Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about Mario Lanza. For more detailed information about the tenor's life and career, useful starting points are this essay and this speech. You can also write to us here.
Was Mario Lanza his real name?
No—but there was a family connection, as "Lanza" was his mother's birth name. He was born Alfred Arnold Cocozza, ...
the son of Italian immigrants Antonio Cocozza (1894-1975) and Maria Cocozza (née Lanza) (1902-1970). While still a high school student, Lanza was already experimenting with alternative names for a stage career, as these reproductions from his school notebook reveal. He finally settled on his mother's birth (or "maiden") name, together with the masculine form of her first name. Called "Freddie" by his parents and childhood friends, the tenor was known professionally as Mario Lanza from 1942 onwards, and on October 7, 1948—exactly eleven years before his death—he legally adopted that name.
When and were was he born?
In South Philadelphia on January 31, 1921. However, Lanza's birthplace was often misreported during his lifetime ...
as New York City, with a variety of incorrect birth dates also provided (most often, 1922—a date that was probably encouraged by MGM's publicity department). Lanza himself variously claimed to reporters to been born in 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1925. In an interview with Howard Thompson of the New York Times on May 6, 1951, the then 30-year-old Lanza cheerfully alluded to his habitual fibbing, stating that he was twenty-nine—"And twenty-nine I'll remain for at least another ten years." In this respect, he was carrying on a family tradition, since his mother shaved almost three years off her own age, always insisting that she had been sixteen when he was born. (She was actually in her nineteenth year.)
Did he have any brothers or sisters?
No, he was an only child.
How tall was he?
Five feet, seven and a half inches, or 171.45cm. This is according to his December 1942 army induction records, which can be viewed here.
There is also ample photographic evidence that Lanza was not a tall man, although this has not prevented some of his more fervent admirers from insisting that he was really 5' 10½," or almost 180cm. See this forum discussion for more information.
Was Lanza married, and did he have kids?
Yes to both questions. Lanza married Betty Hicks (1922-1960), the sister of one of his Army friends, on April 13, 1945,...
and the couple remained together until his death. They had four children, three of whom died prematurely: Colleen (1948-1997), Ellisa (1950- ), Damon (1952-2008), and Marc (1954-1991). Betty Lanza outlived her husband by just five months, dying of apparent asphyxiation following a prolonged period of depression.
How and where did he die?
Lanza died at the Valle Giulia Clinic in Rome on October 7, 1959. No autopsy was performed, but his death was almost certainly...
Note: The absurd rumor that Lanza died at the hands of the Mafia is addressed here.
Did his lifestyle contribute to his death?
In all likelihood. Lanza's habit of gaining and then losing massive amounts of weight in a short period of time was obviously damaging to his system. ...
He was also a serious binge drinker during the last five years or so of his life. In fact, several of his friends have stated categorically that he was an alcoholic. At the time of his death, Lanza was in poor physical shape, with the beginnings of arteriosclerosis, extremely high blood pressure, liver damage, and a number of other ailments. However, the most potentially lethal of these health problems was phlebitis, a condition presumably caused (or at least aggravated) by his lifestyle. See Mario Lanza: A Fatal Zest for Living, by Armando Cesari and Philip A. Mackowiak, MD.
Why did Lanza compromise his health?
That's a complex question, and obviously there is a certain amount of conjecture involved here. However, the evidence strongly points to Lanza's ...
Hollywood experience as the root cause of his subsequent problems. Prior to working for MGM film studios, Lanza was by almost all accounts a happy person who showed no signs of self-destructive tendencies, and a singer who was clearly headed for a major operatic career. The pressures and distractions of Hollywood changed all that. According to his close friend George London, Lanza started drinking heavily within two years of arriving in Hollywood—a problem that was almost certainly related to the pressures of his unexpected (and sudden) superstardom, coupled with guilt feelings regarding his unfulfilled operatic ambitions. The crash diets that he was obliged to undertake by his film studio—requiring him to lose, on occasion, as much as eighty pounds, or 36kg—also compromised his health and emotional well-being.
Lanza's insecurities were further compounded by the near-constant attacks to which he was subjected by the press from 1951 inwards, together with the criticisms and often-unfounded skepticism he received from many music critics. See Lanza and the Press for more information.
What was his vocal range and voice type?
