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.
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.
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.