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Mario Lanza (January 31, 1921 – October 7, 1959) was an American tenor, singer, actor and Hollywood movie star of the late 1940s and the 1950s. The son of Italian emigrants, he began studying to be a professional singer at the age of 16. He was born Alfred Arnold Cocozza. He changed his name when he signed with MGM. His mother's maiden name was Maria Lanza.
After appearing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, Lanza signed a seven-year contract with MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, who saw his performance and was impressed by his singing. Prior to this, the adult Lanza had sung only two performances of an opera. The following year (1948), however, he would sing the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.
His movie debut was in That Midnight Kiss (1949) with Kathryn Grayson and Ethel Barrymore. The following year, in The Toast of New Orleans, his featured popular song "Be My Love" became his first million-selling hit. In 1951, he played the role of Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), his tenor idol, in the biopic, The Great Caruso, which produced another million-seller with "The Loveliest Night of the Year" (a song which used the melody of Sobre las Olas). The Great Caruso was the top-grossing film that year.
The title song of his next film, Because You're Mine was his final million-selling hit song. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. After recording the soundtrack for his next film, The Student Prince he embarked upon a protracted battle with Studio Head Dore Schary arising from artistic differences with director Curtis Bernhardt, and was eventually dismissed by MGM.
Lanza was known to be "rebellious, tough, and ambitious", and during most of his film career, he suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and, occasionally, other cast members. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper writes that "his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak". She adds that he was the "last of the great romantic performers". He made three more films before dying of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 38. At the time of his death in 1959 he was still "the most famous tenor in the world". Author Eleonora Kimmel concludes that Lanza "blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time".
Born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was exposed to classical singing at an early age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian parents, Maria (Lanza) and Antonio Cocozza. By the age of 16, his vocal talent had become apparent. Starting out in local operatic productions in Philadelphia for the YMCA Opera Company while still in his teens, he later came to the attention of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who in 1942 provided young Cocozza with a full student scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Reportedly, Koussevitzky would later tell him, "Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years."
His opera debut, as Fenton in Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor (in English), came at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood on August 7, 1942, after a period of study with conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. This was when Cocozza adopted the stage name Mario Lanza, for its similarity to his mother’s maiden name, Maria Lanza.
His performances at Tanglewood won him critical acclaim, with Noel Straus of The New York Times hailing the 21-year-old tenor as having "few equals among tenors of the day in terms of quality, warmth, and power". Herbert Graf subsequently wrote in the Opera News of October 5, 1942 that, "A real find of the season was Mario Lanza [...] He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera". Lanza performed the role of Fenton twice at Tanglewood, in addition to appearing there in a one-off presentation of Act III of Puccini's La bohème with the noted Mexican soprano Irma González, baritone James Pease, and mezzo-soprano Laura Castellano. Music critic Jay C. Rosenfeld wrote in The New York Times of August 9, 1942 that, "Miss González as Mimì and Mario Lanza as Rodolfo were conspicuous by the beauty of their voices and the vividness of their characterizations." In an interview shortly before her own death in 2008, González recalled that Lanza was "very correct, likeable, [and] with a powerful and beautiful voice".
His budding operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory. He also appeared in the film version of the latter (albeit as an unrecognizable member of the chorus). He resumed his singing career with a concert in Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in September 1945 under the baton of Peter Herman Adler, who subsequently became a mentor to him. The following month, Lanza replaced tenor Jan Peerce on the live CBS radio program Great Moments in Music, on which he made six appearances over a period of four months, singing extracts from various operas and other works.
He then studied with noted teacher Enrico Rosati for fifteen months, after which Lanza embarked on an 86-concert tour of the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948 with George London and soprano Frances Yeend. Reviewing his second appearance at Chicago's Grant Park in July 1947 in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the respected music critic Claudia Cassidy praised Lanza's "superbly natural tenor" and observed that "though a multitude of fine points evade him, he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama."
