Mario Lanza – The World’s Greatest Tenor

 “I sing each word as though it were my last on earth.”                                                                                                                          —   Mario Lanza (1921 – 1959)

Mario Lanza looked like a god, he sang like a god. He was the world’s first Superstar.

With his heart and soul, he believed every word he sang, with a voice, a glorious voice that came from heaven, and mesmerized all those who heard him.

So, who sang it best??   Mario Lanza, of course! There are no superlatives great enough to describe the magnificent voice of the world’s best tenor, the first true superstar. Mario Lanza had flawless diction, limitless power, sensuous phrasing, and fearless, dazzling top notes.

Mario Lanza, the romantic hero, with his immense beauty and richness of voice, made Opera sexy!  His voice hypnotized a generation of singers, and inspired Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Boccelli, Jose Carreras, and many others, to become singers, and was admired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Jussi Björling.

Lanza’s voice was a perfectly placed lirico spinto of extended range (low A to high D) with a luscious baritone quality, which made him sound oh, so masculine (unlike most modern tenors whose voices are shrill, weak, or strained). Mario could sing through all three registers effortlessly, without conspicuous gear change.  His voice was big, it was resonant, it was beautiful. With a richer, clearer, sweet, lyrical voice full of emotion, Mario Lanza touched the heart.

In 1949, the 28-year-old tenor’s rendition of Che Gelida Manina from La Bohème was voted Operatic Recording of the year by the U.S. National Critics Association.  Lanza was to reprise that song in the film The Great Caruso. 

An awestruck Arturo Toscanini called him “the voice of the century.”

 “His Voice was so spectacular, it scared the heck out of you.” – songwriter, Sammy Cahn

 Soprano Maria Callas said of him in a 1973 interview: “My biggest regret is not to have had the opportunity of singing with the greatest tenor voice I’ve ever heard.” 

Plácido Domingo said “his 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.” “There is a visceral quality to the Lanza voice which, even to this day… grabs one with astonishing force.” 

“Mario Lanza excelled in both the classical and the light popular repertoire, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father’s exceptional talents.” — Enrico Caruso, Jr.  

“Mario’s voice is the richest, most expressive, the warmest, the most beautiful, satisfying of this century.” Conductor  Constantine Callinicos

“His charismatic personality, his beautiful voice… it was electric for me, and probably if I’m an opera singer,  it’s thanks to Mario Lanza.” – Jose Carreras

“The kid knocked a hole through me…. I really swooned!”  “A voice like that you’ll never hear again.” – Frank Sinatra

“The greatest tenor of them all.” – Kathryn Grayson

“I used to go to Mario Lanza movies and then come home and imitate him in the mirror…. What he has done on the records and on the films is colossal…. {He had} a very, very, very seducing voice.” –Luciano Pavarotti

‘He could act, he could sing and he was handsome!’   — Elissa Lanza Bregman, Daughter of Mario Lanza  

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”

 Author Eleonora Kimmel concludes that Lanza “blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, he gave his whole heart.  Every note had wings.

He was an Opera Singer, a Recording Artist, a Movie Star. Mario Lanza’s versatility earned him 2 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for music, and one for film.

His film, The Great Caruso, won an Academy Award for sound recording, while Mario’s songs from other films , Because You’re  Mine, and Be My Love, were nominated for Oscars. Mario’s album, The Great Caruso was the first operatic LP to sell over 1 million records.  Of course, it was Be My Love that became the first of a dozen gold records for Lanza, a rarity in those days.

That is the song that is most identified with Mario Lanza. Even though he died 60 years ago, everyone knows Be My Love, which sat at the top of the charts for 34 weeks in 1950.

But Mario wasn’t just an opera singer and a crooner, he sang Italian songs like a native.

Though born in Philadelphia, he grew up speaking Abruzzese, a language close enough to Neapolitan, that he sang those songs better than most native Italians.

His rendition of the popular Torna a Surriento with only a piano accompaniment, allows you to hear the full scope of his bellissimo voice.

He also sang that song in two of his films.

Another song to be featured in two of Mario Lanza’s movies was Vesti La Giubba from Pagliacci. This one from The Great Caruso in 1951.

And again in his last film, For the First Time, in 1958.

Mario loved singing that aria. Here is a rare home recording of him singing it, along with 3 other songs, at the age of 19.

