- By Dwight Whitney
September 3, 1949
- Several weeks ago the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios of
Culver City, California, held a preview of a musical called That Midnight
Kiss. Midway in the picture an extraordinary thing occurred. A husky
young operatic tenor sang an aria called Céleste Aïda, and
a representative group of bobby-soxers stood up in the aisles and cheered.
To appreciate the studio's surprise, consider that the youngsters could
have achieved the same effect by announcing that their interest in football
had suddenly been supplanted by a passion for nuclear physics.
- Their spontaneous enthusiasm is just part of the growing
body of evidence that one of the most exciting voices in music today belongs
to a handsome, self-effacing young man named Mario Lanza. Lanza is not
a crooner; and, as yet, he is not an established movie star. He has still
to appear at the Metropolitan Opera House and he has never been starred
in a Broadway musical. Yet, at twenty-seven, he is the possessor of a tenor
voice of such technical brilliance and such emotional pull that it is already
being compared by Lanza enthusiasts with the late Enrico Caruso.
- Lanza can sing D flat over high C with the easy abandon
of a champion high jumper clearing a garden fence. Jussi Bjoerling of the
Met is the only other present-day tenor who can duplicate this vocal feat
with the same ease. Hardened fellow musicians -- men not given to sentimentalizing
-- have all but wept under the spell of Lanza's singing. Sergei Koussevitzky,
who can be considered Lanza's discoverer, does not think he is being extravagant
when he says, "There is no question of it. This is the greatest
natural tenor since Caruso."
- Lanza's teen-age admirers do not give a rap for erudite
opinion. They know little of Caruso, much less that Céleste Aïda
was one of the arias that made him famous. To Lanza's movie bosses this
unconcern is expected and unimportant. It is important that the
bobby-soxers gave simple emotional recognition to an intangible of success
-- the elusive X quality which distinguishes a good performer from
a great one, and hence good box office from a bonanza.
- "Look," explains Joe Pasternak, patient producer
of the Lanza film, "this is the first time I can safely let an opera
tenor sing without praying that the audience will close its eyes and visualize
maybe Van Johnson."
- Plans Career in Grand Opera
- Lanza is looking beyond his future in motion pictures
to a career in grand opera which promises to be one of the most exciting
in the history of music. Edward Johnson, enterprising manager of New York's
Metropolitan Opera, has been pursuing Lanza ever since the singer got out
of the Army in 1945. The voice alone would be enough to warrant Johnson's
most persistent efforts, but with the figure, face, and vigor of youth
thrown in, Lanza looms as a once-in-a-lifetime operatic prodigy.
- He has broad shoulders, a handsome face and piercing
eyes. His looks and operatic talents provide a distinctly Latin effect.
He is six feet tall but he gives the impression of being a still bigger
man. He has a chest like a wrestler and the manners of an old-world diplomat.
As one of his youthful female admirers scrawled on a recent preview card:
"Wow! He slays me. Tell him he can sing me opera any time."
- His bosses hope this will be the case. They wish he would
sign himself over to them 12 months out of the year instead of only six.
Lanza politely blocks such suggestions at the outset of any business discussion.
He never asked to belong to music; but now that he does he feels bound
to devote at least half his time to uninterrupted study, rest and development
of his voice.
- Arthur Judson, the prominent concert manager who has
had Lanza under contract since 1942, has grandiose plans for his protégé,
but Lanza refuses to sing on an around-the-calendar schedule.
- Victor de Sabata, conductor of the famous La Scala opera
of Milan, has already honored Lanza with an invitation to open the season
in Italy this year in Andrea Chenier. Because of movie commitments the
young tenor will be unable to do so. But he is learning the role and will
sing it in Milan within the year.
- Lanza wants to sing at the Met more than anything in
the world, and those who have heard his voice can't understand his reluctance
to accept the Metropolitan's repeated offers. Mario explains it this way:
"I may be the first sensible young American singer. I'm not yet experienced
enough for the Met. Caruso didn't come into his own until he was thirty-three.
At twenty-seven I'd be rushing it. I want to leave my mark in music. As
long as you have a good voice, they need it. So how can I be overcautious?"
