Myths about Mario Lanza: the Artist by Derek McGovern
As Armando Cesari observes in his Introduction to Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, few operatic singers have been subjected to as much misinformation and criticism as Mario Lanza. "Much of what has been written has either been incomplete, inaccurate, self-serving, sensational, or a combination of all four," Cesari notes. "Unfortunately, when discussing Lanza's career, this mixture of fiction and sensationalism is often quoted as fact, even by music critics who have no excuse for their ignorance."
This article tackles some of the more enduring myths about Lanza's voice and artistry. (Rumors about Lanza's character and personality are challenged in Myths about Mario Lanza, the Man.)
This has been perpetuated by everyone from anonymous YouTube posters to conductor Steven Mercurio, who claimed in an interview with the New York Times in February 2002 that “[Lanza’s] voice was not really large enough to fill a 3,000-seat theater.” Significantly, however, neither Mr. Mercurio nor the YouTube netizens who regularly assert that Lanza couldn’t be heard “beyond the third row” ever heard the tenor in person.
Mario Lanza possessed a powerful lirico spinto tenor voice capable of being heard without amplification in a large venue. There is numerous testimony on record from leading opera singers, conductors, and professional music critics who heard Lanza—be it in concert, recital or in the opera house—attesting to the more-than-adequate size of his voice. The venues in which these luminaries heard the tenor perform unamplified include London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Lanza sang on two occasions in front of audiences of more than 8000; the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, where Lanza performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1951 for an audience of 4100; and the 3000-seat Philadelphia Academy of Music. What follows is but a small sampling of the testimony available. (See The Opera Singers Said... for more examples.)
Baritone Jess Walters, who sang Sharpless to Lanza’s Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association in 1948, later stated that the tenor possessed the requisite “squillo”—or “ringing quality . . . to carry over and above the sound of a pit full of musicians playing together in a theater full of listeners” in the acoustically challenging New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.
Baritone Robert Merrill, friend to Lanza and fellow RCA artist, stated on the radio program Mario Lanza and Friends that "[Lanza] had a large voice and good diction." (He also wrote in his 1976 memoir, Between Acts: An Irreverent Look at Opera and Other Madness, that his singing teacher, Samuel Margolis, "a better judge than I, seemed confident that Lanza might have become another Caruso.")
Reviewing Lanza’s recital at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1951, former tenor and noted critic Max de Schauensee observed in the (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin (3/13/51) that, “It can immediately be said that [Lanza’s voice] had no difficulty in reaching every corner of the Academy without benefit of any amplification.”
Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese recorded the Act III duet "Dio Ti Giocondi" from Verdi's Otello with Lanza in 1955. Fourteen years later, she told The American Record Guide's Robert T. Jones: "It really was a big voice. And I know because I sang with so many tenors, and I can tell."
In 1958, conductor Richard Bonynge and his wife, soprano Joan Sutherland, attended one of Lanza’s two recitals at the Royal Albert Hall. Recalling the event eighteen years later, Bonynge stated that, “We were both surprised by the size of the voice. Frankly, we expected it to be smaller. After all, one hears how film singers’ voices are amplified. . . . No doubt [Lanza] could have had an outstanding operatic career.”
Franco Ferrara, distinguished conductor of Rome’s National Academy of St. Cecilia, worked with Lanza in December 1958. In a 1977 interview with Armando Cesari, he stated that the tenor was “vocally extraordinary,” and that it was “ridiculous” to assert that his voice was not large enough for the stage: “It was a big voice, and anything but small.”
Mario Lanza never performed a complete operatic role.
Lanza performed two operatic roles twice: first, as Fenton, in the Metropolitan Opera director Herbert Graf’s production of Nicolai’s comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Berkshire Musical Festival in Tanglewood on August 7 and 13, 1942; and second, as Pinkerton, in Armando Agnini’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association on April 8 and 10, 1948. The conductors for these two productions were Boris Goldovsky and Walter Herbert, respectively.
Reviewing Lanza’s opening-night performance as Fenton, Noel Straus described the then 21-year-old tenor as “an extremely talented, if as yet not completely routined student, whose superb natural voice has few equals among tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power” (New York Times, 9 August 1942). Similarly enthusiastic reviews appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune (8 August 1942) and Opera News (5 October 1942), with Herbert Graf in the latter describing Lanza “as the find of the season.”