 

While Mario’s Neapolitan and Operatic songs touch my heart, I do have a favorite English song, Franz Lehar’s ‘Yours is My Heart Alone’

It’s a song that I fell in love with listening to my other favorite tenor, Kazimierz Pustelak, who sang it in Polish.

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Mario Lanza had been invited by the Met at an early age, but it was Louis B. Mayer who was so impressed by Mario’s concert performance (one of his songs receiving a 12-minute standing ovation!) at the Hollywood Bowl, that he signed him to do films for MGM.

That, along with his concerts, his RCA recording contract, as well as weekly NBC and CBS radio programs kept Lanza busy, so that he was never able to take advantage of the opera invitations from the New York Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, Italy’s La Scala, and many other opera houses.  In fact, Mario Lanza only performed twice in Madam Butterfly at the New Orleans Opera House.

Despite concert tours throughout Europe (he received more invitations than he was able to take on), and a recording contract, it was his film career that brought opera to the world… to millions who would not otherwise have heard opera.

Moviegoers found Mario Lanza’s voice incredible, spectacular, and very, very sexy!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fans would mob Mario where ever he would go.

They were impressed by this combination of electrifying star quality and exceptional crossover abilities: movie star looks, an operatic voice, and the ability to move people to tears with his emotional intensity.

…. not to mention that he was great at RRRolling his RRR’s.

 

He was also known as “One Take Lanza” because when recording for film or for record albums, he was perfect on the first take.   Here’s an article from the San Diego Union, 28 August 1955.

There were, of course, detractors who said that Mario Lanza wasn’t a real opera singer, he only played on in the movies.

Mario Lanza has photos taken of himself in a scene from the film ‘Toast Of New Orleans’, 1950. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

They were discomforted by his mass appeal.  But even Luciano Pavarotti, who spoke glowingly and gratefully of Lanza’s voice and his positive impact on the world of opera, cannot compete. When you compare Lanza with Pavarotti, it is obvious who has the better voice.  Mario’s voice is rich, and full, and deeply emotional, while a shrill Pavarotti just shrieks out the notes in this side by side comparison of Lamento di Frederico from opera L’arlesiana.

In 1957 Mario Lanza sang at the London Paladium   for Queen Elizabeth who said, “Mr. Lanza, I had no idea that human lungs were capable of such volume.”  A reviewer wrote “The power of Mr. Lanza’s top notes almost tore off the top of the building.”

One of the songs he sang was E Lucevan le Stelle’ from Tosca.

Sadly, Mario Lanza died in 1959, at the age of 38.  The world mourned. There were funerals in Rome (a state funeral fit for a king), Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.  But he left us with an wonderful legacy.

Yes, Mario Lanza has been gone for 60 years now, but it’s not too late to discover this superhuman singer, who sang from the heart. I would recommend these CD’s:

The Nessun Dorma Greatest Hits double CD is my favorite. The three others by Sepia records (Italian & Opera) have the best quality, and have been widely recommended. They have restored the recordings to their original “warm mahogany” sound of vinyl, unlike other flat sounding CD’s. There are other Sepia CD’s with English language songs, plus a new one with a mixed bag which includes live recordings.

And if you’re in Philadelphia,  you can go and visit the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum.

You’ll fall in love, just like I did, because….

The Moral of the Story is: Mario Lanza’s singing transcends time and space.  Listen to him long enough, and you’ll be in heaven.

As a final treat, here’s another  English language song that knocks my socks off. It’s Mario singing Besame Mucho live on his radio show. As a former ballroom dance teacher, I’ve heard dozens of versions of this song, but I certainly could not dance to Mario Lanza singing it.  I’d be too weak in the knees.

Bonus: Here is a rare kinescope of Mario Lanza singing Santa Lucia and two other songs in 1957.

Senza Nisciuno is a heartbreaking Neapolitan song, sung masterfully by Mario Lanza on his radio show.

And here is the most famous of Neapolitan Songs, O Sole Mio, sung by Mario Lanza in his last film.

* P.S. My other favorite Polish singer was baritone Stanisław Jopek, who, like Mario Lanza, was invited to sing with Metropolitan Opera, but chose, instead, a career with the  Mazowsze Polish Folk Song and Dance Company, and became famous around the world .  Here he sings a Russian folk song.

 

 

 

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About Łowiczanka

I'm a former dancer who loves all things Polish, especially the music... whether it be folk songs and dances from Poland, or polka music from Chicago. Oh, yes, and I love pierogi !
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