- Voice Is Relatively Untrained
- These days, Lanza religiously follows the accepted rules
for the care and maintenance of an operatic voice, even though his career
defied every convention from the outset. It is generally thought that a
great singer must begin training early in life.
- Lanza did not sing a note in earnest until he was twenty.
It usually requires 10 years of intensive training to develop a great voice.
Caruso, for example, studied 15 years before he was recognized. Lanza had
had only 15 months of actual voice training when he first attracted
widespread attention. In fact, with no training whatsoever he made his
debut before professional critics. The occasion was the Berkshire Festival
in the summer of 1942, and Mario sang excerpts from Nicolai's The Merry
Wives of Windsor. Afterward critic Noel Straus wrote in the New York
Times: "Mario Lanza, a twenty-year-old tenor, is an extremely talented
if as yet not completely routined student whose superbly natural voice
has few equals among the tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power."
- The singer's righteous stubbornness is partly inherited
and partly due to environment. Mario Lanza, whose real name is Alfred Arnold
Cocozza, was born dodging prohibition bullets in New York City but within
a few months moved to one of the toughest, poorest sections of Philadelphia.
His father was an Italian immigrant who came to this country at the age
of eleven, made a reputation for himself as a six-day bicycle rider, and
fell in love with a dark-eyed Italian girl.
- When Mario was born on January 31, 1922, the gangster
era was just descending on south Philadelphia. The senior Cocozza had been
decorated during World War I for capturing the first German prisoner in
the Argonne Forest, but in doing had been gassed and stabbed. He was thereafter
unable to work. Mario's grandfather, a stern, tough, silver-haired man
with flashing black eyes, ran a wholesale grocery and trucking business,
and gained for himself a reputation of unbending honesty among the assorted
working citizens, as well as mobsters and beer barons who inhabited the
neighborhood. "Grandfather sort of looked out for us," Lanza
- Mario, then known as "Freddie," ran with the
other neighborhood kids who frequented the water front. They broke windows,
raided an occasional bakery truck, and indulged in bloody street brawls.
Mario thinks he was saved from becoming a juvenile delinquent by his love
of sports. He was an excellent boxer and baseball player, and good enough
at football to play the game semi-professionally. He became a weight lifter
at fourteen, and four years later he could life 200 pounds. "Not a
great feat," he says, "except for an opera singer."
- But all during this time the most rewarding though least
mentioned of his pleasures was his interest in grand opera.
- His father loved music. Even after he became an invalid,
the extra pennies Papa Cocozza was able to scrape together went for recordings
by his beloved Caruso. "I do not know why," he says today, "but
I felt it here," indicating his heart.
- Mario began listening with his father almost as soon
as he could talk. When he was seven, Vesti la giubba gave him goose bumps.
At ten, he knew the plots and principal arias of 50 operas. And by the
time he was fifteen, he was familiar with the scores of such relatively
obscure works as Cilea's L'Arlesiana, and could discuss them intelligently
- "I was in love with grand opera. I knew grand opera
the way most kids know baseball," Mario says. "But it was a furtive
sort of love because it would not have been understood by the other kids
in the block."
- Thus it was that Alfred Arnold Cocozza did not really
sing until he was twenty. Then, one day early in 1943, Mario was listening
to a recording of Caruso singing the haunting Ch'ella mi creda from Puccini's
opera, The Girl of the Golden West. Suddenly as though a hidden spring
were released, he burst into song. It was dramatic, yes, and to Mario it
was inexplicable; but it seemed to him as if he had been waiting 20 years
for that moment.
- He sang along with Caruso for almost a week after that,
pausing only to eat and sleep. Finally, his father came to him.
- "Son," he said. "You have a voice. You
- "No, Father," Mario said. "It's just noise."
- "If that is noise," Papa Cocozza insisted,
"it is the most pleasant-sounding noise I have ever heard."
- Mario consented to see a voice coach.
- (In music circles there is a distinction between a coach
and a teacher. A teacher trains the voice in the actual mechanics of singing;
a coach merely helps a student to learn a repertoire.) Mario began work
on Vesti la giubba and a host of other standard arias. But after three
months, his grandfather went to his father, and said,"Antonio, what
is this big, husky boy doing upstairs all day listening to records? You
must put him to a more useful occupation." So Mario became an employee
of his grandfather's trucking concern.
