|NEW HIGH NOTE FOR
by Rip Rense
(originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
Michael Bolton contorts his way through a new album of operatic arias. Aretha
Franklin struggles through Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards. The
Three Tenors are almost as popular as Elvis.
TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Opera is no longer longhair (or blue hair) music. At sellout performances across the
country, Verdi and Leoncavallo are the hottest dates in town. And the matinee idol/tenor
who first made operatic singing a hot date with a mass audience 48 years ago---Mario
Lanza---seems to be making a comeback. No easy trick for a man who died in 1959.
Consider: Lanza---proclaimed the voice of the century by no less an authority than
conductor Arturo Toscanini---is the subject of a detailed forthcoming biography, Tenor
in Exile, by Roland Bessette, due next year from Amadeus Press. The Mario Lanza
Society's annual galas in Philadelphia, Lanza's home town, continue to attract fans from
around the planet. Actor/tenor Charles GaVoian is garnering rave reviews with his one-man
play, The Mario Lanza Story---with runs so far in Los Angeles, Philadelphia,
Phoenix, and elsewhere. All Three Tenors---Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose
Carreras---acknowledge Lanza's impact, having performed his signature hit, "Be My
Love," at the Dodger Stadium concert in 1996. Carreras and Domingo, who cite Lanza
movies like Because You're Mine as an early inspiration, have recorded CD and
video tributes to the tenor. Domingo narrates the video documentary, Mario Lanza: the
American Caruso, and Carrerras performed a Lanza tribute concert in London last year
that attracted tens of thousands. And yes, there is an extensive Mario Lanza website,
which can be accessed through www.rense.com.
Now comes the crowning touch---brand new, never-released Mario Lanza music. The tenor is
primed to re-enter the charts with the just-released, lavishly packaged Be My Love:
Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM, from Turner Classic Movie Music/Rhino
Movie Music ($16.98.) It is the first release ever of soundtrack music from Lanza's five
MGM films---and is merely the first of an expected series of Lanza vault releases from
"These were jewels sitting in the vault waiting to be liberated!" said George
Feltenstein, vice president of marketing at Turner and producer of the project. "If
the fans support this, there will be more. I'm hoping we'll be able to do full soundtrack
albums for The Great Caruso and The Student Prince. I would love to be
able to have all the recordings eventually come out. I'd say there are easily at least
40-60 tracks that could be released."
The MGM soundtracks were never issued because Lanza was signed with RCA in the early 50s,
when the films were made. MGM, the first movie studio to have its own record company
("they basically invented the soundtrack album," says Feltenstein), was greatly
disappointed it could not legally release albums for Lanza's box office smashes, including
The Great Caruso. Lanza instead made studio versions of songs from his
films, with smaller orchestras, which were issued by RCA.
The Lanza (MGM soundtrack) recordings--- says Feltenstein---languished forgotten for
decades, ultimately rescued after Turner Entertainment bought the MGM vaults and began
issuing soundtrack releases by its biggest stars, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland,
"I'm very familiar with Astaire, Kelly, Garland, Sinatra," said Feltenstein,
producer of all the vault projects, "but my forte was not opera, or Mr. Lanza's
material. So it meant I had to immerse myself in it, and I didn't think I was going to
like it. Boy, was I surprised! I went from doing a project out of respect for his huge fan
base to becoming a fan, myself."
Why the lingering popularity? Why the fan clubs around the world, in England, New Zealand,
Italy, Australia, Germany. . .
"It's due to a lot of things," said Mario Lanza Story star GaVoian, reached in
Los Angeles. "Certainly, there is that absolutely astonishing voice, and movie star
quality. But he died so young---it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe
and James Dean. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors, but a whole generation of
singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still draws."
Terry Robinson, Lanza's close friend, physical trainer, and author of Lanza: His
Tragic Life, Prentice-Hall, 1980, was more succinct: "It's the voice," he
said. "There's never been anything like it. It brings people together."
