- Mario Lanza
By Rip Rense
- Michael Bolton contorts his way through
a new album of operatic arias. Aretha Franklin struggles through Puccini's
"Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards. The Three Tenors are almost
as popular as Elvis.
- Opera is no longer longhair (or blue
hair) music. At sellout performances across the country, Verdi and Leoncavallo
are the hottest dates in town. And the matinee idol/tenor who first made
operatic singing a hot date with a mass audience 48 years ago---Mario Lanza---seems
to be making a comeback. No easy trick for a man who died in 1959.
- Consider: Lanza---proclaimed the voice
of the century by no less an authority than conductor Arturo Toscanini---is
the subject of a detailed forthcoming biography, Tenor in Exile, by Roland
Bessette, due next year from Amadeus Press. The Mario Lanza Society's annual
galas in Philadelphia, Lanza's home town, continue to attract fans from
around the planet. Actor/tenor Charles GaVoian is garnering rave reviews
with his one-man play, The Mario Lanza Story---with runs so far in Los
Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and elsewhere. All Three Tenors---Luciano
Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras---acknowledge Lanza's impact,
having performed his signature hit, "Be My Love," at the Dodger
Stadium concert in 1996. Carreras and Domingo, who cite Lanza movies like
Because You're Mine as an early inspiration, have recorded CD and video
tributes to the tenor. Domingo narrates the video documentary, "Mario
Lanza: the American Caruso," and Carrerras performed a Lanza tribute
concert in London last year that attracted tens of thousands. And yes,
there is an extensive Mario Lanza website, which can be accessed through
- Now comes the crowning touch---brand
new, never-released Mario Lanza music. The tenor is primed to re-enter
the charts with the just-released, lavishly packaged Be My Love: Mario
Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM, from Turner Classic Movie Music/Rhino
Movie Music ($16.98.) It is the first release ever of soundtrack music
from Lanza's five MGM films---and is merely the first of an expected series
of Lanza vault releases from Turner/Rhino.
- "These were jewels sitting in the
vault waiting to be liberated!" said George Feltenstein, vice president
of marketing at Turner and producer of the project. "If the fans support
this, there will be more. I'm hoping we'll be able to do full soundtrack
albums for The Great Caruso and The Student Prince. I would love to be
able to have all the recordings eventually come out. I'd say there are
easily at least 40-60 tracks that could be released."
- The MGM soundtracks were never issued
because Lanza was signed with RCA in the early 50s, when the films were
made. MGM, the first movie studio to have its own record company ("they
basically invented the soundtrack album," says Feltenstein), was greatly
disappointed it could not legally release albums for Lanza's box office
smashes, including The The Great Caruso. Lanza instead made studio versions
of songs from his films, with smaller orchestras, which were issued by
- The Lanza (MGM soundtrack) recordings---
says Feltenstein---languished forgotten for decades, ultimately rescued
after Turner Entertainment bought the MGM vaults and began issuing soundtrack
releases by its biggest stars, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene
- "I'm very familiar with Astaire,
Kelly, Garland, Sinatra," said Feltenstein, producer of all the vault
projects, "but my forte was not opera, or Mr. Lanza's material. So
it meant I had to immerse myself in it, and I didn't think I was going
to like it. Boy, was I surprised! I went from doing a project out of respect
for his huge fan base to becoming a fan, myself."
- Why the lingering popularity? Why the
fan clubs around the world, in England, New Zealand, Italy, Australia,
Germany. . .
- "It's due to a lot of things,"
said Mario Lanza Story star GaVoian, reached in Los Angeles. "Certainly,
there is that absolutely astonishing voice, and movie star quality. But
he died so young---it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe
and James Dean. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors, but a whole
generation of singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still
- Terry Robinson, Lanza's close friend,
physical trainer, and author of Lanza: His Tragic Life, Prentice-Hall,
1980, was more succinct: "It's the voice," he said. "There's
never been anything like it. It brings people together."
- Lanza grew up in Philadelphia, honing
his almost unearthly vocal powers by singing along to Victrola recordings
of Enrico Caruso. He later trained operatically, and toured the country
in the late 40s with George London and Francis Yeend as the Bel Canto Trio.
Louis B. Mayer's executive secretary discovered the young singer after
hearing him perform as a last-minute substitute at the Hollywood Bowl in
1947. The magnetic, handsome tenor became an overnight matinee idol with
That Midnight Kiss in 1949.
- But 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 a pop icon and sometimes crooner with films
like The Toast of New Orleans and Because You're Mine---which propelled
songs like "Be My Love" to the top of the pop charts. Beleagured
as much as benefitted by fame, Lanza ultimately abandoned Hollywood (or
vice-versa) after a stormy relationship with studio moguls. He died in
Italy in 1959 at 38, officially the victim of excessive lifestyle-related
heart trouble, but Robinson and some family members suspected mafia involvement.
(Lanza is alleged to have inadvertently offended the mob by failing to
sing on at a charity concert partly arranged by Lucky Luciano.)
- The historic new CD---with 22-page booklet
illustrated with rare photos---features two of Lanza's most important extended
operatic recordings: the Act1 finale from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, with
Kathryn Grayson (from Toast), and the sextet from Act II, scene 2 of Donizetti's
Lucia Di Lammermoor, in which he was joined by the Metropolitan Opera's
Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Nicola Moscona, and Gilbert
- "I remember that recording session,"
said Robinson. "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." The CD, which features excerpts from That Midnight
Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans, (1950), The Great Caruso (1951), Because
You're Mine (1952), and The Student Prince (1954), also includes two outtakes:
"All The Things You Are" from Because. . ., and one of the most
historically important recordings Lanza ever made---one that marked a tragic
turning point in his career, "Beloved," from Prince. This rejected
"Beloved" was a torrid take that resulted in Lanza walking off
the Prince project, forever tainting him with Hollywood moguls---particularly
MGM head Dore Schary. "I was standing there when he walked out!"
remembered Robinson. "That's the one that caused all the trouble.
He sang it too sexy, they said."
- "Beloved's" sticking point
was interpretation. In the Sigmund Romberg operetta, the student prince
is rejected by his princess for lacking passion. It is after being sent
to Heidelberg to be with other students, and learn the ways of romance,
that he sings the ardent paen to the princess. The song is meant to be
passionate, but Prince's initial director, Curtis Bernhardt, didn't see
it that way. The conflict was a flashpoint resulting in lawsuits with MGM,
culminating a couple years later with Lanza's departure from Hollywood
and relocation to Rome, where he died.
- "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. Edmund Purdom wound up lip-synching Lanza's voice
to co-star Ann Blyth. The "Beloved" version used in film is "totally
milktoast," said Feltenstein. "On the CD, you hear the passion
and fire he wanted to bring to work. And he was right."
- The Lanza children---daughter Elissa
Bregman and son Damon Lanza---were delighted with the new release. Said
Bregman, reached at home in Los Angeles: "It's been a long time coming..
. .I know there are people around world who would appreciate any new material
released on Mario Lanza. I hope this might inspire BMG (RCA's parent company)
to release more of their (vault) recordings."
- That's correct. There is still another
wealth of unreleased Mario Lanza recordings at BMG yet to be mined