Lanza had a powerful lirico spinto tenor voice, i.e., a versatile instrument that was halfway between that of a lyric tenor, such as Luciano Pavarotti, ...
and that of a (more dramatic) spinto, such as Franco Corelli. His vocal range was almost two and a half octaves: from a low A below middle C to a D Natural above high C. Lanza's lowest and highest recorded notes are, respectively, a low B-flat (as heard in the scales scene in his 1950 film The Toast of New Orleans) and a D-flat above high C (as heard on his live and soundtrack recordings of the "Addio, Addio!" from Verdi's Rigoletto). Lanza possessed a freely produced "natural" voice, as opposed to a manufactured sound.
Did he use a microphone in concert?
Very rarely. With the exception of a handful of concerts that took place in outdoor venues (Washington Park, Milwaukee; Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles; Grant Park, Chicago), ...
virtually all of Lanza's live performances were conducted without a microphone, regardless of whether he was singing with piano accompaniment or a full orchestra. He did (openly) use a microphone for several concerts at the vast and acoustically unforgiving New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in 1947—and on one other occasion at that venue in 1951—but he experienced no difficulty in projecting his voice without a mike there in April 1948, when he sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. He also performed without a microphone at London's vast Royal Albert Hall and at Philadelphia's Academy of Music. For more information, read these testaments of singers and musicians who heard him sing in concert or opera. Links to professional reviews of his concerts and operatic appearances are available here.
Was he actually a trained opera singer?
Yes, he was—and he certainly considered himself as such. Lanza studied operatic vocal production with a number of voice teachers, most notably for fifteen months with the renowned Enrico Rosati, ...
who had been the legendary tenor Beniamino Gigli's only teacher. In later years, Lanza credited Rosati with providing him with a rock-solid vocal technique that would enable him to sing for hours without tiring. (More information can be read here.) Lanza also studied operatic repertoire for many years (principally with Giacomo Spadoni, one-time vocal coach to Enrico Caruso). After appearing in a number of roles in local operatic productions while still an amateur, the 21-year-old Lanza studied and performed the principal tenor role of Fenton in Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood. For his efforts, he was hailed by both Opera News and the New York Times as an outstanding operatic prospect.
Six years later, after completing army service and a period of intensive study (followed by a tour as part of the Bel Canto Trio with George London and Frances Yeend), Lanza performed the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association. Again, he received considerable praise for his singing, and was immediately invited to return to New Orleans the following year as Alfredo in a production of Verdi's La Traviata (opposite Eleanor Steber). Hollywood, however, distracted him from his plans, although he always intended to return to opera—"his only true love," as mentor Peter Herman Adler once observed. See this forum discussion for more information.
How many operatic roles did he know?
At least seven, two of which he performed to considerable acclaim in staged productions. The roles he learned were Andrea Chénier (in Giordano's opera of the same name), Fenton ...
in Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, Turiddu in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, and three Puccini roles: Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly), Rodolfo (La Bohème), and Cavaradossi (Tosca). An eighth role that he presumably learned sufficiently was that of the Contino del Fiore in Federico and Luigi Ricci's Crispino e la Comare, a lead tenor part that he performed in an Apollo Grand Opera Company production in Philadelphia around 1941.
Lanza twice performed the roles of Fenton and Pinkerton in 1942 and 1948, respectively, and at the time of his death was planning to sing Canio at the Rome Opera in the 1960-61 season. He was also invited in 1949 and 1950 to sing Chénier at La Scala and the San Francisco Opera, respectively. Reviews of Lanza's operatic appearances can be read here, and a list of all known material that he performed live is available here.
How many recordings did he make?
More than 500 between 1940 and 1959. These comprise RCA studio recordings, film soundtracks, radio broadcasts, home rehearsals, private recordings, and live performances.
“One Good Boy Gone Wrong” from Romberg's operetta The Desert Song, recorded in September 1959—only weeks before his death on October 7th.
(Claims of a final recording of "The Lord's Prayer" that same month are pure invention.) Lanza had begun recording The Desert Song in August, but hospitalization for pneumonia interrupted the sessions until early September.
Where can I find more information about his recordings?
As mentioned above, we provide a comprehensive discography (with CD information provided in many instances). For LP and CD recommendations click here. You can also contact us for further information.
Did Lanza sing “Ave Maria” with a teenaged Luciano Pavarotti in The Great Caruso?
Absolutely not! Lanza never even met Pavarotti. That's a ridiculous story that first surfaced on YouTube. The boy who performed alongside Lanza in the film was Michael Collins, ...
but he was miming to the voice of uncredited soprano Jacqueline Allen (1925-2009). Ms. Allen's mini-biography can be read here. (Allen replaced the original boy soprano selected to sing with Lanza, since the young chorister was not available on the scheduled recording day.)
How many Grammys did Lanza win?
