Mini-Biographies of Musicians, Coaches, Opera Producers, and Selected Singers Associated with Mario Lanza
During the course of his brief career, Mario Lanza collaborated with numerous musical personalities. These included such renowned opera singers as sopranos Licia Albanese and Dorothy Kirsten, mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, and bass-baritone George London. Comments from these and other singers who worked with the tenor (or heard him in person) can be read here.
Lanza's career, both on the operatic and concert stage and in the film and recording studios, also saw him work with an impressive array of vocal (repertoire) coaches, voice teachers, accompanists, opera producers, arrangers and conductors (42 of whom are identified here). Here are details of those collaborations, together with mini-biographies of many of the singers with whom Lanza worked. (For acomplete list of all known singers who recorded or performed with Lanza, click here.) My thanks to Stefanie Walzinger for unearthing many of the rare photos included in this feature.
Irving Aaronson (1895-1963)
Irving Aaronson (far right) listening to playback with Lanza and Peter Herman Adler, 1950
American jazz pianist and big band leader who worked for many years as a musical director for MGM film studios. Aaronson adapted Juventino Rosas' 1888 waltz “Sobre las Olas” into the song “The Loveliest Night of the Year” (with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) for the 1951 MGM film The Great Caruso.
Lanza's 1951 RCA recording of the song subsequently became the tenor's second million-selling single.
Aaronson worked in a minor capacity on three additional Lanza films between 1949 and 1957 (Toast of New Orleans, Because You're Mine and Seven Hills of Rome), and also conducted the tenor's disastrous RCA album Lanza on Broadway in May 1956.
Peter Herman Adler (1899-1990)
Czechoslovakian-born conductor, a pioneer of televised opera in the United States, who served as Musical and Artistic Director of the NBC Opera Theatre for fourteen years and also as conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1959 to 1968.
Adler was noted for his nurturing of promising operatic singers, including bass-baritone George London (1920-1985), soprano Leontyne Price (1927- ), and Mario Lanza, with whom he first worked in 1945. Shortly after conducting Lanza in September of that year at a concert at Convention Hall, Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Adler said of the young tenor: “I think this boy has the greatest inherent, instinctive musicality I have ever seen.” At Lanza's request, Adler later conducted most of the musical selections featured in the tenor's third film, The Great Caruso.
In the summer of 1959, shortly before Lanza's death, Adler visited the tenor in Rome, promising “all possible help” in the latter's planned return to opera (“his only true love”) provided that he could first apply some discipline to his erratic lifestyle. 24 years later, Adler appeared on the 1983 PBS documentary Mario Lanza: The American Caruso, arguing that “[Lanza] had what Caruso had,” and praising the “tremendous vitality” of his singing, coupled with “the most brilliant, broad, natural voice—[a voice] without limitation.”
Armando Agnini (1884-1960)
Armando Agnini directing Lanza in the Butterfly sequence of Toast of New Orleans, 1950
Italian stage director who produced operas for the New Orleans Opera Association and the San Francisco Opera over a twenty-five-year period, and also worked at the Metropolitan Opera for sixteen years.
Agnini directed the 1948 New Orleans Opera Association production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, in which Lanza made his professional operatic debut (as Pinkerton), appearing alongside soprano Tomiko Kanazawa (1915- ), mezzo-soprano Rosalind Nadell (1922- ), and baritone Jess Walters (1908-2000). At Lanza's request, Agnini also directed the Madama Butterfly sequence in the 1950 MGM film The Toast of New Orleans, in which Lanza co-starred with Kathryn Grayson (1922- 2010).
Esteemed vocal coach Leila Edwards (who taught Lanza the role of Pinkerton for the New Orleans Opera production) said of Agnini: "I learned personal patience from watching him at work. He gave the same careful, sincere attention to the beginner in acting as he did to the Met singers. We must have given hundreds of lessons with the opera La Traviata, and never once did I see him show a trace of boredom. Above all, his attitude was kindly. He worked with the talent the pupil showed and never imposed his will. He guided; he suggested."
Side note: As a younger man, Agnini had known composer Giacomo Puccini on a personal level, even living with him for a period.