- Debut at the Berkshire Festival
- What transpired next would make a perfect Hollywood plot.
About a week after he started on the job he was moving a piano into Philadelphia's
Academy of Music auditorium in preparation for a concert to be conducted by Koussevitzky. William K. Huff, impresario
at the Philadelphia Forum concerts recognized him. Huff was familiar with
young Cocozza's voice, having heard it several weeks before at the behest
of the tenor's voice coach. At the time Huff's enthusiasm had been passive.
But seeing the singer in piano mover's garb, dramatized the lunacy of the
- "What are you doing in that outfit?"
he wanted to know.
- Lanza told him.
- "Now, look," said Huff. "I have an idea.
There is an empty dressing room right opposite Koussevitzky's. I want you
to go in there and sing. The maestro will hear you."
- Koussevitzky, sweat-soaked from a strenuous rehearsal
and clad in his undershirt, came barreling out of his dressing room after
several minutes of "eavesdropping" on Mario's rendition of Vesti
la giubba. He kissed the tenor on both cheeks, continental-style, and insisted
that he must begin planning immediately to come to the Berkshire music
festival in Massachusetts that summer. Although he did not know what the
Berkshire Festival was, Mario assented. Three weeks later Koussevitzky
sent for him.
- The Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts,
is an annual gathering of professional and semiprofessional musicians and
singers who gather to study, work and rest. For Mario, who was technically
still the greenest sort of an amateur, it was an exhilarating experience.
It furnished two milestones in his career: his first basic training in
musical values (but still no voice training) and the change in his name.
- The second development was a matter of heated family
debate. Koussevitzky was determined that an alteration should be made on
the grounds that no one could correctly pronounce Cocozza (Ko-koats-zah).
Mario's father was equally determined that the name should stand. He argued
that his son would make it famous enough so that no one would dare
- Koussevitzky won out through a maneuver which had great
psychological impact. He sent a letter to the senior Cocozza mangling the
name so horribly in the writing, that, in Italian, it sounded like a personal
reference of the grossest and most unprintable sort. Mario's father was
so furious that he would not speak for a week. Mario discreetly took his
mother's maiden name, Maria Lanza, and masculinized it.
- Wins Fame as "Air Force Caruso"
- No sooner had he returned from the Tanglewood Festival
than offers began to pour in. Concert manager Judson approached him with
a contract offer and the record companies put out feelers. Mario was wondering
what to do when he received an offer from the government which began: "Greetings."
He quickly signed with Judson and two days after that, on September 2,
1942, he was in the Air Force.
- Lanza's career in the service got off to a slow start.
He took his basic training at Miami Beach, and from there was shipped to
Marfa, an outlying base in the Texas badlands, where he was assigned to
duty with the Military Police. The unhappy singer's efforts to be transferred
to personnel work with a Special Service unit were rewarded by complete
frustration. Then, one day, he encountered a bright, young staff sergeant
named Peter Lind Hayes, who was later to gain considerable notice as a
night-club comedian. At the time, Hayes was putting together an Air Force
revue called On the Beam and had come to Marfa looking for talent.
- Lanza's gloom reached new depths. Here was his chance
to effect a transfer, but unfortunately he had developed throat trouble
in the hot, sandy air of Marfa. He could not even talk, much less sing.
He tried to explain this to Hayes, but the sergeant was unimpressed. Finally,
he came up with a devilish idea. In his foot locker he had a Caruso recording.
He and a pal pasted a new label on the disk which read, "Mario Lanza
singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood." Then they
played it for Hayes. The sergeant was convinced.
- The following week Lanza was transferred on orders from
the commanding general to a luxurious suite at the Westward Ho Hotel in
Phoenix, Arizona, where the climate soon restored his voice to normal.
