Firsthand Accounts of Working with Lanza: Herbert Grossman
Listen to the surviving fragment of Lanza (as Rodolfo), Frances Yeend (Mimì), George London (Colline), Edwin Steffe (Marcello and Schaunard) and an unidentified soprano (Musetta) in an excerpt from Act IV of Puccini's La Bohème, with Herbert Grossman at the piano. Recorded in New York City on 18 June 1948.
Herbert Grossmann in 2008 (courtesy of www.janusmuseum.org)
In 2008 I corresponded with Maestro Herbert Grossman, formerly a conductor of the New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera, and one-time assistant to the legendary Arturo Toscanini. Herbert Grossman worked with Lanza in 1948. Conversations drawn from two emails with Maestro Grossman follow—Derek McGovern.
Background Note: On 18 June 1948, Mario Lanza, Frances Yeend, George London and two other young opera singers recorded an excerpt in English from Act IV of Puccini's La Bohème. The purpose was to convince a highly skeptical David Sarnoff, then Head of RCA, that these singers had the talent to make a televised performance of La Bohème sung in English a viable proposition. The 21-year-old pianist accompanying them that day was Herbert Grossman.
"There can be no question. . . .[Lanza's] voice had power and beauty, and except for the fact that he indulged in certain unfortunate vocal mannerisms that he doubtless learned from listening to others less talented than he, would have been a boon to any cast lucky enough to have him. It's also occurred to me that those mannerisms surely would have been shot down had he had the opportunity to work with Toscanini.
"I liked Lanza a lot. I'd met him earlier in Tanglewood when he came to visit an old pal, David Poleri [a tenor of some renown who later sang at Covent Garden], for the day. The two of them were a riot and that sense of humor followed him right into our Bohème adventure. In the midst of all the fun, I, like everyone else, found that, along with a voice that only could have been a gift from God, he was, indeed, serious about his art.
"[The recording] took place somewhere late in '47 [Derek McG: actually, it was in 1948], shortly after I'd met [conductor] Peter Herman Adler. . . . The cast wouldn't be much of a problem since Adler had been working, without fee, with four young men who lived together in a cold water flat on 9th Ave (and ate only when one or the other had a job).
Along with a voice that only could have been a gift from God, he was, indeed, serious about his art.
"[Adler] was certain they'd invest some time in a project like this. The boys, incidentally, were Ed Steffe, who had a modest career thereafter, mostly doing commercials; Johnny Silver, soon to become the original Benny South street in Guys and Dolls; George London, about whom little need be said and Mario Lanza, about whom even less need be reported here. Two young women, similarly in debt to Adler, needed little or no persuasion to join the group. When Adler mentioned to Forrai that he was looking for a young pianist who would be willing to work on the come [sic], she told him to come to her studio where she had a new, young graduate of Queens College who might very well fit the bill. Needless to say, hardly ten words were out of his mouth before I said, 'Yes!!!'
"The project was explained to the team. We were to do a semi-staged version of the Boheme last act in the large living room of Constance Hope.
"The audience would consist of one man, David Sarnoff . . . who, though [NBC producer and music critic Samuel] Chotzinoff's dearest friend, scoffed at the idea of opera on this virtually new [television] medium. After considerable persuasion, he agreed to come to Hope's, but said flat out that he'd be checking his watch and could be expected to get up and leave at the fifteen minute mark, after we'd proved to him just how right he was.
When Mimi died and the final chords were played, we all slid our eyes towards Sarnoff. Tears cascaded down his face.
"I was 21 years old and completely in awe of this icon of the communication world. I never uttered a word, just sat at the piano and began this performance for one. Adler had coached and staged the event (wisely sung in English, though not by any means in a particularly good translation—no matter) to a fare-thee-well well and the brilliant talents on hand went for broke.
"When Mimi died and the final chords were played, we all slid our eyes towards our guest, only to see, much to our complete astonishment, Sarnoff rising from his chair, tears cascading down his face, his left hand slowly being removed from his trouser pocket. He stretched it out towards Chotzinoff and said, 'Here, my dear Chotzie, this symbolic gesture is by way of saying, you shall have whatever you need.'
A Chance Recording
"It took a year to get the logistics in place for a program which had no precedent.
"By the time we were ready to go, Lanza and London had begun to experience success in their budding careers and were no longer available. Rodolfo And Marcello subsequently were played by Glenn Burris and Norman Young, two highly gifted young singing actors (though not quite at the altitude of Lanza and London—but then who is?).
[Note: Only a small portion of the performance that day was recorded. As Maestro Grossman explains,] "The five or so minutes of tape that we each have was the product of some afterthought. Perhaps Constance [Chotzinoff] made a signal to her husband indicating that this was too good to lose. Obviously, by the time he got his equipment (whoever the "he" was) we were partly along in the act. Somebody, perhaps Chotzie (we'll never know), must have signaled him to stop, perhaps because the noise was interfering with the effect. What I was sent, I was assured, was everything that existed." [Note from Derek McGovern: In a 1960 article for The Meriden Journal (Connecticut), Samuel Chotzinoff referred to the occasion, singling out Lanza's "wonderful voice," and praising the "poignancy" of his performance, which he described as "vocally and histrionically, absolutely true."]
The Lanza Personality
"As [for Lanza's personality], I can tell you that in our encounters, including the rather extensive period preparing for what turned into the Sarnoff audition, I saw no signs of anything other than the characteristics you mention:an easy going, fun-loving nature, complete confidence in his ability (and why in God's name, wouldn't he have had that in abundance?) and an excellent rapport with colleagues (from Adler's point of view, had he been a problem child in any way, he wouldn't have nurtured, one might even say, adopted him)."
Postscript: Herbert Grossman passed away on 11 September 2010, shortly before his 84th birthday. R.I.P., Maestro.