Overhead the moon is beaming White as blossoms on the bough Nothing is heard but the song of a bird Filling all the air with dreaming...
These were the words that introduced me to Mario Lanza way back in 1973. I was just eleven at the time, and my father had brought home a copy of the LP Mario Lanza Sings the Hit Songs from “The Student Prince” and Other Great Musical Comedies. “Now you’ve got to hear this guy, Derek,” my father said. “Your grandfather reckons he’s the next best thing to Caruso.”
Well! In truth, the name “Caruso” meant nothing to me then, but I duly waited while Dad positioned the LP on our little battery-operated portable record player. This machine only had the one (tiny) speaker, and I still remember how awkwardly my father placed the stylus on the second track: Romberg’s immortal “Serenade.” But it mattered not, for in that moment my entire world changed.
It was the opening lines of the Student Prince "Serenade" that did it for me. The magical quality of this man’s phrasing, the way he pronounced “white,” and, above all, the sheer opulence of his voice; these were sounds that I never could have imagined possible from a human being.
In that moment my entire world changed
When years later I read conductor Constantine Callinicos’ description of his first encounter with the voice of Mario Lanza--of being overwhelmed to the extent that he felt “an incredible joke” was being played on him--I knew exactly what he meant.
From LPs to Movies
Over the next few weeks I played the LP endlessly, falling in love with the other renditions from The Student Prince in the process. “Beloved” soon jostled with “Serenade” for my choice of Best Lanza Recording.
Although I couldn’t articulate it then, I was fascinated not only by Mario’s feeling for the words, but by the dynamics of his singing --how he could go from soft to loud (and soft again) in an instant. Side B of the disc (songs from Lanza’s radio show, as I later discovered) never appealed to me as much then; I liked the recordings, but somehow they lacked the magic of The Student Prince. “Beloved, with all my heart I love you! With every breath I pray some day you will be mine!” That was the Lanza who touched my 11-year-old heart with the urgency and truth of his singing. I must have been an unusual boy, constantly pestering my teachers to allow me to play The Student Prince songs during music class. (They never did let me.) My friends didn’t “get” Lanza either, though it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.
Then something wonderful happened. Lanza’s film The Great Caruso came to New Zealand on one of its periodic re-runs.
I was fascinated by Mario's feelings for the words and the dynamics of his singing
Up until that time, I had very little idea as to what Lanza looked like, with that curious head-only photo from the cover of The Student Prince being my only real notion of his appearance. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the charismatic on-screen presence of the man.
Yes, the film weaved its magic on me, as it did for so many other people, through its thrilling introduction to the world of opera. Soon I began seeking out other operatic singers, including the subject of The Great Caruso: the man whom my grandfather placed above Lanza. But Caruso disappointed me. He sounded exactly as he looked! Where was the romantic magic so evident in Mario’s singing? Where in Caruso’s stentorian sound was the unique colour of Lanza’s voice?
Five years then went by before I discovered that a club devoted to my hero existed in nearby Wellington. The New Zealand Mario Lanza Society had been established by Lindsay Perigo in 1974 to promote Lanza and other singers of his stature. Far from being a “fan club” as such, I discovered that the society boasted a relatively large proportion of sane members. Concerts by local singers were a regular event at the society, and Mario’s films were often shown (a real treat in that pre-video age), thanks to the combined resourcefulness of Perigo and fellow club member Armando Cesari. I was in my element.