The Tenor Who
Stood Outside Opera
By Ralph Blumenthal
New York Times

CHICAGO, June 21 -- A month before Hollywood discovered him, diverting his singing career and the course of music history, a 26-year-old tenor named Mario Lanza stopped here for an open-air concert with his newly formed Bel Canto Trio. Showered with bravos and raucous whistles, Lanza was pronounced a sensation, "born to sing."
This weekend, half a century later, on a crystalline blue evening with the city's landmark towers stitched in light, Chicago turned out at the same Grant Park for a tribute to the myth-laden star from South Philadelphia whose peculiar death at 38 in 1959 in Rome is still mourned by legions of international fans even as they celebrate his exuberant legacy.
Hardly detracting from Lanza's mystique are the persistent rumors that he fell victim to a Mafia vendetta after canceling his appearance at a benefit concert in Naples backed by Lucky Luciano.
"The name Mario Lanza brings a smile to just about every music lover's face," said the tenor Richard Leech, who narrated and sang the orchestral program, which included such Lanza standards as "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine." Mr. Leech performed a similar Lanza tribute to piano accompaniment for the Cincinnati Opera's 75th anniversary gala in 1995.
Although, astonishingly, Lanza sang only three opera performances in his dozen-year career, heirs like José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Jerry Hadley and Dmitri Hvorostovsky have acknowledged a deep debt to the widely loved if tormented figure forced into Faustian choices between Hollywood money and operatic artistry.
"For me," Mr. Leech told the Grant Park audience, "it was Mario Lanza, booming from my parents' hi-fi, that was my first exposure not only to opera but to the tenor voice itself."
But far from receding as a historical figure, a pompadoured curio from the early days of television and gossipy film fan magazines, Lanza is looming ever larger as a cultural and cult icon, an incarnation of his idol Enrico Caruso and possessor perhaps of the greatest natural voice of the century, as Toscanini famously declared in the mid-1940's.
"If I could sing like that," Frank Sinatra once told Terry Robinson, who was Lanza's MGM trainer and became a close family friend and biographer, "I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn't let anyone near my voice." There are still those who maintain that the Lanza voice was manufactured in the recording studio and that he lacked the discipline and training to transform himself into the serious operatic artist that his vocal gift deserved. But he is also widely being seen as a pioneer of the crossover phenomenon, an opera singer who bridged the worlds of Classical and popular music, making opera more accessible to a mass audience than anyone else until the Three Tenors.
"If you look in the record stores, Lanza is making a huge comeback," said James W. Palermo, artistic and general director of the Grant Park Music Festival, the nation's only municipally sponsored free Classical music festival, which opened its 64th summer season on Saturday night with the Lanza tribute. Although the crowd of perhaps 12,000 fell well short of the 50,000 who came to hear Lanza in July 1947, it included many younger fans who are rediscovering him through his recordings and movie videos. It also brought his daughter, Ellisa Lanza Bregman, from Los Angeles, and the announcement of her presence drew appreciative "aahhs" from the audience.
The signs of a Lanza bonanza, as some are calling it, are manifold.
"It seems every week I'm looking at someone doing a tribute to Mario Lanza," said Derek Mannering, an Irish writer now living in Chicago who wrote a biography of Lanza, published in Britain by the University of Calgary Press in 1991 and in Canada two years later. With at least three earlier books on Lanza out of print, a warts-and-all biography by a lawyer, Roland Besette, has been promised for next year, prompting Lanza's daughter, Mrs. Bregman, to say she will do her own memoir to counter any negative portrait.
Fostered by the Internet, Lanza societies and fan clubs span the globe, from Australia to Europe and the United States, along with a year-old newsletter, "The Lanza Legend," published in San Pedro, Calif., by Lanza's son, Damon, and an associate, Bob Dolfi. In Philadelphia, the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum puts on an annual Mario Lanza ball.
A new CD album of previously unissued recordings from MGM, including a spirited rendition of "Beloved" that got him dismissed as leading man in the film of "The Student Prince" in 1952, was released by Turner Entertainment this year. Two other new albums are set for release in August and September, "When Day Is Done," from Lanza's 59 shows for Coca-Cola on CBS and NBC in 1951 and 1952, and a stereo remastering of "Lanza Sings Christmas Carols."
BMG Classics, which puts out Lanza's RCA recordings, says that more than 350,000 CD albums have been sold in the last decade. Radio stations in Greenwich, Conn., and Cleveland, among other places, broadcast regular Lanza programs.
His powerful voice, often described as "a wall of sound," is about to be heard in a new television commercial singing "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" for Keebler biscuits, as it was recently for Mercedes-Benz. His was the voice too in the soundtrack of the dark Australian film "Heavenly Creatures," about two New Zealand girls who share an obsession with Lanza and become entangled in matricide.