When he did audition for Hayes after his recuperation, the sergeant was
ecstatic. "You sound even better than you did on the record,"
Hayes said. After that Lanza was billed as "The Caruso of the Air
- On the Beam was a great hit and toured service installations
in the Southwest for a solid year. Playwright Moss Hart caught the show
one night in Visalia, California, and was so impressed that he asked General
"Hap" Arnold to transfer Lanza, Hayes and Private Ray McDonald,
a dancer in the show, to the unit which was preparing to rehearse Winged
Victory. Lanza stayed with the Hart musical play until September, 1945,
when he received his honorable discharge.
- The next few years were crucial ones, but the tenor at
least had sense enough to realize it. He knew he needed training, but at
the same time he needed money to live. In an unprecedented gesture toward
a virtually unknown singer, a recording company paid him $3,000, not as
an advance against the profits the company was sure he would someday bring
in, but merely as a consideration for signing.
- Lanza made eight radio appearances on a show called Great
Moments in Music, singing large chunks of Otello, La Tosca, Mignon and
Die Fledermaus, among others. He made at least as many additional appearances
with some of the nation's leading symphonies, including the Boston and
Philadelphia orchestras. He went on a concert tour for Judson. He even
made his operatic debut -- two performances of Madama Butterfly in New
- "It was no good," Mario still insists. "They
were rushing me. I wasn't ready."
- Nevertheless he drew 76,000 people into Chicago's Grant
Park during two appearances in 1947, and won critical acclaim.
- Relief from what Mario considered a ruinous situation
came from an unexpected source. His name was Sam Weiler, a businessman,
and a partner in the New York firm of Swig & Weiler, real-estate barons
- Weiler is not only a wealthy young man at thirty-six,
but a frustrated opera singer as well. He became Lanza's patron in the
true 18th Century sense. He paid off the singer's bills, stalled off his
concert commitments, and made it possible for Mario at long last to have
voice training. The man picked for the job was famed Enrico Rosati, the
explosive seventy-six-year-old Italian who today boasts of only two accomplishments:
that he trained the great Beniamino Gigli and Mario Lanza. Rosati
was a teaching tyrant in the grand tradition -- as well as a past master
in the art of profanity. At Mario's first lesson he screamed, "I have
waited 34 years for you to come along! Now get to work, you lazy no-good!"
- At the end of 15 months of uninterrupted cussing and
working, the old man screamed at him again, "I have given you polish.
Now go out and get experience. And don't let anybody fool around
with that voice, you bum!"
- By this time Hollywood was interested. Frank Sinatra
had heard Lanza sing in Winged Victory in 1944 and now he urged his studio
to look into Mario's possibilities seriously. Walter Pidgeon, like Weiler
another would-be operatic baritone, heard Lanza sing at a party and praised
him to columnist Hedda Hopper. "Mark my words," Pidgeon was quoted
as saying, in Hedda's column, "there goes the great tenor of the century."
- Finally, the day came when Louis B. Mayer himself, headman
of M-G-M studios, heard Lanza sing at the Hollywood Bowl. Newspapers headlines
next morning read: "Lanza Electrifies Bowl Audience." That was
enough for Mayer. He temporarily halted operations at the studio while
55 M-G-M producers and executives gathered on sound stage number one for
a command performance. The result was a seven-year contract, with a sliding
wage scale beginning at $750 a week for six months of each year, and a
$10,000 bonus payable on the spot.
- Mayer regards Mario as his own discovery, nominated for
stardom because he has the Mayer trademark of a "pleasant face"
to go with his other talents. L.B. treats him as a father treats a son.
"Mario, my boy," Mayer tells him, "you are going to be a
singing Clark Gable some day."
- Lanza is neither ineffably modest nor a swelling egotist,
although is would be wrong to assume that he does not take a justifiable
pride in his voice. He is a talkative, easygoing youth with a great deal
of virility and masculine bounce. His sense of humor extends to himself,
and he will burlesque his own situation mercilessly.
- "You see, we singers must rest," he
will boom, striking an exaggerated operatic pose. "If not, it has
its effect on the delicate muscles of the throat." Or again, he will
twirl his little finger and say: "The big thing is mood. I can't stand
to be around unhappy people."