Licia Albanese (1909-2014)
Acclaimed Italian-born lirico-spinto soprano who performed at the Metropolitan Opera from 1940 to 1966 and also at the San Francisco Opera for twenty years. During her distinguished career, which also included performances at La Scala, she sang opposite many of the leading tenors of her time, ...
including Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957), Jussi Björling (1911-1960) and Franco Corelli (1921-2003), and with such renowned conductors as Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) and Gaetano Merola (1881-1953). On two occasions (1945 and 1950), Lanza was tentatively scheduled to sing opposite her in stage productions of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Giordano's Andrea Chénier, respectively. The two singers finally collaborated in 1955, when they recorded the Act III duet “Dio Ti Giocondi” from Verdi's Otello for the 1956 Warner Bros. film Serenade. Albanese also appeared (as herself) in the film with Lanza in a brief extract from the duet (which can be heard in full on the 1999 BMG CD Mario Lanza: Opera Arias and Duets ). Albanese remained throughout her life one of Lanza's most ardent admirers, and in 1980 told biographer Armando Cesari that she ranked the tenor (vocally) “next to [Enrico] Caruso.”
Victor Alessandro (1915-1976)
American conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra and later permanent conductor of San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. Alessandro first encountered Lanza professionally when he served as conductor at a concert featuring the Bel Canto Trio and the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra on October 26, 1947. He then conducted Lanza on March 22, 1949 at a concert at Oklahoma's Orchestra Hall. Among the selections Lanza performed on the latter occasion were “Celeste Aida” from Verdi's Aida and Bizet's “Agnus Dei.”
Jacqueline (Jackie) Allen (1925-2009)
American soprano, chiefly associated with the Ray Conniff Singers, with whom she can be seen performing (standing, front left) here. Allen provided the voice of the young chorister (played onscreen by Michael Collins) who sings with Lanza in the "Ave Maria" scene in The Great Caruso. She is also heard briefly at the beginning of the film in the "Magnificat." Note: Allen was a member of the Jeff Alexander Choir on some of Lanza's 1956 RCA recordings. (Photo courtesy of Manfred Thönicke)
Lucine Amara (1925- )
American soprano, principally at the Metropolitan Opera, where she sang a reported 56 roles between 1950 and 1991. One of these was Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore, and on August 19th, 1950, Amara recorded a brief extract from that opera's Act IV Miserere ("Sconto col Sangue Mio"), ...
with Lanza for the soundtrack of The Great Caruso (1951). Peter Herman Adler was the conductor. Amara is seen (fleetingly) onscreen in the second of two operatic montages featured in the film, although a somewhat shorter version of her recording with Lanza was used.
Vladimir Bakaleinikoff (1885-1953)
Russian violist, composer and conductor who became Musical Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Bakaleinikoff was also teacher and mentor to noted conductor Lorin Maazel (1930-2014). Bakaleinikoff conducted Lanza at a concert in Pittsburgh's Syria Mosque on March 6, 1951.
In an unprecedented move, the previous afternoon's rehearsal was also opened to the ticket-buying public, prompting the Pittsburgh Press to report on the “near riot” that occurred when Lanza threw his handkerchief into the audience after concluding “Be My Love.” (The amused tenor later told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that a frustrated Bakaleinikoff had told the audience, "Dis iss symphony orchestra. You must be verrry quiet. Shadup!") Time magazine subsequently wrote of the actual concert that, “In arias from Rigoletto and Pagliacci, Mario proved to the cynics' surprise that he really has a voice.”
Emanuel Balaban (1895-1973)
American conductor, Juilliard-educated pianist and teacher who studied in Germany, making his debut there with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1923. A much-recorded conductor, often associated with the works of Giancarlo Menotti, whose premieres of The Telephone, The Consul, and The Medium he conducted, ...
Balaban enjoyed an international career, including lengthy tours of South America and the directorship of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He conducted Lanza and soprano Carolyn Long in four concerts in 1947: three with the Summer Pop Orchestra at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in June, and a fourth concert, presumably with the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra (later renamed Orchestra Iowa), in Grinnell, Iowa, in October 1947. For these concerts, Lanza departed from his standard program at the time by singing duets and songs from a number of operettas, including The Student Prince, The Vagabond King , Maytime and New Moon, in addition to various operatic arias and duets. In a review of the second New Orleans concert, which took place on June 27th, reviewer Eleanor Nicholson of the Times-Picayune singled out Lanza for praise, noting that his singing of the aria “Cielo e Mar” elicited bravos from the enthusiastic audience, and that his rendition of “Yours Is My Heart Alone” even “necessitated two encores.”