Lanza grew up in Philadelphia, honing his almost unearthly vocal powers by singing along
to Victrola recordings of Enrico Caruso. He later trained operatically, and toured the
country in the late 40s with George London and Francis Yeend as the Bel Canto Trio. Louis
B. Mayer's executive secretary discovered the young singer after hearing him perform as a
last-minute substitute at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947. The magnetic, handsome tenor became
an overnight matinee idol with That Midnight Kiss in 1949.
But Lanza was forever between two worlds. On the one hand, he was crowned the "voice
of the century" by Toscanini. On the other, he was a pop icon and sometimes crooner
with films like The Toast of New Orleans and Because You're Mine---which
propelled songs like "Be My Love" to the top of the pop charts. Beleagured as
much as benefitted by fame, the tempestuous Lanza fell victim to his legendary apetites
for wine, women, and pasta---ultimately abandoning Hollywood (or vice-versa) after a
stormy relationship with studio moguls. He died in Italy in 1959 at 38, officially the
victim of excessive lifestyle-related heart trouble, but Robinson and some family members
suspected mafia involvement. (Lanza is alleged to have inadvertently offended the mob by
failing to sing on at a charity concert partly arranged by Lucky Luciano.)
The historic new CD---with 22-page booklet illustrated with rare photos---features two of
Lanza's most important extended operatic recordings: the Act1 finale from Puccini's Madame
Butterfly, with Kathryn Grayson (from Toast), and the sextet from Act II,
scene 2 of Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor, in which he was joined by the
Metropolitan Opera's Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Nicola Moscona, and
"I remember that recording session," said Robinson. "All the other singers
were right on their microphones, but Mario said, 'move it back, move it back.' And the Met
singers were amazed. They had no idea what kind of voice he had. They wanted him to come
to the Met." The CD, which features excerpts from That Midnight Kiss, The Toast
of New Orleans, (1950), The Great Caruso (1951), Because You're Mine
(1952), and The Student Prince (1954), also includes two outtakes: "All The
Things You Are" from Because. . ., and one of the most historically
important recordings Lanza ever made---one that marked a tragic turning point in his
career, "Beloved," from Prince. This rejected "Beloved" was a torrid
take that resulted in Lanza walking off the Prince project, forever tainting him with
Hollywood moguls---particularly MGM head Dore Schary. "I was standing there when he
walked out!" remembered Robinson. "That's the one that caused all the trouble.
He sang it too sexy, they said."
"Beloved's" sticking point was interpretation. In the Sigmund Romberg operetta,
the student prince is rejected by his princess for lacking passion. It is after being sent
to Heidelberg to be with other students, and learn the ways of romance, that he sings the
ardent paen to the princess. The song is meant to be passionate, but Prince's initial
director, Curtis Bernhardt, didn't see it that way. The conflict was a flashpoint
resulting in lawsuits with MGM, culminating a couple years later with Lanza's departure
from Hollywood and relocation to Rome, where he died.
"Bernhardt said, 'you know, Mario, you are a Prussian prince---don't do it so
exciting!'' said Robinson. "Mario said, 'look, when I tell a girl I'm going to take
her tonight, and throw the mask away, well, I'm an Italian!' Mario walked out, and said to
Bernhardt very simply, 'if you want to direct me, you direct my acting, not my
singing.'" Lanza eventually settled the dispute by completing the soundtrack, but
backing out of the film. Edmund Purdom wound up lip-synching Lanza's voice to co-star Ann
Blyth. The "Beloved" version used in film is "totally milktoast," said
Feltenstein. "On the CD, you hear the passion and fire he wanted to bring to work.
And he was right."
The Lanza children---daughter Elissa Bregman and son Damon Lanza---were pleased with the
new release. Said Bregman, reached at home in Los Angeles: "It's been a long time
coming.. . .I know there are people around world who would appreciate any new material
released on Mario Lanza. I hope this might inspire BMG (RCA's parent company) to release
more of their (vault) recordings."
That's correct. There is still another wealth of unreleased Mario Lanza recordings at BMG
yet to be mined. . .