With the blessing of Damon Lanza, a one-man musical revue, "The Mario Lanza Story," by an actor and singer, Charles Gavoian, has been playing small stages around the country, with plans now to open in England where Lanza fever has always run especially high. And another performer dubiously billed as Lanza's illegitimate son, Victor Lanza, has also been recreating the Lanza story -- spuriously, the Lanza family says.
Of course, no following like this would be complete without a premier collector, and the Lanza bonanza has one: Vincent De Fini, a retired Cleveland newspaperman who has assembled thousands of Lanza artifacts, including Lanza's license plate ("Lanza," what else?), the floor mats from his gold Cadillac, the pants he wore in his first movie ("That Midnight Kiss" in 1949), the hat he wore in his last film ("For the First Time" in 1959) and rosary beads given to Lanza by a dying 10-year-old Newark girl, Raphaela Fasano, whom the star befriended. "To tell you the truth," said Mr. De Fini's wife Antoinette, "I feel Mario is a part of our family."
In short, Mr. Leech said before his Lanza tribute: "He's cool again. It's okay to say you like Mario Lanza."
The man who would be Lanza was born Alfred Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia on Jan. 31, 1921, the year Caruso died, a convergence that Lanza later took as a divine sign that his idol's spirit was guiding him. He was only child of Italian immigrants, Antonio Cocozza and Maria Lanza.
A Voice Blooms At the Age of 16
Young Freddy used to listen to records of Caruso singing "Vesti la giubba" from "I Pagliacci," until, the story goes, one day at 16 he began to sing along in a voice of startling power and tonal fidelity. Within several years he began serious training and assumed a more memorable stage name, by slightly altering his mother's name.
The conductor Serge Koussevitsky enthusiastically took him on scholarship to Tanglewood, where, in 1942, Lanza sang in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the first of his three operatic performances.
After World War II, when he sang in the Army, he married Betty Hicks, the sister of an Army buddy, and began pursuing his career in earnest. In the hands of the redoubtable Arthur Judson of Columbia Artists Management, he and a soprano, Frances Yeend, and a bass-baritone, George London, formed the Bel Canto Trio, which toured to ecstatic reviews. After their frenzied welcome in Chicago, Lanza and Ms. Yeend took center stage at a symphony concert with Eugene Ormandy at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947. Among the enraptured listeners was Louis B. Mayer, who quickly signed Lanza to a lucrative seven-year MGM film contract sweetened with a $10,000 bonus.
From his debut in "That Midnight Kiss," in which he sang "They Didn't Believe Me," Lanza never quite escaped Hollywood. He did, however, interrupt the filming long enough in 1948 to sing two performances as Pinkerton in a New Orleans Opera production of "Madama Butterfly" in St. Louis, his only other complete opera roles.
Mr. Robinson, 82, the former MGM trainer and a runner-up for the 1940 title of Mr. America, got orders from Mr. Mayer to knock 25 to 30 pounds off the new male lead, who had a 50-inch chest and a 19-inch neck. They did it, but Lanza, who was not big for a tenor, was forever on a ruinous binge-and-diet cycle.
His biggest screen role came in 1951 with "The Great Caruso," which broke all records at Radio City Music Hall. By age 30, he was perhaps the world's best-known operatic tenor, but his chances of getting back to the stage receded. He hit a low point in 1952 on the set of "The Student Prince," when his rendition of "Beloved" was criticized as too flamboyant for the dour prince. He walked off the set, leaving just his voice behind on the soundtrack.
With four children and a lavish life style to support, he sank into debt. One day in the 50's, Mr. Robinson recalled, the fighter Rocky Marciano visited the Lanza house with the Mafia boss Thomas Lucchese, who proposed to settle Lanza's debts in return for some appearances. Lanza threw them out.
In 1957 he decamped for Italy to make another movie, "Seven Hills of Rome," in which he introduced "Arrivederci, Roma." He and his family lived luxuriously in the formerly royal Villa Badoglio in Rome, where, again according to Mr. Robinson, Lucky Luciano was an occasional visitor. Lanza, by then suffering from a host of ills, including phlebitis and high blood pressure, was supposed to sing at a charity concert Luciano was supporting in Naples in September 1959 when his overeating and drinking landed him in the Valle Giulia Clinic. On Oct. 7, 1959, he died unexpectedly from what the clinic called a heart attack.
Mr. Robinson said that a stunned Betty Lanza returned from Rome voicing suspicions that her husband had met with foul play. Grief-stricken, she died six months later, at 36, of what her family called a broken heart. Damon Lanza, in his newsletters, has debunked the speculation of a contract hit by Luciano. But his sister Ellisa, the only other surviving sibling, who has not always seen eye to eye with him, said she was still looking into the matter.
Mr. Leech said he too was keeping an open mind but that Lanza's legacy would survive any revelations that emerged. "He never let singing be about making a sound," he said. "He lived it."