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
''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.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST:
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.
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."
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
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
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!
MYTHS ABOUT LANZA'S VOICE DISPELLED!
MYTHS ABOUT LANZA THE MAN DISPELLED!
FINAL BOW! SOL MARIO LANZA 100TH BIRTHDAY EDITION
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
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.
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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