In April 1948, Lanza sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association. The conductor was Walter Herbert, the stage director was Armando Agnini. Writing in the St. Louis News, critic Laurence Odel observed that, "Mario Lanza performed his duties as Lieutenant Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably." Following the success of these performances, Lanza was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi's La traviata. However, as biographer Armando Cesari observes, by 1949 Lanza "was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned the role [of Alfredo]".
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 had brought Lanza to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed Lanza to a seven-year film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This proved to be a turning point in the young singer's career. The contract required him to commit to the studio for six months, and at first Lanza believed he would be able to combine his film career with his operatic and concert one. In May 1949, he made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. His rendition of the aria "Che gelida manina" (from La bohème) from that session was subsequently awarded the prize of Operatic Recording of the Year by the (United States) National Record Critics Association.
Lanza's first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, were commercial successes, and in 1950 his recording of "Be My Love" became the first of three million-selling singles for the young singer, earning him enormous fame in the process. While at MGM, Lanza worked closely with the Academy Award-winning conductor, composer, and arranger Johnny Green. In a 1977 interview with Lanza biographer Armando Cesari, Green recalled that the tenor was insecure about the manner in which he had become successful, and was keenly aware of the fact that he had become a Hollywood star before first having established himself on the operatic stage.
"Had [Lanza] been already a leading tenor, if not the leading tenor at the Met[ropolitan Opera House], and come to Hollywood in between seasons to make a picture, he would have had [the security of having] the Met as his home," Green remarked. According to Green, Lanza possessed "the voice of the next Caruso. [Lanza] had an unusual, very unusual quality...a tenor with a baritone color in the middle and lower registers, and a great feeling for the making of music. A great musicality. I found it fascinating, musically, to work with [him]".
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso, which proved an astonishing success, though it did not adhere strictly to the facts of Caruso's life. At the same time, Lanza's increasing popularity exposed him to intense criticism by some music critics, including those who had praised his work years earlier. His performance earned him compliments from the subject's son, Enrico Caruso Jr., a tenor in his own right. Shortly before his own death in 1987, Enrico Jr. wrote in Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family (posthumously published by Amadeus in 1990) that, "I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography... Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural voice placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct." He went on to praise Lanza's tempi and phrasing, "flawless" diction, and "impassioned" delivery, adding that, "All are qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain." In conclusion, he wrote that, "Lanza excelled in both the classical and the light popular repertory, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father's exceptional talents."
In 1952, Lanza was dismissed by MGM after he had pre-recorded the songs for The Student Prince. The reason most frequently cited in the tabloid press at the time was that his recurring weight problem had made it impossible for him to fit into the costumes of the Prince. However, as his biographers Cesari and Mannering have established, Lanza was not overweight at the beginning of the production, and it was, in fact, a disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over Lanza's singing of one of the songs in the film that led to Lanza walking off the set. MGM refused to replace Bernhardt, and the film was subsequently made with actor Edmund Purdom miming to Lanza's voice. Ironically, the eventual director of the film was Richard Thorpe, the same man whom Lanza had pleaded with MGM to replace Bernhardt, and with whom the tenor had enjoyed an excellent working relationship in The Great Caruso.
Depressed by his dismissal, and with his self-confidence severely undermined, Lanza became a virtual recluse for more than a year, frequently seeking refuge in alcoholic binges. During this period, Lanza also came very close to bankruptcy as a result of poor investment decisions by his former manager, and his lavish spending habits left him owing about $250,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
Lanza returned to an active film career in 1955 in Serenade, released by Warner Bros. However the film was not as successful as his previous films, despite its strong musical content, including arias from Der Rosenkavalier, Fedora, L'arlesiana, and Otello, as well as the Act III duet from Otello with soprano Licia Albanese. He then moved to Rome, Italy in May 1957, where he worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome, and returned to live performing in a series of acclaimed concerts throughout the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Despite a number of cancellations, which resulted from his failing health during this period, Lanza continued to receive offers for operatic appearances, concerts, and films. In 1958, for example, he gave a concert tour of the UK.
