Lanza, on the evening of his live Shower of Stars performance, 28 October 1954
Performing in front of an audience can be an ordeal for any artist. It is said that Enrico Caruso approached many a performance praying the earth would swallow him up, such was his terror of failing in public. "I would not wish this fear on my worst enemy," he was often quoted as saying.
Caruso was by no means alone. Many years later, the esteemed Franco Corelli would—in the words of one colleague—suffer "the torments of the damned" before each public performance, and at times crippling stage fright would simply overwhelm him.
But it's probably fair to say that neither Caruso nor Corelli ever experienced the kind of fear that must have assailed Mario Lanza as the night of October 28, 1954 and his second Shower of Stars television performance approached. Lambasted by a self-righteous press for lip-synching on the show the previous month, the knives were already being sharpened for his second appearance, and Lanza knew that no mercy would be shown if he failed to sing live this time.
It was not as if he hadn't already suffered enough. In the previous two years he had endured the cancellation of both The Student Prince and his MGM contract; a crippling injunction that had temporarily prevented him from performing; near-bankruptcy, and a lien imposed against his recording royalties by the IRS; and on top of it all an unrelenting press campaign painting him as a temperamental egotist who had lost his once-great voice. It is difficult to imagine a more terrifying scenario for any artist, let alone a person as sensitive as Lanza undoubtedly was.
It probably mattered little to the press that Mario had already proved he could still sing. Earlier that month he had summoned a group of journalists to his home and performed an impromptu recital that stunned all those present. But typically, the event had gone largely unreported.
Knives were sharpened for Lanza's second appearance on Shower of Stars.
This was hardly surprising at a time when many journalists were openly hostile toward Lanza. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Far better to concentrate on a "misdeed" than a triumph, and the tenor's troubles—both real and imagined—had already provided the press with plenty of rich pickings. Time Magazine, for example, would later crow that Lanza's voice was "already showing tarnish" by 1954, and few journalists would have bothered to dispute the widespread view that Mario's career was essentially over. The man had it coming to him, in any event, or so the stories insinuated. Who did he think he was, refusing to give press interviews and acknowledging that he possessed a great voice? Clearly, this man needed cutting down to size, and who better to wield the axe than those self-appointed arbiters of public opinion--the tabloid press? Having already portrayed Lanza as an over-emoting, gluttonous has-been, their work was nearly done. Only one last damning report remained to be penned: Lanza's final humiliation as he disgraced himself in front of millions of viewers. His demise seemed deliciously inevitable, and indeed the vultures were already circling.
"God has put into this boy everything that is required of a great singer," Spadoni had remarked.
But heroes, no matter how fallen their detractors may paint them, will often confound the enemy, and Mario Lanza was no exception. Determined to silence his critics, and—more importantly—regain his self-respect, he had enlisted the help of his friend and occasional vocal coach, the great Giacomo Spadoni.
Together they had selected two numbers that would showcase Labza at his very best: the dramatic "E Lucevan le Stelle" from Tosca, and the romantic "Some Day" from The Vagabond King. As October 28 arrived, an afternoon rehearsal of the latter had gone splendidly, with Lanza producing some gloriously honeyed tones. Now it remained for the tenor to steel his nerves for the evening that lay ahead. Would he really be able to pull off his first live appearance in front of an audience in over three years?