Mario Lanza (born Alfred Arnold Cocozza; January 31, 1921 – October 7, 1959) was an American tenor, actor and Hollywood film star of the late 1940s and the 1950s.
Lanza began studying to be a professional singer at the age of 16. After appearing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, Lanza signed a seven-year film contract with Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-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 film 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 that had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and, occasionally, other cast members. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote, “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 an apparent 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 Alfred Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was exposed to classical singing at an early age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian parents. His mother, Maria Lanza, was from Tocco da Casauria a province of Pescara in the region of Abruzzo. His father, Antonio Cocozza, was from the town of Filignano a province of Isernia in the region of Molise. By age 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 longtime (1924–49) principal Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky. In 1942, Koussevitzky 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 Opera News (October 5, 1942), “A real find of the season was Mario Lanza […] He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera.” Lanza sang Nicolai’s 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, “Irma 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, with a powerful and beautiful voice.”
Lanza as Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello
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 Peter Herman Adler, subsequently his mentor. The following month, he replaced tenor Jan Peerce on the live CBS radio program Great Moments in Music on which he made six appearances in four months, singing extracts from various operas and other works.
He studied with Enrico Rosati for fifteen months, and then embarked on an 86-concert tour of the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948 with bass George London and soprano Frances Yeend. Reviewing his second appearance at Chicago’s Grant Park in July 1947 in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, 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 conducted by Walter Herbert with stage director Armando Agnini. Reviewing the opening-night performance in the St. Louis News (April 9, 1948), Laurence Oden wrote, “Mario Lanza performed … 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, he was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata. But, as biographer Armando Cesari wrote, Lanza by 1949 “was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned [that key mid-Verdi tenor] role.”
At the time of his death, Lanza was preparing to return to the operatic stage. Conductor Peter Herman Adler, with whom Lanza had previously worked both in concert and on the soundtrack of The Great Caruso, visited the tenor in Rome during the summer of 1959 and later recalled that, “[Lanza] was working two hours a day with an operatic coach, and intended to go back to opera, his only true love.” Adler promised the tenor “all possible help” in his “planning for his operatic future.” In the October 14, 1959, edition of Variety, it was reported that Lanza had planned to make his return to opera in the role of Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci during the Rome Opera’s 1960–61 season. This was subsequently confirmed by Riccardo Vitale, Artistic Director of the Rome Opera. Variety also noted that preparations had been underway at the time of Lanza’s death for him to participate in recording a series of complete operas for RCA Italiana.
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. 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.
The Toast of New Orleans
Lanza’s first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, both opposite top-billed Kathryn Grayson, were commercial successes, and in 1950 his recording of “Be My Love” from the latter 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 Metropolitan 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].”
The Great Caruso
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso, which proved a success. 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.”
The Student Prince
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 English actor Edmund Purdom, who was dubbed to Lanza’s recorded voice.
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. Ms. Albanese said of Lanza in 1980: I had heard all sorts of stories about Mario [Lanza]. That his voice was too small for the stage, that he couldn’t learn a score, that he couldn’t sustain a full opera; in fact, that he couldn’t even sing a full aria, that his recordings were made by splicing together various portions of an aria. None of it is true! He had the most beautiful lirico spinto voice. It was a gorgeous, beautiful, powerful voice. I should know because I sang with so many tenors. He had everything that one needs. The voice, the temperament, perfect diction. . . . Vocally he was very secure. All he needed was coaching. Everything was so easy for him. He was fantastic!
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 November of that year, singing for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Show at the London Palladium. From January to April 1958, Lanza gave a concert tour of the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany. He gave a total of 22 concerts on this tour, receiving mostly positive reviews for his singing. 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 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. It was then that he came to the attention of that opera house’s artistic director, Riccardo Vitale, who promptly offered the tenor carte blanche in his choice of operatic roles. Lanza also received offers to sing in any opera of his choosing from the San Carlo in Naples. At the same time, 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.
In April 1959, Lanza reportedly suffered a minor heart attack followed in August by double pneumonia. On September 25, 1959, he entered Rome’s Valle Giulia clinic for the purpose of losing weight for an upcoming film. While in the clinic, he underwent 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. On October 7, a day before his scheduled discharge, he died at the age of 38. No autopsy was performed. He was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Maria Caniglia, Franco Fabrizi and Enzo Fiermonte attended the funeral. Frank Sinatra sent his condolences by telegram.
Lanza was the first RCA Victor Red Seal artist to win a gold disc and the first artist to sell 2 1/2 million albums. Lanza was referred to by some sources as the “new Caruso” after his “instant success” in Hollywood films, while MGM hoped he would become the movie studio’s “singing Clark Gable” for his good looks and powerful voice.
In 1994, outstanding tenor José Carreras paid tribute to Lanza during a worldwide concert tour, saying of him, “If I’m an opera singer, it’s thanks to Mario Lanza.” His equally outstanding colleague Plácido Domingo echoed these comments in a 2009 CBS interview with, “Lanza’s passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera … to a kid from Philadelphia.”
Even today “the magnitude of his contribution to popular music is still hotly debated,” and because he appeared on the operatic stage only twice, many critics feel that he needed to have had more “operatic quality time” in major theaters 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.” Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper concluded “there had never been anyone like Mario, and I doubt whether we shall ever see his like again.”
In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him. Mario Lanza has been awarded two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a Star for Recording at 1751 Vine Street, and a Star at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard for Motion Pictures.
Portrayal on stage
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, and which premiered at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Greenvale, New York.
• Winged Victory, Twentieth Century-Fox 1944 (un-credited chorus member)
• That Midnight Kiss, MGM 1949
• The Toast of New Orleans, MGM 1950
• The Great Caruso, MGM 1951
• Because You’re Mine, MGM 1952
• The Student Prince, MGM 1954 (voice only)
• Serenade, Warner Bros. 1956
• Seven Hills of Rome, MGM 1958
• For the First Time, MGM 1959