For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’. John Greenleaf Whittier
January 31, 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the birth Alfredo Arnold Cocozza known to posterity as Mario Lanza; Lanza was his mother’s maiden name. A native of Philadelphia, he was the son of Italian immigrants who exposed him to opera at an early age. He was well known locally by the time he was 16. Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, sponsored his attendance at the Berkshire Music Center where he briefly studied voice with Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein; the latter only three years Lanza’s senior.
He sang only a few performances as Fenton in Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, before entering the Army in 1942. He was assigned to the Special Services branch of the Air Corp where he participated in a number of musical productions. Following his discharge he appeared in several concerts and radio broadcasts. He studied with Enrico Rosati for 15 months. He then toured North America giving 86 concert performances as part of The Bel Canto Trio – the other two singers were Frances Yeend and George London.
After the conclusion of this itinerary, he appeared two times as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in New Orleans – April 1948. These were his last performances in a staged opera.
Lanza had appeared in a concert in the Hollywood Bowl the previous year. There he had the good fortune or misfortune, depending on how you view his subsequent career, to attract the attention of Louis B Mayer the head of MGM. Mayer was an opera lover and he signed Lanza to a seven year contract.
In 1949 his first movie That Midnight Kiss opposite Kathryn Grayson was released. He made numerous recordings under the RCA Red Seal label that sold millions of copies; they’re still available today. He had achieved fame, fortune, and misery. He was making films when he should have been singing at the Met and its like.
Most operatic tenors are short, fat, and bald – ie, mesomorphs. Franco Corelli was a notable exception. You can work around the short stature and buy hair. Lanza’s head in his later movies looks like a black bear cub had taken residence on his skull. It was the weight problem that was most difficult to handle. He was the leading man in his movies; leading men are supposed to be slim. He had to go on crash and dangerous diets to keep his weight at least under partial control. In some of his movies you can see two Lanzas 60 pounds different.
Oscar Wilde quipped that “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.” He was referring to the character in Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop. One feels the same sentiment watching Lanza’s movies. I had a professor of music in college who said he always asked for a seat behind a post whenever he went to the Met for a Wagner opera. There were no posts in the old Met, but there were seats with partially obstructed views. Some things are better heard than seen.
With Lanza all that matters is the voice. If you watch one of his pictures, fast forward through the talking and just listen to him sing. Better yet forget about the movies and listen to his records. Lanza had a rich tenor that verged close to a spinto. He sang with great feeling and was able to realize the emotional content of the songs and arias he performed. He spoke fluent Italian and instinctively knew where to emphasize and shade what he sang. His high notes had squillo and he could go up to a high D. A prisoner of his fame, he likely avoided the opera house out of fear that he would be held to an impossible standard. I have little doubt that he would have risen to the top of opera had he taken the path he bypassed.
1921 was also the birth year of Corelli and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Lanza should have matched their accomplishments. He ought to have modeled his career after Richard Tucker’s. Tucker stayed close to the Met limiting his appearances elsewhere to a manageable number. He chose his roles carefully and handled his voice and career with the utmost discretion and delicacy. Had Lanza done the same, we likely would have had two great American operatic tenors instead of just the one – Tucker. In opera nobody really cares if a tenor is fat. Lanza could have eaten to his heart’s content and detriment. Also, Tucker didn’t become the great spinto tenor he was until he was about 40. Lanza’s best vocal years were erased by his premature death.
He was plagued by the ill effects of non-standard weight loss regimens, phlebitis, overeating, alcohol abuse, and wild spending that left him in debt to the IRS. His death at age 38 still is suspicious. He had a wife and four children. His spouse was devastated by his death and died five months after he did from a drug overdose. His story is sad enough to be a verismo opera.
But we do have his recordings that are still in wide circulation and which demonstrate the huge talent that went astray. I’ve picked a baker’s dozen which give a good portrait of this unique voice.
Be my love was Lanza’s first million selling record. Granada by the Mexican composer Augustin Lara has been recorded by just about any singer with access to a microphone and studio, but never with more panache than by Lanza even if his Spanish is tinged with a bit of Italian.
He was particularly effective singing the Neapolitan songs that have endured longer than any other popular songs. His work in the genre is exceeded only by that of Giuseppe Di Stefano who was the master of these songs.
‘A vucchella is by Paolo Tosti set to words by Gabriele D’Annunzio. The poet was not from Naples but he wrote the words in the Neapolitan dialect. It’s about a woman with a small mouth that looks like a rose, but is a bit faded. It sounds better in the dialect. Lanza gives a gentle and sensitive reading of the song achieving a wonderful effect.
Core ‘ngrato is perhaps the most passionate of all Neapolitan songs. The singer describes the despair that Catari’s rejection of his ardor has caused in him. He’s so desperate that he’s sought succor from a priest. The cleric advised letting go. I don’t think the nameless emotional wreck can do it.
Everyone know O sole mio. Even Elvis Presley sang it – to new English lyrics. The singer likens the beauty of his lover’s face to that of the sun.
But it is in Italian opera that Lanza is heard to best effect. Alas, he never recorded a complete opera, only arias and an occasional duet. He was alleged to be planning to both record a complete opera and to return to the stage, plans that were dashed by his sudden death. I wonder if he would ever have really done so, imprisoned as he was by fame and bad habits.
Lanza’s voice was attune with the music of Verdi, Puccini, and his lesser contemporaries. Nevertheless, I’ll start with a French aria, by a German, sung in Italian – O Paradiso from Meyerbeer’s last opera L’Africaine. This recording is made with a piano accompaniment – its from one of his movies. The voice is in spectacular condition.
Celeste Aida is sung by every tenor with even the faintest claim to being a spinto. Lanza follows the near universal practice of belting out the final high notes.
Next two Puccini arias. Che gelida manina is from the first act of La Bohème. Nessun dorma, the last of Puccini’s tenor arias is from Act 3 of Turandot. The second of these is a video (below) taken from the movie Serenade. The singing is great even if the lip synching isn’t. The Bohème aria is given a full throated and passionate rendition.
Vesti la giubba is the most familiar number from the only opera by Leoncavallo that’s made it into the standard repertory. Testa adorata is from Leoncavallo’s La Bohème. The opera was overwhelmed by Puccini’s version, but the aria is frequently sung in recitals.
Lanza’s voice and temperament were such that he should have been one of the last century’s top 10 tenors. His seduction by the glitz of the movies and his inability to resist deprived opera goers of a truly great voice. Lanza’s vocal technique was so well grounded that he should have lasted as long as did Richard Tucker. He then could have succumbed to a heart attack in his 60s still in fine vocal condition. But we do have the recordings.