- In 1945 Lanza was in Hollywood briefly during the filming
of Winged Victory at Warner Brothers. He received an offer from
Jack Warner to sign for $750 a week. He turned it down. Instead, he signed
a marriage license with a pretty, dark-haired nonprofessional named Betty
Hicks, who was the sister of a fellow performer in Winged Victory.
They were married in April, 1945.
- Betty Lanza is a good cook, and well adjusted to the
peculiarities of life with a Voice. On the rare occasions now when Mario
allows himself to go off his diet, she satisfies his yearning for food
with liberal quantities of homemade Italian delicacies. Six months ago
she bore him a child, a brown-eyed wisp of a baby named Colleen.
- "Our life is a merry-go-round," Betty says
happily. "There are certain requirements in the life of an artist,
you know. When I'm sick, who gets coffee in bed? He does."
- The Lanzas live in a small apartment-with-patio of the
type common to the fashionable fringes of Beverly Hills. Only one thing
distinguishes it from several hundred others just like it on the same street:
It has a gymnasium on the roof. There Mario works out daily with the man
who is his physical conditioner. Mario describes his typical day something
- "I get up early -- at 10 o'clock. My wife serves
me black coffee in bed. A half hour later Terry arrives. I look at him
blearily. I hate him. He drags me up to the roof. I still hate him. Toward
the end of the workout an hour and a half later I begin to like him. He
rubs me down for a half hour. Then I warm up my voice in the shower. Sometimes
I get dizzy from the wall vibrations. Luckily, the neighbors like music.
- "At one o'clock I have a breakfast of three poached
eggs, a glass of skimmed milk, and fruit. After breakfast, I have a one-hour
session with my coach, Giacomo Spadoni. Then I have a dramatic lesson.
Next a half-hour chat with my producer, Joe Pasternak.
- "Sometimes I visit the movie sets and watch Deborah
Kerr work, or I sing a duet with Walter Pidgeon. I get home at six and
want to eat. It is my one important meal of the day -- steak or liver and
a monstrous vegetable salad."
- Lanza likes wrestlers and pugs, and any number of these
gentlemen are likely to show up at his apartment at almost any hour of
the day or night. He also enjoys the company of such diverse people as
Andy Russell, a crooner who shares Mario's enthusiasm for exotic foods;
Gene Kelly, whose dancing he admires; and Pidgeon.
- Mario is a restless man who is unhappy if he must stay
home. If there is nothing else to do, as happens infrequently, he will
take Betty to a movie. "I'm a big baby," he confesses. "All
singers are big babies. Caruso was a big baby, too."
- Voice Possesses Rare Quality
- Underneath it all, Lanza is a serious-minded young man.
And his accomplishments to date show it. His repertoire now numbers six
operas (in addition to Andrea Chenier): I Pagliacci, Nicolai's Merry Wives
of Windsor, La Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, La BohÍme, and Madama
Butterfly. He neither smokes nor drinks, except for wine. Even at that,
casual observers find it difficult to believe that he really is quite as
conscientious as he appears. Part of the credit goes to his patron. Sam
Weiler knows music -- he was studying himself when he met Lanza in a voice
studio. He told Mario it would take at least five years before he would
reach the top, and he has been insistent on this point. He believes his
protégé should first spend at least one rigorous season at
La Scala Milan before trying the Met, and he thinks that may not be until
- The word "great" is often loosely used and
consequently a dangerous term, expecially when appended to the word "singer."
Whether Lanza's voice will deserve to be so described, only time will tell.
Weiler says simply, "That boy has more heart in one note than all
the other singers put together."
- But one thing may be said with assurance: Lanza, like
Caruso, has the kind of voice which stirs the blood in a way that a merely
excellent one can never hope to do. It has a rare quality possessed by
one singer in thousands.
- Meantime, Lanza's M-G-M bosses are busily figuring how
to use him next. Producer Pasternak and his writers are waiting for the
final audience verdict on That Midnight Kiss before making a decision.
Inevitably, they plan to star him in a screen adaptation of the life of
- These matters are of secondary concern to Lanza at the
moment. One day he will debut at the Met. But not before he is certain
in his heart that his voice is ready. "Why make your mistakes in public?"
he asks. "And for a singer, you know, the Met is really public."