In September 1958, he made a number of operatic recordings at the Rome Opera House for the soundtrack of what would turn out to be his final film, For the First Time. The Artistic Director of the Rome Opera, Riccardo Vitale, offered him the role of Canio in Pagliacci in the theater's 1960/61 season. Lanza received offers from the management of the La Scala and San Carlo opera houses. However, his health continued to decline, with the tenor suffering from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis and acute high blood pressure. His old habits of overeating and crash dieting, coupled with binge drinking, compounded his problems.. On The story of Variety with Michael Grade (BBC 4, 30 May 2012) it was revealed that Lanza was often violent when drunk and that he suffered from the DT's, seeing things that were not there.
In April 1959, Lanza suffered a minor heart attack, followed by double pneumonia in August. He died in Rome in October of that year at the age of 38 from a pulmonary embolism after undergoing a controversial weight loss program colloquially known as "the twilight sleep treatment," which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. Attenders at his funeral were the singers Maria Caniglia and Lidia Nerozzi and the actors Franco Fabrizi and Enzo Fiermonte. Frank Sinatra sent his condolences by telegram.
Lanza's widow, Betty, moved back to Hollywood with their four children, but died five months later at the age of 37. Biographer Armando Cesari writes that the apparent cause of death, according to the coroner, was "asphyxiation resulting from a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving medication". In 1991, Marc, the younger of their two sons, died of a heart attack at the age of 37; six years later, Colleen, their elder daughter, was killed at the age of 48 when she was struck by two passing vehicles on a highway. Damon Lanza, the couple's elder son, died in August 2008 of a heart attack at the age of 55.
Lanza's short career covered opera, radio, concerts, recordings, and motion pictures. He was the first artist for RCA Victor Red Seal to receive a gold disc and the first artist to sell two and half million albums. A highly influential artist, Lanza has been credited with inspiring successive generations of opera singers, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and José Carreras. Singers with seemingly different backgrounds and influences were also inspired by his singing, including his RCA Victor label-mate Elvis Presley.
Lanza was referred to by some sources as the "new Caruso", after his "instant success" in Hollywood films, while MGM hoped that he would become the movie studio's "singing Clark Gable" due to his good looks and powerful voice.
In 1994, tenor José Carreras paid tribute to Lanza in a worldwide concert tour, saying of him, "If I'm an opera singer, it's thanks to Mario Lanza." Carreras' colleague, Plácido Domingo, echoed these comments in a 2009 CBS interview when he stated, "Lanza's passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera thanks to a kid from Philadelphia."
Today, the "magnitude of his contribution to popular music is still hotly debated", and because he appeared on the opera stage only twice, many critics feel that he needed to have had more "operatic quality time" in major theatres before he could be considered a star of that art form. His films, especially The Great Caruso, influenced numerous future opera stars, including Joseph Calleja, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. According to opera historian Clyde McCants, "Of all the Hollywood singers who performed operatic music . . . the one who made the greatest impact was Mario Lanza." Hedda Hopper concludes that "there had never been anyone like Mario, and I doubt whether we shall ever see his like again".
In October 2007, Charles Messina directed the big budget musical Be My Love: The Mario Lanza Story, written by Richard Vetere, about Lanza's life, which was produced by Sonny Grosso and Phil Ramone. It premiered at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Greenvale, New York.
Miljenko Jergovic mentions Lanza in his Dvori od oraha (The Mansion in Walnut) novel of 2003 as a part of story about Luka Sikiric.
Mario Lanza Boulevard is a roadway in the Eastwick section of Lanza's native Philadelphia, close to Philadelphia International Airport and ending on the grounds of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.
The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, which honors Lanza's legacy and also provides scholarships to young singers, is located at 712 Montrose Street in South Philadelphia. Link label
Philadelphia's Queen Street Park was renamed for Lanza in 1967. Link label
Lanza was born at 636 Christian Street in South Philadelphia. A Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission marker stands outside of the house.
A large mural dedicated to Lanza stands at Broad and Reed Streets in Philadelphia.
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