Mario Lanza and the Magic of Phrasing by Tony Partington
Tony Partington is a professional singer and a health care professional.
Phrasing has always been a curiosity for me, no, a true marvel with Mario Lanza in virtually everything he undertook to sing.
The amazing phrasing and interpretation - and this was true in both the English repertoire as well as the Italian and the Neapolitan. I make the distinction between Italian and Neapolitan because, while they are not different languages per se, their difference as dialects puts them so far apart idiomatically they could well be, in my opinion, different languages. While I am not sure all on the forum would agree with this statement, please know that I speak as a singer who has, during my career, performed both, and for me they are vastly different.
Phrasing: Innate or Can It Be Taught?
But let us return to phrasing and its nature. Is it innate or can it be taught? I will be honest at the outset and tell you that I as a music lover and most especially of the singing voice believe it to be innate.
After thirty years of singing professionally and listening to the singing voice for far longer than that, it is my belief that the ability to phrase - as beautifully and consistently as Lanza did - is not something that can be taught. For Mario, it existed within him and he knew it, to a degree. With all the bravado, devilish fun and Hollywood PR hype that he was forced to fill his interviews with - especially in the beginning - he knew there was something going on there. How often did he say, in interviews, "I feel the song completely." or "I sing the song as if it were the last time it would be heard on earth." I have wondered, for some time, if Mario was ever really aware of what he was actually doing, what he was capable of and how incredibly rare this ability is.
We have today some very fine and impressive voices both on the opera and concert stage. Now, in nearly every case these are voices that have received a good deal more “formal” vocal training than Mario Lanza ever did.
When I speak of singing, I am referring to the entire art form; not just the music, but the story as well.
Ah, but herein lies a paradox. As I listen to these fine, perhaps even great voices of today and the past generation I am struck with a certain transparency in their singing.
Now when I speak of "singing" I am referring to the entire art form; not just the music, but the story as well. Oh indeed there are some fine singing actors active today and, to my mind, even more a generation ago. Yet, while they can perhaps connect with you and tell you the story of the opera you are seeing or listening to, could they then turn around at the very next moment and take you on a romantic and heavenly trek with "They Didn't Believe Me" or "Long Ago and Far Away?" Could they take you to Heidelberg to meet THE STUDENT PRINCE? Or perhaps Naples and hear those beloved songs as a Neapolitan would sing them. And, would you listen and really consider when asked to "Be My Love." I think when you search your heart the answer would be no. As much as I love the voices of Domingo, Pavarotti, Carreras (especially before he was ill), Cura, Villazon, Leech..., go back or forwards in time as you like, I do not think you will find a singer that had what Mario Lanza had. In reality, I don't think Lanza could have fully explained what this innate ability was as it was just as much a part of the vocal (or musical) part of his voice as well.
It's Not Just the Notes
Perhaps this is best. If Mario Lanza were to try to have explained his voice, his "technique" his interpretive approach to a specific piece it would have probably made himself conscious and self-doubting.
He might begin thinking and rethinking the way he was singing or the way he felt about a song or interpreted a phrase. No less a critic than Henry Pleasants once said that Lanza put everything into his phrasing. Pleasants was friends with the late George London, and London once told Pleasants that, in terms of natural vocal endowment, Mario Lanza had the greatest voice he had ever known. George London would have known too, for he sang with Mario in the Bel Canto Trio.
Mario Lanza simply needed to open his voice and his heart and out came sound so glorious
But let us return to the concept of learning phrasing. Yes, it can be learned, but only to a degree. I've seen it done. I've done it myself when I felt something was wrong with what I was singing and I knew damn well it was the phrasing.
It's not the notes. You're hitting all the right notes - just like Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli - but something very, very vital is missing and something is very lacking overall. If one is smart enough, one goes back to the text and looks at the poem, the story the words and the emotions therein. Thus begins the painstaking, emotionally draining, process of grafting the emotions and phrasing with the musical line. And, at the end of this neverending exercise the singer prays that they’ve not only filled out a third dimension to the music they are singing but perhaps, just perhaps, if you've worked very, very hard and kept your mind and heart open, you've found a way to breathe life into what was before simply pleasant sound.
Now, consider all that, consider it all if you would. Thousands of singers of all vocal types and with repertoires diverse as a rainbow face this challenge daily. Yet Mario Lanza, this man with a voice and interpretive skills so great he could not, in all likelihood, begin to grasp them, simply needed to open his mouth and his heart and out came sound so glorious that the world still struggles to this day to comprehend.