Legendary Film Tenor and Recording Star Mario Lanza Feted with CD Set and TCM Marathon Tribute
By: Ellis Nassour
Golden-voiced and legendary M-G-M tenor and recording star Mario Lanza is being feted with a two-CD set, The Toast of Hollywood [Sony Masterworks; 30 tracks; SRP $12.50] and, to kick off the release, TCM is presenting a Lanza marathon on Wednesday beginning at 8 P.M. and running through 5:30 A.M. Five of his classic Metro films will be shown, including, at midnight, probably the film he’s most famous for, The Great Caruso.
Mario Lanza started out singing in several operas through the 40s and on the concert stage, but became an international star when his golden voice rang out from M-G-M’s soundstages. By shifting to film, Lanza, believed, "This is how I can bring great music – grand opera, in particular – to more people than I could ever hope to from the classical stage."
He was one of the first classical artists to have sustained success in the crossover market. His recordings not only soared up the music charts, but they sold in the millions. A highlight of his career was a command performance before Queen Elizabeth.
The singer was a great friend until his death of the celebrated M-G-M soprano Kathryn Grayson [star of Show Boat and many other musical features]. Luminaries such as Luciano Pavarotti, Renée Fleming, the late Jerry Hadley, and opera star Elaine Malbin, who recorded duets with Lanza on recordings, cited the impact Lanza’s groundbreaking film The Great Caruso had on their careers.
The Toast of Hollywood CD set displays the full range of Lanza’s vocal brilliance in a glittering compilation of arias, show tunes, and jewels from the Great American Songbook, including six previously unreleased gems.
Disc 1 covers his Hollywood years. Among the standouts are his signature tunes "Be My Love," written by Nicholas Brodzsky and Sammy Cahn for The Toast of New Orleans and "Because"; "Arrivederci, Roma"; a rousing "Serenade" from Romberg’s The Student Prince, amazingly done in one take; the classic "Granada," a musical high point of Because You’re Mine; "The Loveliest Night of the Year," The Great Caruso; selections from Rigoletto, La Boheme, La Traviata, and Tosca; and Lanza’s stunning rendition of Bach/Gounod’s "Ave Maria."
Disc 2 is all romance, highlighted by "What is This Thing Called Love?," "If I Loved You," "You’ll Never Walk Alone," "Among My Souvenirs," "My Romance," and "Make Believe."
Legendary Met soprano Licia Albanese, who sang opposite Lanza in MGM’s Serenade, says of Lanza, "He had everything that one needs – the voice, the temperament, perfect diction."
Miss Grayson and Miss Blyth debunk any notion that Lanza’s tenor was doctored for the movies. "Nothing could be further from the truth," says Miss Blyth. "I was there, on the soundstages and in the recording sessions. Mario had a great voice, a gift."
Miss Grayson said, "That’s absolute, total nonsense! For Mario, singing was life. For me, as a singer, to hear his voice was a revelation. With the ease he slammed those high Ds and D-flats, he impressed the heck out of me."
Sammy Cahn said, "Lanza’s voice could do whatever my lyricist and I put on a sheet of music. He had a big, big voice and I loved writing for it."
Maestro Arturo Toscanini was so enamored of Lanza that he called his voice "incredible, so powerful, so golden, so dazzling it is, simply and correctly, the "voice of the century." Renata Tebaldi claimed that the singer had "the finest natural tenor voice I’ve ever heard." Joan Sutherland felt that because of Lanza’s "innate musicality, he could have had an outstanding operatic career." None other than Callas stated, "Mario is Caruso’s successor!"
Recalling her friend, Ann Blyth, who co-starred in The Great Caruso, recalls, "Mario had had a few ups and downs at Metro – with the front office and actors he’d co-starred with. In fact, Metro was rumored to be at the ends of their rope with Mario. [Producer] Joe [Pasternak] took him aside before we got underway and told him he better behave. He certainly behaved well with me. It was a great fit."
Lanza was more than rumored to have demons, drink heavily, and throw opera-sized tantrums. Did he have a great voice or did directors have to shoot and reshoot, do numerous retakes of his musical numbers and the sound engineers have to edit them to get them right?
"There are so many myths surrounding Mario," says Miss Blyth with frustration. "His voice was so powerful and he sang with such passion. He was incredibly handsome and quite masculine, so you just couldn’t help being swept off your feet. I never saw his temperamental outbursts. I was happy to be working together again with him on The Student Prince. The recording sessions were terrific. I was stunned when he was fired. I’ve heard many stories, among them that the studio was concerned about his weight and got tough with him."
M-G-M literally owned Lanza and his voice. They had the sessions recorded, so brought in Edmund Purdom who went on to lip sync the recordings. To his credit, he pulled it off. Lanza was beyond furious, but had no recourse. Ironically, the soundtrack recording was a huge success and became the first million-selling soundtrack LP.
Lanza, in his prime one of filmdom’s biggest stars and a box office bonanza, lived life to the fullest. Decamping to Italy in the late 50s, he and his family resided in a former royal villa. His weight was in constant flux and he suffered from alcoholism, high blood pressure, and phlebitis. Still, he performed concerts. He died in Italy of a massive heart attack. He was only 38.
Here is the TCM Mario Lanza Marathon schedule beginning on September 18: 8 P.M. – The Seven Hills of Rome (1958); 10 P.M. – For the First Time (1959); Midnight – The Great Caruso (1951); 2 A.M. – The Student Prince (1954); and 4A.M. – Because You’re Mine (1952).