Star of the 1951 MGM film The Great Caruso, Mario Lanza was perhaps, the first “superstar” of stage and screen. Renowned for his extraordinary tenor voice (described by Toscanini as “the voice of the century”) and classic good looks, he was idolised by his many fans, topped both the pop and classical charts and was lauded wherever he went. And yet, tragically, he succumbed to the insecurities and hedonistic life that can all so easily accompany such fame, dying of a heart attack at the age of only 38.
Lanza’s passion for singing was evident from an early age: at only five years old he was singing along to recordings of Caruso which his parents played and at sixteen decided that a career as a singer was what he wanted. His mother was delighted as she had a good voice herself (and indeed had hoped to make a career from singing, but it was not to be). Lessons were duly arranged and he was awarded a scholarship at Berkshire Music School, run at the time by the conductor Koussevitsky who realised the latent promise in Lanza’s voice. Here is Lanza in “Be my love” demonstrating the fulfilled promise of his voice:
By the by, Lanza was his stage name – he was born Alfredo Cocozza – adopted as a thank you to his mother whose maiden name it was. His career had to be put on hold during the Second World War as he was conscripted into the army. But once life returned to normal he was able to pick up where he had left off and in 1947 joined the soprano Frances Yeend and baritone George London to form the Bel Canto Trio. It went on to give an astonishing 84 concerts in less than a year! Lanza, it seemed, was well on the way to establishing himself.
But it was a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 which was to change his life forever. In the audience was Louis B. Mayer of MGM fame. He heard Lanza, recognised talent when he saw it and signed him up to the studios PDQ. The rest, as they say, is history.
Film after film followed with roles showcasing Lanza’s magnificent tenor voice. These included “The Toast of New Orleans” (1950), which included the now well-known song “Be My Love” which won him his first gold record. Hot on its heels a year later came “The Great Caruso” which shot him to international stardom. But…never let it be said that facts should get in the way of a good story, which is the central tenet of the film! Whilst it may have followed the basic events of Caruso’s life, artistic licence was taken with abandon, so much so that members of the Caruso family felt obliged to sue MGM for damages (they won)! Nonetheless, it was a huge success with the public and indeed several of our well-known tenors today, including Jose Carreras, have said that it was Lanza’s singing which inspired them.
MGM’s “The Student Prince” and “Serenade” (for Warner) followed in 1954 and 55 respectively. Sadly, it was “The Student Prince” which was to prove a tragic turning point in his life. Allegedly for being too passionate in one of the songs (!) recorded for the soundtrack, he was fired and descended into a spiral of binge drinking and over eating. Whilst another actor took over his role on screen, it was Lanza’s voice used in the soundtrack for the songs. “Serenade” (very) loosely based on the novel by James M. Cain, tells the story of a poor young worker in a vineyard who has a wonderful tenor voice, becomes an operatic tenor with an eyebrow raising love life but it all ends happily in the end! (Much like many operas really…). No opportunity was lost to include a range of famous operatic extracts to show off Lanza’s voice. Here, though, is the wonderful “Serenade” from “The Student Prince”:
A move to Rome was made in 1957, with two more films for MGM that year and the next: “The Seven Hills of Rome” (some of you will remember the song Arrividerci Roma) and For The First Time. The schedule he set himself of film work and international concert tours was punishing to put it mildly and it was hardly surprising that it took its toll on Lanza’s health. So much so that, tragically, he suffered a heart attack in October 1959 dying at the appallingly young age of 38.
But what a legacy he left!