Lanza’s opening-night performance as Pinkerton also received excellent reviews. Walter S. Jenkins of the Times-Picayune (9 April 1948) wrote that, “The choice of Mario Lanza as Pinkerton was admirable,” and went on to praise Lanza’s “excellent” diction and “the quality of his voice,” adding that the 27-year-old also “looked the part of a young, handsome American naval officer.” Laurence Odel of the St. Louis News (9 April 1948) was even more enthusiastic, writing that, “Mario Lanza performed his duties as Lieut. Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. . . . His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably.”
In his 1979 memoir My Road to Opera, conductor Boris Goldovsky, who worked with Lanza in Tanglewood in 1942, claimed that while the tenor possessed a “phenomenal” voice, “[h]is ear was totally untrained,” and he was virtually incapable of learning music. Goldovsky also claimed that because of Lanza’s shortcomings as a musician, he had been obliged to shorten the role of Fenton as much as possible. These and other Goldovsky comments on Lanza were reprinted in Tanglewood: A Group Memoir, by Peggy Daniel (Amadeus, 2008).
Goldovsky’s claims are frankly absurd, and arguably stemmed from his deep personal dislike of his mentor (Serge Koussevitzky)'s protégé. Not only did Lanza learn the principal tenor role of Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor in little more than a month, but Goldovsky’s assertion that the work had to be shortened to accommodate the tenor is contradicted by the New York Times, whose reviewer, Noel Straus, noted that the opera was performed “in full.” Moreover, at the same time that he was studying the role of Fenton, Lanza learned (and performed) the entire Act III of La Bohème, singing the role of Rodolfo in two performances at the Berkshire Music Festival. Reviewing the second of these performances on 14 August 1942, critic Jay C. Rosenfeld praised Lanza and his Mimì on that occasion, noted Mexican soprano Irma González, for “the beauty of their voices and the vividness of their characterizations.”
While it is true that Lanza—in common with many other famous operatic singers (e.g., Caruso, Pinza, Warren)—never learned to sight-read music properly, what he lacked in musical theory or musicianship, he made up for in terms of sheer musicality. As the highly regarded vocal coach Leila Edwards (1912-2008), with whom Lanza studied the role of Pinkerton for four months in 1947–48, reminisced: “[Lanza was] quick to learn and I never had any problems working with him. . . . [H]e would have me sing the part in my whiskey tenor voice—once, sometimes twice—then he would repeat it perfectly. Mario had an incredible ear for music, and that’s how he learned the role.”
NBC Opera Theatre’s Peter Herman Adler (1899-1990), who worked with Lanza both in concert and on the soundtrack of The Great Caruso, was one of several noted conductors who were similarly impressed by the young tenor’s retentive ear and feeling for the making of music. In 1946 he stated that Lanza possessed “the greatest inherent, instinctive musicality I have ever seen.” The highly respected critic Claudia Cassidy—who heard Lanza in four concerts between 1946 and 1951—also praised the tenor’s musical instincts, noting that he “[possessed] the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama.”
Far from being unable to learn operatic roles, Lanza had in fact acquired seven by 1950: Canio (in Pagliacci), Rodolfo (La Bohème), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Chénier (Andrea Chénier), Turiddu (Cavalleria Rusticana), Fenton (The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly). He was scheduled to sing the role of Chénier at the San Francisco Opera in October 1950 (opposite Licia Albanese and Robert Weede), but subsequently withdrew because of work and family commitments. At the time of his death, Lanza had verbally agreed to sing the role of Canio at the Rome Opera House in the 1960–61 season.
A common complaint by listeners either predisposed to disliking Lanza or possessing only a passing familiarity with his recordings is that the tenor was incapable of singing softly. As the British music critic Leslie Mallory opined in October 1959, “From any musical standpoint, Mario Lanza never sang—he shouted. Everything was fortissimo, and so was his life.”
While at times (particularly in his movies), Lanza overused what lyricist Sammy Cahn admiringly called his “loud pedal,” there are numerous recorded instances in which the tenor dispels all notion that he was incapable of singing softly or with nuance. These include his exquisite live performance of the duet “Parigi, O Cara” from Verdi’s La Traviata, performed at the Hollywood Bowl with soprano Frances Yeend and conductor Eugene Ormandy; a live 1949 performance (also from the Hollywood Bowl) of the duet “È il Sol dell’Anima” from Verdi’s Rigoletto; a 1951 MGM recording of Kern’s “All the Things You Are;" most of the singing on the 1952–53 MGM recording of Romberg’s operetta The Student Prince; the Schubert “Ave Maria,” and virtually all of the renditions on the 1958 album of Neapolitan songs, Mario! As the critic Felix Borowski, reviewing Lanza’s 1951 recital at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, noted, Lanza was perfectly capable of employing a “ravishing” mezza voce (Chicago Sun-Times, 8 April 1951).
