Lanza's Golden Days

by Orlando R. Barone

Jerry Hadley is the latest in an unbroken line of top tenors who aspire to garner a mass audience. In America there is one paradigm of success in this tricky bridgework: Mario Lanza, the South Philly Italian boy with the high notes that wouldn't quit. The cover of Hadley's recent confection of eclectic pieces from Tin Pan Alley and operetta end with a recording of Romberg's Golden Days. Mid-way through Hadley is joined by Lanza's 1954 rendition of the song, featuring the sweetest sound possible from a voice that could fairly be termed masculine.

That's one of three aspects of Lanza's voice that stand out. It was always masculine, always romantic, always exciting, even when the excitement lay in the urgent issue of whether that voice would land somewhere near the note he was essaying. Not for lack of power, of course. The second feature of the voice was precisely that power, not surpassed by any tenor in the phonographic age. Lanza could hit high D, and it sounded good. In a recently released radio cut from a recording of Deep in my Heart, Dear, he slams a D-flat on the word "dream," and it sells. The third wonder was the voice itself. Such a baritonal voice with those top notes, whoa, that would be plenty. But that sweet voice heard to such effect in Golden Days, it's more than one larynx should be able to produce. Sammy Cahn, who wrote songs for Lanza's movies, often said that the man had a voice with "two pedals, soft and loud." Cahn enjoyed composing for a voice that could do whatever his smaltzy melodist, Nick Brodsky, put on a sheet of music. "I loved writing for that big, big voice."

Big it was. Rumors persist that Lanza's apparent power was hi-fi hocus pocus, but those who heard him, wrote for him, played for him, and, tellingly, sang with him, claim otherwise. Constantine Callinicos, his lifelong accompanist, heard Mario for the first time at a concert in a tiny teachers' college in Shippensburg, PA, in 1947. The 26-year-old Lanza chose not to rehearse, telling Callinicos, "I trust you." With huge misgivings he showed up, met the tenor, took to the stage and began playing Pieta Signore in front of 5,000 expectant listeners. As the introductory measures sounded, Lanza turned his back to the audience and winked at the frightened young pianist, who sensed only doom and an ignominious retreat from Shippensburg. Until the singing began, and Callinicos heard what he recollected as "one of the greatest tenor voices since Caruso."

No less an authority than Licia Albenese, the magnificent soprano of the 40s and 50s, who sang with Mario in the movie Serenade, insisted the voice was "big." Actually, there is silliness in the assertion that his power was a ruse. Listen to the records. Compare them with incontrovertibly big voices like Del Monaco's and even Caruso's. Prima facie: it's big.

Hollywood and only Hollywood was Mario Lanza's undoing as an opera singer. He simply stopped improving after 1947, stopped studying voice, stopped the serious pursuit of excellence as an operatic tenor. He studied no complete roles and rarely added to his repertoire of well-known Italian arias. The voice was at its technical peak when he was 26 years of age!

Of course, MGM giveth and MGM taketh away. The fabulous celebrity and big bucks lured Lanza off the opera stage and onto celluloid and, thankfully, records. That same celebrity was a clarion call to future singers, thousands of them, to pursue operatic careers. By their own admission, Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras were so moved.

How can we assess the Lanza voice in 1947, when he was touring with the "Bel Canto Trio," himself, Frances Yeend, and George London? Hopes were high for all as the year-long series of engagements wowed audiences across the nation. Fifty thousand showed up for an open-air concert in Chicago's Grant Park in July. Claudia Cassidy wrote in the Tribune: "You are a sensation in opera when customers whistle through their fingers and roar 'Bravo.' Mr. Lanza sings for the indisputable reason that he was born to sing."

A live recording of Lanza and Yeend survives, and it was made one month after the smash in Grant Park. Here is Mario singing Una furtiva lagrima, Un di all'azzuro spazio, E lucevan le stelle and duets from Traviata, Butterfly and Boheme. To hear his voice as it was in 1947 is a revelation. He sang with full orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy at the huge, and packed, Hollywood Bowl. Lanza began alone with the three arias mentioned, one right after another. No retakes, no echo chambers, no recording wizardry to air brush flaws.