Leo Barkin (1905-1992)
Leo Barkin, 1971
Polish-born pianist who became one of Canada's leading accompanists, working with such notable operatic singers as Richard Tucker and Leontyne Price. Barkin accompanied Lanza on two occasions: at a concert in Toronto in July 1946 and again in Toronto (at Massey Hall) in March 1948. (Lanza also performed separately with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at both concerts.)
Paul Baron (1910-1985)
American conductor, occasional composer (of songs and one film score) and pianist. Baron (real name: Girlando) and Lanza first met in the United States while the former was working as Musical Director at CBS. ...
He was subsequently dismissed from his position after the courts determined that he had plagiarized the music to the popular calypso song "Rum and Coca-Cola," a hit for the Andrews Sisters in 1945. Baron then relocated to Rome, where he renewed his acquaintance with Lanza in 1957, and was soon working for the tenor in a variety of capacities: as pianist on The Christophers, a religious program that Lanza performed on (and was also interviewed on) in October 1957; as associate producer on the 1958 film For the First Time; and as conductor on three RCA albums between April and June 1959: The Student Prince, Lanza Sings Christmas Carols, and Mario Lanza Sings Caruso Favorites. Baron also arranged a number of songs for the tenor, including three from the well-regarded Caruso Favorites album (“Vaghissima Sembianza,” “Serenata,” and “Luna d'Estate”). He was eventually dismissed by Lanza after attempting to persuade the tenor to award him 15% of his future income in return for his conducting services.
Renato Bellini (1895-1957)
Italian composer and vocal coach attached to the Metropolitan Opera who worked with Lanza on operatic repertoire in 1945.
Lawrence Bernhardt (1895-1952)
Lawrence Bernhardt with his son Warren (photo courtesy of pianist Warren Bernhardt)
American concert pianist (and father of noted jazz pianist Warren Brooks Bernhardt) who was also the Eastern Division Manager of the Community Concerts Association, and later its Vice President. On April 28, 1947, Bernhardt accompanied Lanza at an enthusiastically received fundraising recital for Community Concerts in Middletown, New York. [A brief account of the recital can be read here.]
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Celebrated American conductor and composer who was one of several musicians who coached Lanza for the principal tenor role of Fenton in Otto Nicolai's comic-fantastic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood in 1942.
Bernstein also worked with Lanza on his musical preparation for a special staging of Act III of Puccini's La Bohème at the same festival, and conducted the first of two performances of this Act on July 27, 1942. (The second performance on August 14 was conducted by Boris Goldovsky.)
Annibale Bizzelli (1900-1967)
Italian composer and occasional conductor, principally for Italian films, and vocal coach attached to the Rome Opera. Bizzelli coached Lanza for a short while in Rome, but according to noted baritone Tito Gobbi (in his 1984 book Tito Gobbi On His World of Italian Opera, p. 239) refused to tolerate what Gobbi claimed (with some exaggeration) was “the singer's eccentric habit of going around in the nude” during their sessions together.
Josef Blatt (1906-1999)
Josef Blatt in 1973
Austrian pianist, composer and conductor (notably at the Vienna Conservatory of Music, where he served as Director from 1933 to 1934). Accompanied Lanza, Frances Yeend and George London as pianist on their ten-month tour as the Bel Canto Trio throughout the United States and also in Mexico and Canada from July 1947 to May 1948.
The distinguished Blatt, who was a well-known proponent of performing operas in the languages of their audiences, also coached Lanza, Yeend and London during their tour. In addition, Blatt accompanied Lanza at non-Bel Canto Trio concerts, including a performance in Quebec in October 1947 with fellow Columbia Concerts artist soprano Agnes Davis. Lanza sang more concerts with Blatt than with any other accompanist. [See Josef Blatt obituary]
Ann Blyth (1928- )
American actress and soprano, popular in both dramatic and musical films in the 1940s and early 1950s. Blyth co-starred with Lanza (as Dorothy Caruso) in The Great Caruso (introducing what was soon to become the tenor's second million-selling single when she sang "The Loveliest Night of the Year").