More recently, the great Russian tenor Vladimir Atlantov has cited Lanza’s soft singing as only one of his many vocal attributes: "When I listen to [Lanza], I feel as if some golden lava is flowing toward me. I'm deeply moved when I hear him sing, and not only because he has a voice of unique beauty—it has everything from amazing firmness, resolution and dramatism to piercing, throbbing tenderness."
One of the most pervasive myths about Lanza is the notion that he was a self-taught singer who never acquired an adequate vocal technique. Time Magazine, for instance, in its 1951 cover story on the tenor, encouraged this view, claiming that Lanza “lacked the years of training needed to settle even the greatest voice,” and referring to the predictions of unnamed “experts” that within two or three years he would tarnish his voice—before “ultimately . . . [burning] it out.”
Lanza possessed a solid vocal technique, acquired largely from the fifteen months he spent in 1946–47 working with the celebrated voice teacher Enrico Rosati. (Rosati’s previous students included tenors Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.) The tenor had worked with other voice teachers prior to meeting Rosati, but it was the latter who taught Lanza—in his own words—how to “sing for hours without becoming tired.” As Lanza biographer Armando Cesari observes, Rosati, having “[discovered] that Lanza’s voice was already perfectly placed, . . . concentrated on strengthening the tenor’s diaphragmatic support and breath control, and helping him to relax his throat and facial muscles.” As a result, Lanza's friend and colleague George London recalled in 1977, the tenor learned how to “[sing] more lyrically, with less pressure, to good advantage.”
Lanza’s vocal technique would stand him in good stead to the end of his life. As music critic Dr. Kurt Klukist, reviewing Lanza’s final recital (in Kiel, Germany), observed in the Lubecher Nachricten (14 April 1958), “It is difficult to know what to admire most. The faultless breathing technique, the elastic precision of his wording, the light ‘piano.’ The constantly disciplined ‘forte.’ The well-synchronized join between [vocal] registers.” In December 1958, barely ten months before Lanza’s death, conductor Franco Ferrara—far from encountering the burned-out instrument that Time had predicted back in 1951—discovered “a Caruso-type voice” that had “both steel and warmth."
This bizarre allegation has been circulating for decades, with conductor Boris Goldovsky arguably its most enthusiastic promoter. Goldovsky, who was never present at any of Mario Lanza’s recording sessions, claimed in 1979 that, “[I]n Hollywood, [Lanza’s] promoters were able to splice together bits of arias to make him sound like a great opera star.”
If anything, Lanza was "guilty" of completing his recordings in single takes—when retakes (or at least partial retakes) arguably would have improved the end result. As Lanza biographer Armando Cesari observes (and RCA producer Richard Mohr confirmed), “On those occasions when Lanza had lost weight, he would often feel less strong and energetic than when he was heavier, and would consequently refuse to do more than one take.” Indeed, one only needs to consult the RCA, MGM and Warner Bros. recording logs for proof of the number of recordings that Lanza made in single (continuous) takes; these include ten of the arias that he recorded between April and May of 1950 and his entire first commercial session for RCA. Even Lanza’s famous 1952 recordings of the Romberg “Serenade” and “Drink! Drink! Drink!” from The Student Prince were made in single takes, together with his million-selling singles “Be My Love” and “Because You’re Mine.”
Recently—and in true Goldovskian spirit—an anonymous YouTube contributor has repeatedly alleged of Lanza’s celebrated recording of the Act III duet from Otello (“Dio Ti Giocondi”) with Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese that the two singers were never together in the studio. Instead, he asserts, a timid Lanza—unable to hold his (vocal) own in the presence of a great soprano—recorded his contribution to the ten-minute duet after Ms. Albanese had left the studio.
Unfortunately for the claimant, the recording logs, conductor (Ray Heindorf) and Ms. Albanese herself all contradict this rumor. “I can state categorically,” Ms. Albanese said in 1980, “that [Lanza] never had any vocal or musical problems either in the Otello recording I did with him or the other recordings I heard him do.”