By Dwight Whitney
September 3, 1949
Several weeks ago the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios of Culver City, California, held a preview of a musical called That Midnight Kiss. Midway in the picture an extraordinary thing occurred. A husky young operatic tenor sang an aria called Céleste Aïda, and a representative group of bobby-soxers stood up in the aisles and cheered. To appreciate the studio's surprise, consider that the youngsters could have achieved the same effect by announcing that their interest in football had suddenly been supplanted by a passion for nuclear physics.
Their spontaneous enthusiasm is just part of the growing body of evidence that one of the most exciting voices in music today belongs to a handsome, self-effacing young man named Mario Lanza. Lanza is not a crooner; and, as yet, he is not an established movie star. He has still to appear at the Metropolitan Opera House and he has never been starred in a Broadway musical. Yet, at twenty-seven, he is the possessor of a tenor voice of such technical brilliance and such emotional pull that it is already being compared by Lanza enthusiasts with the late Enrico Caruso.
Lanza can sing D flat over high C with the easy abandon of a champion high jumper clearing a garden fence. Jussi Bjoerling of the Met is the only other present-day tenor who can duplicate this vocal feat with the same ease. Hardened fellow musicians -- men not given to sentimentalizing -- have all but wept under the spell of Lanza's singing. Sergei Koussevitzky, who can be considered Lanza's discoverer, does not think he is being extravagant when he says, "There is no question of it. This is the greatest natural tenor since Caruso."
Lanza's teen-age admirers do not give a rap for erudite opinion. They know little of Caruso, much less that Céleste Aïda was one of the arias that made him famous. To Lanza's movie bosses this unconcern is expected and unimportant. It is important that the bobby-soxers gave simple emotional recognition to an intangible of success -- the elusive X quality which distinguishes a good performer from a great one, and hence good box office from a bonanza.
"Look," explains Joe Pasternak, patient producer of the Lanza film, "this is the first time I can safely let an opera tenor sing without praying that the audience will close its eyes and visualize maybe Van Johnson."
Plans Career in Grand Opera
Lanza is looking beyond his future in motion pictures to a career in grand opera which promises to be one of the most exciting in the history of music. Edward Johnson, enterprising manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera, has been pursuing Lanza ever since the singer got out of the Army in 1945. The voice alone would be enough to warrant Johnson's most persistent efforts, but with the figure, face, and vigor of youth thrown in, Lanza looms as a once-in-a-lifetime operatic prodigy.
He has broad shoulders, a handsome face and piercing eyes. His looks and operatic talents provide a distinctly Latin effect. He is six feet tall but he gives the impression of being a still bigger man. He has a chest like a wrestler and the manners of an old-world diplomat. As one of his youthful female admirers scrawled on a recent preview card: "Wow! He slays me. Tell him he can sing me opera any time."
His bosses hope this will be the case. They wish he would sign himself over to them 12 months out of the year instead of only six. Lanza politely blocks such suggestions at the outset of any business discussion. He never asked to belong to music; but now that he does he feels bound to devote at least half his time to uninterrupted study, rest and development of his voice.
Arthur Judson, the prominent concert manager who has had Lanza under contract since 1942, has grandiose plans for his protégé, but Lanza refuses to sing on an around-the-calendar schedule.
Victor de Sabata, conductor of the famous La Scala opera of Milan, has already honored Lanza with an invitation to open the season in Italy this year in Andrea Chenier. Because of movie commitments the young tenor will be unable to do so. But he is learning the role and will sing it in Milan within the year.
Lanza wants to sing at the Met more than anything in the world, and those who have heard his voice can't understand his reluctance to accept the Metropolitan's repeated offers. Mario explains it this way: "I may be the first sensible young American singer. I'm not yet experienced enough for the Met. Caruso didn't come into his own until he was thirty-three. At twenty-seven I'd be rushing it. I want to leave my mark in music. As long as you have a good voice, they need it. So how can I be overcautious?"
