During the American tenor Mario Lanza’s short life (38 years), he became a singing sensation. He was successful as a soloist, chamber musician and opera singer. He appeared in concert halls, theatres, on the radio and in films. Plácido Domingo described Lanza’s voice as ‘one of the truly great natural tenor voices of the past century—a voice of beauty, passion and power!’ Despite this immense talent, Lanza received much negative publicity towards the end of his career, which has been largely attributed to ‘jealousy and snobbery’. Lanza is remembered not only for his beautiful and powerful voice, but also his superb diction. Tenor José Carreras said in 1994, ‘if I’m an opera singer, it’s thanks to Mario Lanza’.
Mario Lanza was born Alfred Arnold Cocozza on 31 January 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of Italian immigrants Antonio Cocozza and Maria Lanza. As a boy, he was called Freddie. His interest in opera music began at a very young age, as he would often listen to his father’s many records of singers.
Around the age of 16, Freddie appeared in various local (amateur) operatic productions staged by the YMCA Opera Company in Philadelphia, directed by former tenor Rodolfo Pili. His roles included il Contino del Fiore in Federico and Luigi Ricci’sCrispino e la Comare (‘The Cobbler and the Fairy’) with the company It was during this period that his enormous musical talent became evident.
In 1940, Freddie began his singing lessons with the soprano Irene Williams. Under her tutelage, he learned 20 songs and two operatic roles, but did not focus much on singing technique. Serge Koussevitzky heard 21-year-old Freddie sing in 1942 and praised him, saying, ‘yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years’. Without hesitation, the great conductor awarded Freddie a full scholarship to the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. While there, he received six weeks of study under Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein before it was declared that he was ready to make his professional debut as an opera singer. Before appearing in his first role, he changed his name from Alfred Arnold Cocozza to Mario Lanza, the masculine version of his mother’s name (Maria Lanza). On 7 August 1942, Lanza appeared at the festival in an English translation of Otto Nicolai’s comic operaThe Merry Wives of Windsor as Fenton.
Lanza’s spectacular performance stunned audiences and critics alike. A critic fromThe New York Times wrote that ‘[Lanza is] an extremely talented, if as yet not completely routined student, whose superb natural voice has few equals among tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power’. He continued on, praising Lanza’s ‘first rate’ diction.
Six days after his debut, Lanza appeared again at the Festival. He also played the role of Rodolfo in the third act of Puccini’sLa Bohème under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. His second performance as Rodolfo earned him praise from music critic Jay C. Rosenfeld, who wrote that ‘Miss [Irma] Gonzáles as Mimi Mario Lanza as Rodolfo were conspicuous by the beauty of their voices and the vividness of their characterizations’. His co-star, Gonzáles, described him as ‘a charming boy—very correct, likeable [and] with a powerful, beautiful voice’.
Despite a promising beginning as an opera singer, the outbreak of World War II halted his progress. While Lanza was exempt from active duty for health reasons, which included partial blindness in one eye, he was assigned to limited military service. He joined the Special Services after basic training, where he had the opportunity to perform in Fran Losser’s wartime variety show, On the Beam. His magnificent voice led to him being referred to as ‘the Force’s Caruso’. Lanza toured withOn the Beam for more than a half year in 1943 before his assignment to the chorus of Moss Hart’s musicalWinged Victory. Following a six-month run in New York, Lanza followed the company to Los Angeles to film the play with 20th Century Fox. There, he met and fell in love with Betty Hicks. The couple married on 13 April 1945, shortly after Lanza’s discharge from the military. They remained married, up until Lanza’s untimely death and had four children.
Following his military appearances, Lanza appeared six times on the CBS radio programme ‘Great Moments in Music’ (October 1945), where he sang a selection of operatic pieces. Recording contracts made it apparent to Lanza that he did not possess the necessary technique, leading him to study with Enrico Rosati for 15 months before making an 86-concert tour of North America from July 1946 to May 1948 with George London and Frances Yeend, with whom he formed the Bel Canto Trio.
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946 attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer from MGM. Lanza proceeded to sign a seven-year film contract with the company.
With his first film role, in That Midnight Kiss (1949), Lanza secured a national reputation. He would go on to make six more films, includingThe Great Caruso(1951) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950), which featured his biggest hit,Be my love, from Brodszky and Cahn. He can also be heard in the film The Student Prince(1954).
Meanwhile, Lanza also sang in his one-and-only full-length opera, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in 1948 with the New Orleans Opera. In May 1949, Lanza made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. He also presented his own radio show in the early 1950s.
Lanza’s choice of film over opera and his emotional style led some to criticize, but he remained popular and his recordings are still treasured today.
After Lanza recorded the songs for The Student Prince (1954), he was let go and the film was made with Edmund Purdom in his place, who lip-synced to Lanza’s singing. What followed was a dark time in Lanza’s life. He was in financial trouble due to his manager’s poor decisions. After disappearing from the public eye for two years, Lanza appeared in the 1956 filmSerenade, which was not nearly as successful as his previous films.
Lanza travelled to Rome, Italy in May 1957 to work on the film Seven Hills of Home. He then set out on concert tours in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe. After a successful audition at La Scala in Milan, Lanza was offered a two-year contract and was scheduled to perform in Puccini’sTosca. He also got the role of Canio inPagliacci for the opening of the 1960/61 season at the Rome Opera. Lanza never got the opportunity to fulfil his duties in Italy as he suffered a minor heart attack in April 1959, followed in August by double pneumonia. He died on 7 October 1959 at the age of 38, from a pulmonary embolism. It is likely that his excessive lifestyle of overindulging in alcohol and food contributed to his early death. Following his death, his family returned to Hollywood. His widow, Betty Hicks, died five months later of a drug overdose.
Lanza’s greatest legacy lies in the inspiration he gave to future opera singers, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and José Carreras. Domingo claims that Lanza’s films attracted a new audience to opera, as they did ‘more to lure the general public to the art form of operatic singing than the voice of any other performers before his time’. He also influenced singers of other genres, including his fellow RCA Victor recording artist, Elvis Presley.