Armando Cesari, Vince di Placido, Lee Ann Cafferata, and Stefanie Walzinger contributed articles to the press sections. Notes by Derek McGovern and Lee Ann Ghajar.
Introduction In 1940 Mario Lanza began studying song and operatic repertoire with former soprano Irene Williams, eventually learning two operatic roles and twenty songs. That same year, the 19-year-old tenor made what was reportedly his first public appearance when he performed at Philadelphia's Fleischer Auditorium.
The conductor on that occasion was local bandleader Earl Denny, who subsequently directed the string ensemble that accompanied Lanza's performance of the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" at Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1940. Twenty-one years later, Denny recalled the latter performance as "an event I shall never forget. People literally went down on their knees afterwards" (Italian-American Herald, 17 August 1961).
Around the same time, Lanza joined the former Rome Opera tenor Rodolfo Pili's Apollo Grand Opera Company and YMCA Opera Company, subsequently performing in various operas under Pili's direction at venues around Philadelphia, including the Town Hall and churches. One of these was Crispino e la Comare, an 1850 work by Federico and Luigi Ricci (with a libretto by Verdi's regular collaborator, Francesco Piave), in which Lanza performed the lead tenor role of the Contino del Fiore opposite local soprano Antoinette Pescrilli, reportedly to "huge success" (source: Marion Benasutti, "The Lanza Story, Chapter 14: When the Twain Did Meet," Italian-American Herald, 13 July 1961).
Between April and June 1942, Lanza gave at least three concerts, appearing in both Philadelphia and in Atlantic City, where he sang alongside seasoned performers such as soprano Josepha Chekova and contralto Anne Simon. However, it was an audition for Serge Koussevitzky, renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in March of that year—and the venerable maestro's granting of a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood—which exposed the young tenor to some of the top music critics in the USA. In August 1942, Lanza appeared in the role of Fenton in two staged performances of Nicolai's 1849 comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Berkshire Festival, where he earned critical raves.
An operatic career seemed a certainty, but Lanza had not reckoned on conscription into the US Army. From 1943 to 1945 he performed in the Army's Special Services, appearing initially as a featured performer in the variety show On the Beam and then as a chorus member in the musical play Winged Victory.
Resuming his concert career in 1945 with appearances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Peter Herman Adler and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler, Lanza was at the same time acutely aware of the need to develop a secure vocal technique. The legendary voice teacher Enrico Rosati proved the answer to his prayers, and fifteen months of intensive study followed. Although Lanza still performed occasional concerts during this period throughout the US and also in Canada—both as a solo performer and with sopranos Frances Yeend and Carolyn Long—it was not until July 1947, when he teamed up with Yeend and bass-baritone George London to form the Bel Canto Trio, that the now vocally secure tenor began performing on a regular basis.
The Bel Canto Trio performed a reported 86 concerts between July 1947 and May 1948, a period during which Lanza also studied and performed the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly with the New Orleans Opera Association. In June 1948, Lanza appeared in concert in San Rafael with Metropolitan Opera soprano Dorothy Kirsten. His solo concert career also flourished during this period, and from March to May 1949 he embarked on a well-received tour that included performances with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra under conductor Victor Alessandro and an appearance at Chicago Orchestra Hall.
By this time, Lanza had also begun his film career, but for the time being, at least, he was able to alternate between Hollywood and the stage, even travelling as far afield as Honolulu, where he gave three sold-out recitals in March 1950.
Press Clippings: Concerts 1942-1950 (Solo and/or with Sopranos)
As a concert and opera singer in the 1940s, Mario Lanza seldom received anything approaching a negative review. The Chicago Daily Tribune's much-respected (and feared) Claudia Cassidy, who reviewed three of Lanza's concerts between 1946 and 1947, gave him high praise, and in the main the young tenor received, as Armando Cesari observes, "the type of rave reviews that most artists can only dream about." Gilles Mercier, writing in the Quebec News Review on 11 October 1947, spoke for many critics at the time when he opined that, "The variety of [Lanza's] art, his interpretation possibilities, his magnificent voice, invited us to admire this exceptionally gifted tenor. He is able to interest even those who do not like classical music."
But it was a sensational concert at the Hollywood Bowl on 28 August 1947 that reverberated with unintended consequences for Lanza's concert and operatic career. Reviewing the concert in the Los Angeles Examiner (29 August 1947), Ernest Lonsdale wrote that, "Mario Lanza could have taken the Bowl with him....His operatic potentialities, if he works hard for a few more years, are unmistakably great." However, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who sat in the audience that night, was more interested in Lanza's potential screen appeal. Impressed with Lanza's voice and stage presence, and in need of a new singing star, he set wheels in motion to bring the tenor into Hollywood films.
Mario Lanza's (adult) operatic debut in August 1942 in Massachussetts at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood brought him to the attention of national critics, including Noel Straus of the New York Times (see below), who hailed him as having "few equals among tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power." Herbert Graf, who directed the production, later wrote in Opera News (5 October 1942) that Lanza "was the find of the season," and predicted that the tenor's future lay with the Metropolitan Opera. While in Tanglewood, Lanza also appeared at the Festival in two performances as Rodolfo in a special staging of the third act of Puccini’s La Bohème. The conductor on one of these occasions was Leonard Bernstein.
In April 1948, Lanza made his professional operatic debut, appearing as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly in two performances for the New Orleans Opera Association under the baton of Walter Herbert. Again, he received excellent reviews. Walter S. Jenkins, writing in the Times-Picayune on 9 April 1948, found that, "The choice of Mario Lanza as Pinkerton was admirable," and went on to praise the tenor's looks, diction, and the unforced quality of his voice. The reviewer in the New Orleans States (9 April 1948) praised Lanza's musical characterization of Pinkerton and wrote that his voice "flowed out strongly [in what was an acoustically unforgiving venue] and had a full, sometimes brilliant quality." Most complimentary of all was the verdict of Laurence Oden, writing in the St. Louis News (see below), who declared Lanza "a superbly romantic leading tenor" with "an exceptionally beautiful voice."
Press Clippings: Bel Canto Trio 1947-1948
Over a ten-month period from July 1947 to May 1948, Mario Lanza, George London, and Frances Yeend toured for Columbia Artists Management as the Bel Canto Trio, singing throughout the United States and at selected venues in Canada and Mexico. The Trio's demanding repertoire throughout the tour, which included scenes from Verdi's I Lombardi and Simon Boccanegra, Gounod's Faust, and Mozart's The Magic Flute, proved extremely popular with audiences and critics alike.