Voice Is Relatively Untrained
These days, Lanza religiously follows the accepted rules for the care and maintenance of an operatic voice, even though his career defied every convention from the outset. It is generally thought that a great singer must begin training early in life.
Lanza did not sing a note in earnest until he was twenty. It usually requires 10 years of intensive training to develop a great voice. Caruso, for example, studied 15 years before he was recognized. Lanza had had only 15 months of actual voice training when he first attracted widespread attention. In fact, with no training whatsoever he made his debut before professional critics. The occasion was the Berkshire Festival in the summer of 1942, and Mario sang excerpts from Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Afterward critic Noel Straus wrote in the New York Times: "Mario Lanza, a twenty-year-old tenor, is an extremely talented if as yet not completely routined student whose superbly natural voice has few equals among the tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power."
The singer's righteous stubbornness is partly inherited and partly due to environment. Mario Lanza, whose real name is Alfred Arnold Cocozza, was born dodging prohibition bullets in New York City but within a few months moved to one of the toughest, poorest sections of Philadelphia. His father was an Italian immigrant who came to this country at the age of eleven, made a reputation for himself as a six-day bicycle rider, and fell in love with a dark-eyed Italian girl.
When Mario was born on January 31, 1922, the gangster era was just descending on south Philadelphia. The senior Cocozza had been decorated during World War I for capturing the first German prisoner in the Argonne Forest, but in doing had been gassed and stabbed. He was thereafter unable to work. Mario's grandfather, a stern, tough, silver-haired man with flashing black eyes, ran a wholesale grocery and trucking business, and gained for himself a reputation of unbending honesty among the assorted working citizens, as well as mobsters and beer barons who inhabited the neighborhood. "Grandfather sort of looked out for us," Lanza recalls today.
Mario, then known as "Freddie," ran with the other neighborhood kids who frequented the water front. They broke windows, raided an occasional bakery truck, and indulged in bloody street brawls. Mario thinks he was saved from becoming a juvenile delinquent by his love of sports. He was an excellent boxer and baseball player, and good enough at football to play the game semi-professionally. He became a weight lifter at fourteen, and four years later he could life 200 pounds. "Not a great feat," he says, "except for an opera singer."
But all during this time the most rewarding though least mentioned of his pleasures was his interest in grand opera.
His father loved music. Even after he became an invalid, the extra pennies Papa Cocozza was able to scrape together went for recordings by his beloved Caruso. "I do not know why," he says today, "but I felt it here," indicating his heart.
Mario began listening with his father almost as soon as he could talk. When he was seven, Vesti la giubba gave him goose bumps. At ten, he knew the plots and principal arias of 50 operas. And by the time he was fifteen, he was familiar with the scores of such relatively obscure works as Cilea's L'Arlesiana, and could discuss them intelligently with connoisseurs.
"I was in love with grand opera. I knew grand opera the way most kids know baseball," Mario says. "But it was a furtive sort of love because it would not have been understood by the other kids in the block."
Thus it was that Alfred Arnold Cocozza did not really sing until he was twenty. Then, one day early in 1943, Mario was listening to a recording of Caruso singing the haunting Ch'ella mi creda from Puccini's opera, The Girl of the Golden West. Suddenly as though a hidden spring were released, he burst into song. It was dramatic, yes, and to Mario it was inexplicable; but it seemed to him as if he had been waiting 20 years for that moment.
He sang along with Caruso for almost a week after that, pausing only to eat and sleep. Finally, his father came to him.
"Son," he said. "You have a voice. You must study."
"No, Father," Mario said. "It's just noise."
"If that is noise," Papa Cocozza insisted, "it is the most pleasant-sounding noise I have ever heard."
Mario consented to see a voice coach.
(In music circles there is a distinction between a coach and a teacher. A teacher trains the voice in the actual mechanics of singing; a coach merely helps a student to learn a repertoire.) Mario began work on Vesti la giubba and a host of other standard arias. But after three months, his grandfather went to his father, and said,"Antonio, what is this big, husky boy doing upstairs all day listening to records? You must put him to a more useful occupation." So Mario became an employee of his grandfather's trucking concern.