The earliest recordings we have of Caruso catch the legend at age 29. I've heard recordings of Bjorling at age 26 or so, early Domingo records were cut when he was in his mid to late 20's. How does Lanza stack up at this age?

First, the critics. From the LA Times: "Lanza's is the warm, round, typically Italian type of voice that caresses every graceful phrase and makes the listener breathe with him as it molds each curve of the melody." And the LA Daily News weighed in with: "He electrified a large audience that cheered for several minutes...He has a truly rare asset in a naturally beautiful voice, which he uses with intelligence, and a native artistry which, rightly developed, should prove to be one of the exceptional voices of the generation."

Those were the verdicts of two who were there writing almost as they listened. The recording of this concert is excellent, a pleasure to hear, though now, almost 50 years later, the echoes are not of cheering, astonished listeners, but of unfulfilled promise, unrealized potential, unanswered and unanswerable questions.

The first aria Lanza sings that fateful evening is the romanza from L'elisir d'amore. He is likely nervous, and he finesses the grace notes in "suoi" in the third sung measure. In the phrase "che piu cercando io vo?" he plunks the grace notes on the last syllable of "cercando" instead of the penult. On the second "lo vedo" he slurs just a bit. He gains in confidence as the aria progresses. His legato is marvelous, high notes true, and he executes the run on the last "non chiedo" quite winningly. The applause is appreciative. He is careful and well tutored, although there is little shading in the voice. He has worked hard on his transitions between head and chest voices, but, typical of youthful tenors with rambunctious voices, he manages some of these switches in ungainly fashion.

The Andrea Chernier aria is another matter entirely. Done in one take, live and in concert, it is Mario Lanza's finest operatic recording! The diction is right on. Movement between vocal registers is masterful. The exciting high notes are delivered with verve and panache but without effort. The breath control is flawless. Here his youth works to his advantage, for the singer is achingly boyish, his passion unbridled, his determination fierce. When the aria ends, there is a moment of near silence, as if the massive audience refused to believe it was over--or perhaps experienced a period of shock. The ensuing cheers, whistles (GOOD news in the USA), and palm-reddening applause were more than heartfelt.

There are other revelations. The voice is solid, beautiful in E lucevan le stelle, a deceptively simple aria that trips up many a young (and experienced) tenor, and Mario manages the final crescendo admirably, makes the right decisions on where to breathe and has the lung capacity to carry it off.

The two kids handle their duets splendidly. Lanza's competitive flair emerges as he sings with Yeend. There is a six and half second high C at the end of the Butterfly duet. Ormandy may have swatted them with the baton to get them to cool it. Of course, Lanza chooses to join Yeend at the High C on the final amor of The Boheme duet, which they hold a mere five seconds. Both duets generated something like mob rule for quite a while.

Most impressive to me, however, was Lanza's solo passage in the Parigi, o cara from Traviata. He uses his soft pedal here, and it is nothing short of gorgeous. He sounds like Gigli at his sweetest, except that Lanza's voice never gets "pretty," never drifts toward nostalgia for those boy soprano days.

Lanza never was a boy soprano vocally or temperamentally. He was known as Freddy Cocozza, a rough and tumble guy from Little Italy in Philadelphia. I grew up near where he did. Boy sopranos were shot in that neighborhood. Besides, Freddy discovered his voice no earlier than age 16, well beyond the time boy sopranos have packed it in. He was a non-conformist, undisciplined, pampered, moody, earthy, generous, unfocused, immature, and possessed of one of the splendid vocal talents of his or any generation.

There is deep sadness in contemplating what might have been. At that fabulous Hollywood Bowl concert in 1947, the 26-year-old tenor, certainly destined for a career on the great opera stages of the world, thrilled thousands with his power and charisma. Near the front sat a budding young soprano under contract to MGM, Kathryn Grayson. Beside her, looking for a handsome young man to sing opposite her, was Louis B. Mayer. When Lanza took the stage for his final bow, Mayer took to his feet to clap and cheer the astounding find. He glanced beside him and smiled at the lovely Grayson. They had found her tenor. Opera had lost its.