In 1952 she recorded two songs with Lanza ("Summertime in Heidelberg" and "Deep in My Heart, Dear") for the soundtrack of The Student Prince, in which she subsequently co-starred with Edmund Purdom (who mimed to Lanza's singing in the film).
Gloria Boh (1927- )
American soprano who performed in opera and concert for many years in Los Angeles, and later with the Madison Opera Company. A student of vocal coach Giacomo Spadoni, on whose recommendation she auditioned to sing (and appear) in Lanza's fifth film, Serenade, Boh recorded the Act III duet "Dio Ti Giocondi" from Verdi's Otello with the tenor in July 1955. The recording was never used in the film, but is available here, together with Ms. Boh's recollections of Lanza.
Jerzy Bojanowski (1893-1983)
Jerzy Bojanowski in the early 1930s
Polish-born conductor and composer who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s after a distinguished career in Eastern Europe, including four years as conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic. From 1940 to 1952 Bojanowski was musical director of Milwaukee's Music Under the Stars Symphony Orchestra.
It was with this orchestra that Bojanowski conducted the Bel Canto Trio—consisting of Mario Lanza, soprano Frances Yeend and bass-baritone George London—at their first concert (of a subsequent ten-month tour), which took place in Washington Park, Milwaukee, on July 8th, 1947 before an audience of 6000.
Reviewing the concert the next day in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Edward P. Halline gave high praise to all three singers, but singled out Lanza as "the most impressive of all, with just the kind of voice that is needed to get all the drama out of such emotionally charged arias as 'E lucevan le stelle' from Puccini's Tosca and 'Celeste Aida' from Verdi's Aida. The audience roared its appreciation, vainly demanding an encore."
Peggy Bonini (1927- )
American lyric soprano who appeared at the New York City Opera from 1954 to 1969. She was also a concert singer, and in 1966 was invited by composer Igor Stravinsky to sing at the world premiere of his The Owl and the Pussycat, a work for voice and piano that proved to be his final composition.
In 1951 (as an uncredited "ghost" singer), Bonini provided the on-screen vocals for actress Paula Corday, who portrays Lanza's opera singer/former girlfriend in the tenor's fourth film, Because You're Mine. Bonini is heard twice in the film: during the final moments of a staging of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (immediately after Lanza has performed the aria "Addio alla Madre") and with the tenor in the "Addio, Addio" duet from Verdi's Rigoletto. However, she was only in the studio with Lanza for the first of these recordings; her contribution to the duet was recorded four days after the tenor had sung his part.
Paul Breisach (1896-1952)
Austrian conductor based at the Städtische Oper, Berlin, until the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s. Breisach subsequently emigrated to the United States, where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera from 1941 to 1946, and also at the San Francisco Opera for the last decade of his life. ...
Breisach conducted the Bel Canto Trio (comprising Lanza, Frances Yeend and George London) with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra at two extremely well-received concerts at Grant Park, Chicago, on July 19 and 20, 1947. An estimated 131,000 people were in attendance over the two nights. Reviewing the first of the concerts, esteemed critic Claudia Cassidy wrote in the Chicago Sunday Tribune that, "Mr. Lanza sings for the indisputable reason that he was born to sing. He has a superbly natural tenor that he uses by instinct, and though a multitude of fine points evade him, he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama."
Nicholas Brodszky (1905-1958)
Nicholas Brodszky (right) with Mario Lanza, 1951
Born in what is now the Ukraine, Brodszky was principally a composer of film scores who worked on European pictures (and the occasional operetta, including one for tenor Richard Tauber) before settling in the United States. He composed thirteen songs for Lanza's films, ten of which were written with lyricist Sammy Cahn (1913-1993),...
including the tenor's first- and third-million-selling singles (“Be My Love” and “Because You're Mine”), and three with lyricist Paul Francis Webster (1907-1984) for the 1954 film version of The Student Prince (“Summertime in Heidelberg,” “Beloved,” and “I'll Walk with God”). Although the quality of the songs Brodszky wrote for Lanza's films varies starkly from the sheer triteness of ditties such as “Boom Biddy Boom” to the operetta-like “Be My Love,” his best efforts arguably inspired some of the tenor's finest and most impassioned singing in English. Whether or not allegations that he depended on a team of uncredited collaborators (including composer Mischa Spoliansky) to complete his songs are true, Brodszky undoubtedly possessed a gift for fashioning melodies that skillfully exploited Lanza's range and vocal expressiveness.