Debut at the Berkshire Festival
What transpired next would make a perfect Hollywood plot. About a week after he started on the job he was moving a piano into Philadelphia's Academy of Music auditorium in preparation for a concert to be conducted by Koussevitzky. William K. Huff, impresario at the Philadelphia Forum concerts recognized him. Huff was familiar with young Cocozza's voice, having heard it several weeks before at the behest of the tenor's voice coach. At the time Huff's enthusiasm had been passive. But seeing the singer in piano mover's garb, dramatized the lunacy of the situation.
"What are you doing in that outfit?" he wanted to know.
Lanza told him.
"Now, look," said Huff. "I have an idea. There is an empty dressing room right opposite Koussevitzky's. I want you to go in there and sing. The maestro will hear you."
Koussevitzky, sweat-soaked from a strenuous rehearsal and clad in his undershirt, came barreling out of his dressing room after several minutes of "eavesdropping" on Mario's rendition of Vesti la giubba. He kissed the tenor on both cheeks, continental-style, and insisted that he must begin planning immediately to come to the Berkshire music festival in Massachusetts that summer. Although he did not know what the Berkshire Festival was, Mario assented. Three weeks later Koussevitzky sent for him.
The Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, is an annual gathering of professional and semiprofessional musicians and singers who gather to study, work and rest. For Mario, who was technically still the greenest sort of an amateur, it was an exhilarating experience. It furnished two milestones in his career: his first basic training in musical values (but still no voice training) and the change in his name.
The second development was a matter of heated family debate. Koussevitzky was determined that an alteration should be made on the grounds that no one could correctly pronounce Cocozza (Ko-koats-zah). Mario's father was equally determined that the name should stand. He argued that his son would make it famous enough so that no one would dare mispronounce it.
Koussevitzky won out through a maneuver which had great psychological impact. He sent a letter to the senior Cocozza mangling the name so horribly in the writing, that, in Italian, it sounded like a personal reference of the grossest and most unprintable sort. Mario's father was so furious that he would not speak for a week. Mario discreetly took his mother's maiden name, Maria Lanza, and masculinized it.
Wins Fame as "Air Force Caruso"
No sooner had he returned from the Tanglewood Festival than offers began to pour in. Concert manager Judson approached him with a contract offer and the record companies put out feelers. Mario was wondering what to do when he received an offer from the government which began: "Greetings." He quickly signed with Judson and two days after that, on September 2, 1942, he was in the Air Force.
Lanza's career in the service got off to a slow start. He took his basic training at Miami Beach, and from there was shipped to Marfa, an outlying base in the Texas badlands, where he was assigned to duty with the Military Police. The unhappy singer's efforts to be transferred to personnel work with a Special Service unit were rewarded by complete frustration. Then, one day, he encountered a bright, young staff sergeant named Peter Lind Hayes, who was later to gain considerable notice as a night-club comedian. At the time, Hayes was putting together an Air Force revue called On the Beam and had come to Marfa looking for talent.
Lanza's gloom reached new depths. Here was his chance to effect a transfer, but unfortunately he had developed throat trouble in the hot, sandy air of Marfa. He could not even talk, much less sing. He tried to explain this to Hayes, but the sergeant was unimpressed. Finally, he came up with a devilish idea. In his foot locker he had a Caruso recording. He and a pal pasted a new label on the disk which read, "Mario Lanza singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood." Then they played it for Hayes. The sergeant was convinced.
The following week Lanza was transferred on orders from the commanding general to a luxurious suite at the Westward Ho Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, where the climate soon restored his voice to normal. When he did audition for Hayes after his recuperation, the sergeant was ecstatic. "You sound even better than you did on the record," Hayes said. After that Lanza was billed as "The Caruso of the Air Force."
