taken away from him (actually kidnapped by pranking "friends.") Yes, it seems that the old womanizer has actually fallen in love. He shows outrage, vows revenge, then rhapsodizes about her, crooning "I can almost see her tears. . ." 

Saturdee Opry Links EXTRA!


What else? Sammy Kahn and Nicholas Brodsky wrote it, but it would be a footnote today had it been sung by anyone other than Mario Lanza. It was on every pop radio station, sold two million copies, became the theme song for Lanza's radio program, The Mario Lanza Show (1951–52). He got so sick of it that he took to privately spoofing it (example below.) Yes, it is schmaltz---thick schmaltz, at that. And yet it transcends all the goop and ultimately is moving, even thrilling, because of. . .that voice. Who else could hit that final high C? Or is it a B-flat? Tell you what: today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, this song---and every other Lanza recording---will be ringing out, all over the world. Loud.
Here are three versions:
Alternate arrangement, live on The Hedda Hopper radio show: 
Mario spoofs it! (Sounds like me.)
Studio recording, the real McCoy:

Saturdee Opry Links Lanza 100th Birthday Encore!
There aren't too many clips of Mario singing live. Just one TV appearance on the old program, "The Christophers" (filmed in Rome), and a London Palladium concert, and that's it. Here, from "The Christophers" appearance, he sings "Santa Lucia," "Because You're Mine," and the Schubert setting of "Ave Maria." Anyone who ever doubted the reality of his great voice is invited to sit down and shut up.

Lanza 100th Birthday 2nd Encore!
"O Paradiso," from "L'Africaine," by Meyerbeer.
Translation, plot:

Lanza 100th Birthday 3rd Encore!
The longest live performance on film by Mario. London Palladium, 1957. Note: Lanza had extremely painful phlebitis in both legs during this performance, hence his shifting his weight constantly.

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