Constantine Callinicos (1913-1986)
Constantine Callinicos (left) and Mario Lanza, 1949
Greek-American pianist, conductor and occasional composer who worked for the New York City Opera from 1958 to the late 1960s. First worked with Lanza in April 1947, when he accompanied him at a recital in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.
Callinicos consequently served as the tenor's accompanist on three tours (1949, 1951, 1958), together with three concerts in Honolulu in 1950. He also conducted Lanza's two appearances at the London Palladium in 1957, and wrote the song “You Are My Love” for Lanza. His other collaborations with the tenor included conducting all of Lanza's operatic recordings for RCA---and many of the arias on his weekly radio show---together with the operatic material featured in the film For the First Time, assorted songs recorded for RCA 1949-1953 and again in 1957, the score of the MGM film The Student Prince, and two albums in 1959 (The Vagabond King and The Desert Song).
One of the most controversial of Lanza's associates, Callinicos has been revered in some circles (e.g. by biographer Derek Mannering, who describes his contribution to Lanza's career as “well-nigh inestimable”) and criticized by others, most notably Armando Cesari, who argues in Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Baskerville, 2004; 2nd ed. 2008) that the conductor was both a mediocre conductor and accompanist and an opportunist. Callinicos wrote The Mario Lanza Story with Ray Robinson (Coward-McCann, 1960), an often-critical (and error-ridden) account of the tenor's life.
Josepha Chekova (c.1900-?)
American soprano of Czechoslovakian parentage who performed in both Europe and in the United States until at least the late 1940s. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, she often performed with the (touring) San Carlo Opera Company, and also as a recitalist. Her voice was variously described by reviewers as "fresh and dewy" and of outstanding range. ...
On April 5, 1942, Chekova performed with the 21-year-old Lanza at one of the latter's first concerts. The venue was the Vernon Room in Haddon Hall, Atlantic City, and the pair reportedly performed duets from Puccini's Tosca and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Ms. Chekova was arguably well suited (temperamentally) to the soprano roles in both those operas, for six years earlier she had publicly clashed with San Carlo Opera Company conductor Carlo Peroni during a performance as Musetta in Puccini's La Bohème in Los Angeles. Infuriated by Peroni's audible cries of "Stupid! Stupid!" during Act II (directed at what he later claimed were her missed cues) and his attempts to sing along with her during her aria ("Musetta's Waltz"), Chekova tried to hit Peroni backstage before the third act. San Diego's Evening Tribune subsequently reported that she resigned from the Company the next day.
Side note: Chekova, who was married to Czechoslovakian tenor Vladimir Domansky (1896-1968), can be heard in duet with baritone Dennis King on a 1929 recording of "Love Me Tonight" from Friml's The Vagabond King. Thirty years later, Lanza would also record the song (in solo form).
Plinio Clabassi (1920-1984)
Italian bass, principally associated with the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, who enjoyed a 30-year stage career (mostly in Italy). He occasionally performed with his wife, soprano Rina Gigli, daughter of the celebrated tenor Beniamino Gigli. In September 1958, Clabassi recorded the bass part in the trio "E voi ridete" from Mozart's "Così fan tutte" with Lanza and baritone Paolo Silveri at the Rome Opera House for the movie "For the First Time."
Anthony Coletti (1894-1966)
Conductor principally associated with the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Orchestra of Atlantic City, New Jersey, with whom the twenty-one-year-old Lanza performed on April 5, 1942.
According to biographer Derek Mannering, Lanza sang four solo numbers (one or more of which was presumably accompanied by Metropolitan Opera pianist Stuart Ross, who also performed) at an Easter Sunday concert in the Vernon Room at Haddon Hall. These were “Ombra Mai Fu” from Handel's Xerxes, “Ch'Ella Mi Creda” from Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, “È la Solita Storia” from Cilea's L'Arlesiana (an aria that would later become a mainstay of the tenor's recital and concert program), and “Come un Bel Dì di Maggio” from Giordano's Andrea Chénier. Together with soprano Josepha Chekova, Lanza also performed duets from Puccini's Tosca and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at this concert.