On the Beam was a great hit and toured service installations in the Southwest for a solid year. Playwright Moss Hart caught the show one night in Visalia, California, and was so impressed that he asked General "Hap" Arnold to transfer Lanza, Hayes and Private Ray McDonald, a dancer in the show, to the unit which was preparing to rehearse Winged Victory. Lanza stayed with the Hart musical play until September, 1945, when he received his honorable discharge.
The next few years were crucial ones, but the tenor at least had sense enough to realize it. He knew he needed training, but at the same time he needed money to live. In an unprecedented gesture toward a virtually unknown singer, a recording company paid him $3,000, not as an advance against the profits the company was sure he would someday bring in, but merely as a consideration for signing.
Lanza made eight radio appearances on a show called Great Moments in Music, singing large chunks of Otello, La Tosca, Mignon and Die Fledermaus, among others. He made at least as many additional appearances with some of the nation's leading symphonies, including the Boston and Philadelphia orchestras. He went on a concert tour for Judson. He even made his operatic debut -- two performances of Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.
"It was no good," Mario still insists. "They were rushing me. I wasn't ready."
Nevertheless he drew 76,000 people into Chicago's Grant Park during two appearances in 1947, and won critical acclaim.
Relief from what Mario considered a ruinous situation came from an unexpected source. His name was Sam Weiler, a businessman, and a partner in the New York firm of Swig & Weiler, real-estate barons extraordinary.
Weiler is not only a wealthy young man at thirty-six, but a frustrated opera singer as well. He became Lanza's patron in the true 18th Century sense. He paid off the singer's bills, stalled off his concert commitments, and made it possible for Mario at long last to have voice training. The man picked for the job was famed Enrico Rosati, the explosive seventy-six-year-old Italian who today boasts of only two accomplishments: that he trained the great Beniamino Gigli and Mario Lanza. Rosati was a teaching tyrant in the grand tradition -- as well as a past master in the art of profanity. At Mario's first lesson he screamed, "I have waited 34 years for you to come along! Now get to work, you lazy no-good!"
At the end of 15 months of uninterrupted cussing and working, the old man screamed at him again, "I have given you polish. Now go out and get experience. And don't let anybody fool around with that voice, you bum!"
By this time Hollywood was interested. Frank Sinatra had heard Lanza sing in Winged Victory in 1944 and now he urged his studio to look into Mario's possibilities seriously. Walter Pidgeon, like Weiler another would-be operatic baritone, heard Lanza sing at a party and praised him to columnist Hedda Hopper. "Mark my words," Pidgeon was quoted as saying, in Hedda's column, "there goes the great tenor of the century."
Finally, the day came when Louis B. Mayer himself, headman of M-G-M studios, heard Lanza sing at the Hollywood Bowl. Newspapers headlines next morning read: "Lanza Electrifies Bowl Audience." That was enough for Mayer. He temporarily halted operations at the studio while 55 M-G-M producers and executives gathered on sound stage number one for a command performance. The result was a seven-year contract, with a sliding wage scale beginning at $750 a week for six months of each year, and a $10,000 bonus payable on the spot.
Mayer regards Mario as his own discovery, nominated for stardom because he has the Mayer trademark of a "pleasant face" to go with his other talents. L.B. treats him as a father treats a son. "Mario, my boy," Mayer tells him, "you are going to be a singing Clark Gable some day."
Lanza is neither ineffably modest nor a swelling egotist, although is would be wrong to assume that he does not take a justifiable pride in his voice. He is a talkative, easygoing youth with a great deal of virility and masculine bounce. His sense of humor extends to himself, and he will burlesque his own situation mercilessly.
"You see, we singers must rest," he will boom, striking an exaggerated operatic pose. "If not, it has its effect on the delicate muscles of the throat." Or again, he will twirl his little finger and say: "The big thing is mood. I can't stand to be around unhappy people."
