Family & Companions
Mario Lanza's life was the stuff of show business legend. The son of Italian immigrants who imbued him with a love for opera, he rose to greatness as both a singer and a movie star before a sudden, tragic death. Lanza's rich, mellifluous voice and darkly handsome looks sent him from the opera stage to motion picture sound stages in less than a decade. Viewed by MGM as a "singing Clark Gable," he exercised his vocal abilities and considerable charm in a handful of films, including "The Great Caruso" (1951), a biopic of his boyhood idol, opera singer Enrico Caruso. But health issues, including wildly fluctuating weight and a dependence on crash diets took a serious toll, and by the late 1950s, he was no longer in demand as an actor and unable to fulfill his concert commitments. His death in 1959 was an all-too-early end to a career that might have spanned two worlds of entertainment, but instead served as a reminder of the fleeting nature of fame.
Born Alfredo Arnoldo Cocozza on Jan. 31, 1921 in Philadelphia, PA, Mario Lanza was the son of Antonio Cocozza, a World War I vet, and his wife, Maria Lanza, whose dreams of singing opera had been quashed by her husband. Her aspirations were passed down to her son, who spent hours listening to 78 RPM recordings of the legendary Enrico Caruso. He soon began singing along with the records with some authority, which inspired his mother to pay for voice lessons. Lanza's voice quickly developed into an exceptional talent, and he began performing with the YMCA Opera Company while still in his teens. In 1942, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky heard Lanza sing and was bowled over by his vocal abilities. He arranged for the young man to receive a full student scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts, where he studied under Leonard Bernstein, among others. Lanza's professional opera debut came in a production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the Berkshire Music Festival in 1942. He paid tribute to his mother by adopting a masculine version of her name - Mario Lanza - as his stage name.
Critical reviews were positive for Lanza, who appeared to be on the brink of overnight stardom. But in 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. Assigned to the Special Services division, he sang in "On the Beam" and "Winged Victory," two stage shows produced for military audiences. Lanza also appeared as a member of the chorus in the 1944 film version of the latter show, directed by George Cukor. Demobilized in 1945, he began studying with the legendary vocal teacher Enrico Rosati, who prepared him for a lengthy concert tour of North America. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer caught Lanza's stop at the Hollywood Bowl, and signed the young signer to a seven-year film contract in 1947. That same year, Lanza signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and made his first commercial recordings. While waiting for production to ramp up on his debut film, Lanza appeared in "Madame Butterfly" for the New Orleans Opera Association in 1948. The turn won him some of the best reviews of his career, and he planned to return to New Orleans the following year for "La traviata." But by then, his film career had taken precedence, and Lanza would drift further away from his stage roots.
Lanza's screen debut in "That Midnight Kiss" (1949) was an inconsequential romance that nevertheless drew huge audiences due to Lanza's matinee idol looks. His follow-up, "The Toast of New Orleans" (1950), with Lanza as a New Orleans fisherman who falls in love with an opera singer (Kathryn Grayson), was also a smash, and generated a gold record for Lanza with the single "Be My Love." But it was his turn as his boyhood idol, Enrico Caruso, in "The Great Caruso" (1951) that truly ignited America's love affair with the singer. Though only loosely based on Caruso's real life, the film featured Lanza manfully tackling some of the iconic performer's greatest arias. A massive success, it spawned a U.S. "Caruso Concert" Tour that pulled in even bigger audiences, as did his radio show, "The Coca Cola Show."
But Lanza's ascension to the top of the showbiz heap was short-lived. In 1952, he quarreled with director Curtis Bernhardt over his singing in the film version of "The Student Prince" (1954). Lanza subsequently walked off the set and was replaced by British actor Edmund Purdom, who mimed to Lanza's recorded vocals. His self-confidence badly wounded, Lanza sought refuge in alcohol and lavish spending sprees. The tabloids added insult to injury by harping on his weight, which frequently ballooned during this fallow period. The one bright spot was the success of "The Student Prince" soundtrack, which sold over a million copies.
By 1955, Lanza was in serious debt with the IRS over unpaid taxes, and quickly returned to motion pictures. "Serenade" (1955) was a sanitized version of the James M. Cain novel of the same name, about a vineyard worker-turned-opera singer who became involved with both society hostess Joan Fontaine and fiery bullfighter's daughter Sara Montiel. A modest success, it allowed Lanza and his family to move to Italy, where he filmed "Arrivederci Roma" ("Seven Hills of Rome") (1957), a minor romance highlighted by a sequence in which Lanza imitated the popular singers of the day, including Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong. He also revived his stage career with a series of well-received concerts throughout Europe.
But Lanza's health was in serious decline due to high blood pressure and phlebitis, which were the results of his unhealthy eating and dieting habits. A minor heart attack in April 1959 forced him to cancel many major engagements with opera companies around the world, though he continued to perform and record at a tireless pace. The demands of his schedule eventually resulted in his hospitalization, but he checked himself out to return to work. On Oct. 7, 1959, Lanza phoned his wife to let her know that he was returning home, but shortly afterward, he suffered a pulmonary embolism, which led to his death. His legacy was heard in the voices of subsequent opera legends like Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, both of whom credited Lanza for inspiring them to follow in his footsteps.
By Paul Gaita