None. The Grammys were only in their infancy when Lanza died, although the soundtrack of his final film, ...
For the First Time, was nominated for one (shortly after his death). It lost to the soundtrack of Porgy and Bess .
What about Gold Records?
He earned five gold records: three for singles (“Be My Love,” “Loveliest Night of the Year,” and “Because You're Mine”) ...
and two for albums (The Student Prince and Other Hit Songs from Musical Comedies, which held the #1 spot on Billboard's Popular Album Chart for 42 weeks, and The Great Caruso). All of these would qualify as platinum records in today's terms, with “Be My Love” almost double platinum at close to two million copies sold. Lanza was also the first classical artist to sell more than a million copies of an album (The Great Caruso). More information about Lanza's record sales can be found here.
Could Lanza read music?
No, he couldn't—though he was certainly not alone in that respect among celebrated singers. There are numerous examples ...
of great operatic singers who don't or didn't read music, including such luminaries as Ezio Pinza, Lauritz Melchior and Luciano Pavarotti. In Lanza's case, his inability (or unwillingness) to read music was never a handicap for him, given that he possessed outstanding musicality and a fine retentive ear. [More information can be read here and here.]
Why did he become a movie star?
Quite simply because of the financial security his MGM contract offered, coupled with the advice of his then-manager, Sam Weiler.
But it's important to note that Lanza's seven-year film contract was only for six months of each year. He signed that contract believing (naively) that he would be able to devote the remaining six months of every year to concerts and opera, and for a short time he managed to achieve that goal. Once his film career had taken off, however, Lanza would discover that there was never sufficient time (let alone the right artistic atmosphere in Hollywood) to achieve the goal of preparing for—and then performing—operatic roles. See this essay for further information.
How do great opera singers regard Lanza?
Very favorably indeed. Several leading tenors have hailed him as a prime inspiration for their careers. Read this article for comments about Lanza by noted opera singers.
What's the best biography on Mario Lanza?
By a country mile, Armando Cesari's Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Baskerville 2004; 2nd. ed. 2008). I argue why here.
Why didn't he star in The Student Prince?
During the pre-recording period, Lanza clashed with director Curtis Bernhardt regarding his vocal interpretation of the Prince. This led the tenor on a collision course with MGM's executives. For further information, click here.
What sort of person was Lanza?
Larger than life, loathing of formality, extraordinarily generous, deeply sensitive, sometimes overbearing but overflowing with warmth and empathy; these are some of the qualities that have been ascribed to Lanza by those who knew him. . . .
That's not to say, of course, that the man didn't have a less attractive side. Volatile by nature, he was capable of being both crude and wildly unpredictable on occasion. By all accounts, he was also extremely difficult to deal with when intoxicated, and there were periods of his life (especially after the termination of his MGM contract and the financial woes that coincided with that event) when rage and despair overwhelmed him. But the fundamental decency of the man is a recurring theme in the anecdotes of virtually all who knew him well. See "Myths about the Man" and this forum discussion for more information.
Did any of Lanza's children sing?
Only one: Colleen. She possessed an attractive lyric soprano, and was also highly musical. Sadly, however, she never seriously pursued a musical career. [Read Armando Cesari's reminiscences of her here.]
Who is this tenor Cristian Lanza?
A modestly talented Rome-born singer who claims to be the grandson of Mario Lanza. Apparently, he is the son of a Neapolitan tenor named Federico Camera, who was later known professionally as Rico Lanza. ...
Rico, who was born in Naples in September 1945, long maintained that he was the illegitimate son of Mario Lanza. He claimed that his mother, Ary Camera, had had a sexual encounter with Lanza while the latter was stationed in Marfa, Texas, during his army service. The problem with this story is that Lanza was nowhere near Texas at the time of Rico's conception. His stint in Texas had in fact ended more than two years before Rico's birth.
Proudly continuing the masquerade begun by his apparent father, Cristian Lanza does not exactly help his genealogical claim by neither looking nor sounding remotely like his supposed grandfather. Unfortunately, however, many gullible (or lazy) individuals in both the German and Italian media have simply taken him at his word, and he is routinely introduced as "the grandson of the famous Mario."
Side note: For many years, an American who called himself "Victor Lanza" claimed to be the illegitimate son of Mario Lanza and the latter's much older friend and mentor, Maria Margelli (1902-1974). Victor Lanza has apparently long since abandoned his ridiculous claim, and now goes by the stage name of Leonardo Lamare. What is amusing about such imposters, however, is that they are always tenors. Is it too much to expect a soprano or a baritone to come forward (or, for that matter, a non-singer), if only for the sake of variety?