In 1945 Lanza was in Hollywood briefly during the filming of Winged Victory at Warner Brothers. He received an offer from Jack Warner to sign for $750 a week. He turned it down. Instead, he signed a marriage license with a pretty, dark-haired nonprofessional named Betty Hicks, who was the sister of a fellow performer in Winged Victory. They were married in April, 1945.
Betty Lanza is a good cook, and well adjusted to the peculiarities of life with a Voice. On the rare occasions now when Mario allows himself to go off his diet, she satisfies his yearning for food with liberal quantities of homemade Italian delicacies. Six months ago she bore him a child, a brown-eyed wisp of a baby named Colleen.
"Our life is a merry-go-round," Betty says happily. "There are certain requirements in the life of an artist, you know. When I'm sick, who gets coffee in bed? He does."
The Lanzas live in a small apartment-with-patio of the type common to the fashionable fringes of Beverly Hills. Only one thing distinguishes it from several hundred others just like it on the same street: It has a gymnasium on the roof. There Mario works out daily with the man who is his physical conditioner. Mario describes his typical day something like this:
"I get up early -- at 10 o'clock. My wife serves me black coffee in bed. A half hour later Terry arrives. I look at him blearily. I hate him. He drags me up to the roof. I still hate him. Toward the end of the workout an hour and a half later I begin to like him. He rubs me down for a half hour. Then I warm up my voice in the shower. Sometimes I get dizzy from the wall vibrations. Luckily, the neighbors like music.
"At one o'clock I have a breakfast of three poached eggs, a glass of skimmed milk, and fruit. After breakfast, I have a one-hour session with my coach, Giacomo Spadoni. Then I have a dramatic lesson. Next a half-hour chat with my producer, Joe Pasternak.
"Sometimes I visit the movie sets and watch Deborah Kerr work, or I sing a duet with Walter Pidgeon. I get home at six and want to eat. It is my one important meal of the day -- steak or liver and a monstrous vegetable salad."
Lanza likes wrestlers and pugs, and any number of these gentlemen are likely to show up at his apartment at almost any hour of the day or night. He also enjoys the company of such diverse people as Andy Russell, a crooner who shares Mario's enthusiasm for exotic foods; Gene Kelly, whose dancing he admires; and Pidgeon.
Mario is a restless man who is unhappy if he must stay home. If there is nothing else to do, as happens infrequently, he will take Betty to a movie. "I'm a big baby," he confesses. "All singers are big babies. Caruso was a big baby, too."
Voice Possesses Rare Quality
Underneath it all, Lanza is a serious-minded young man. And his accomplishments to date show it. His repertoire now numbers six operas (in addition to Andrea Chenier): I Pagliacci, Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, La Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, La BohÍme, and Madama Butterfly. He neither smokes nor drinks, except for wine. Even at that, casual observers find it difficult to believe that he really is quite as conscientious as he appears. Part of the credit goes to his patron. Sam Weiler knows music -- he was studying himself when he met Lanza in a voice studio. He told Mario it would take at least five years before he would reach the top, and he has been insistent on this point. He believes his protégé should first spend at least one rigorous season at La Scala Milan before trying the Met, and he thinks that may not be until 1951.
The word "great" is often loosely used and consequently a dangerous term, expecially when appended to the word "singer." Whether Lanza's voice will deserve to be so described, only time will tell. Weiler says simply, "That boy has more heart in one note than all the other singers put together."
But one thing may be said with assurance: Lanza, like Caruso, has the kind of voice which stirs the blood in a way that a merely excellent one can never hope to do. It has a rare quality possessed by one singer in thousands.
Meantime, Lanza's M-G-M bosses are busily figuring how to use him next. Producer Pasternak and his writers are waiting for the final audience verdict on That Midnight Kiss before making a decision. Inevitably, they plan to star him in a screen adaptation of the life of Caruso.
These matters are of secondary concern to Lanza at the moment. One day he will debut at the Met. But not before he is certain in his heart that his voice is ready. "Why make your mistakes in public?" he asks. "And for a singer, you know, the Met is really public."