Have you ever heard of Mario Lanza? Unless you’re of a certain age, love old movie musicals, or know your operatic tenors, the answer is probably no. And yet, Mario Lanza was the first true entertainment superstar, a man whose voice was heard around the world in the 1940’s and 50’s. His best-selling recordings and Hollywood movies, not to mention his movie-idol looks, turned this incredible tenor into an icon who was beloved and respected in both the classical and commercial music worlds. Join me now to Discover Mario Lanza– Superstar Tenor Who Took Hollywood by Storm!
Take a listen to his thrilling performance of the ever-popular “Granada”:
Born of Italian immigrant parents in 1921 Philadelphia, Alfred Lanza knew from a young age that he wanted to sing, and began formal study at the age of 16. His idol was the great tenor Enrico Caruso, and it seemed that Lanza would soon follow that legendary artist’s footsteps to the operatic stage. Local singing gigs in his hometown soon paved the way to a scholarship at the famed Berklee Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
In his early 20’s, Lanza performed in a number of operatic roles, and was hailed by critics for the beauty and power of his vocal tone, as well as his dynamic acting skills. It seemed he would continue on the operatic path until legendary studio head Louis B. Mayer saw him perform at the Hollywood Bowl and immediately signed him to a seven-year contract with MGM Studios. This was to change his career and life forever!
While at MGM, his movies were immensely popular and propelled Lanza
(who by now had changed his name to Mario, to honor his mother, Maria Lanza) into a level of fame that no other artist had achieved at that time. He had a highly successful recording career, sold-out cross-country tours, his own national radio show, and even made it to the cover of Time Magazine in 1951! He was the first singer ever to earn gold records with million-plus sales on both the classical and pop categories.
The first of Mario Lanza’s movie hits was the 1950 film The Toast of New Orleans, in which he starred with fabulous MGM soprano Kathryn Grayson. The movie gave birth to perhaps his most famous popular song, “Be My Love”:
The second of Lanza’s movies, and the one with greatest critical acclaim,
was the biography of his idol, The Great Caruso. No lightweight feel-good musical, here he got to brilliantly display his vocal gifts through the classic arias that only the greatest tenors in the world could sing. His performance thrilled opera-lovers and movie-goers alike, and it became the top-grossing film in the world that year! After seeing this movie, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini called Mario Lanza “the voice of the century”. Listen:
Another huge success for Mario Lanza came in the film Because You’re Mine, a movie musical romance whose title song, sung by Lanza, again sold over a million copies, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song:
Despite making other successful movies for MGM, Lanza had a fiery personality and often had conflicts with studio management, producers and directors. He was often pressured by them to lose weight, and was renowned for having unhealthy swings between overeating and crash dieting. Lanza also had an addiction to alcohol, and the two problems would eventually affect his health. While working on the film The Student Prince, there was yet another clash with his director, and Lanza lost his contract with MGM.
After this debacle, he moved with his wife and children to Italy, where he concertized and made a few more films, but his health problems, coupled with the loss of his stellar career, led to his premature death at the young age of 38. He was the most famous tenor in the world, and yet gone far too soon…
One of my favorite quotes by Mario Lanza is this: “I sing each word as though it were my last on earth”. Luckily for us, to this day, Mario Lanza’s incredible voice and stellar performances can still inspire a younger generation of singers, as well as delightfully entertain all of us with his films and many recordings. Check out www.mariolanzainstitute.org, www.mariolanzatenor.com, and the PBS production https://www.kcet.org/shows/mario-lanza-the-best-of-everything.
Now if someone asks you, “Have you ever heard of Mario Lanza?”, you can enthusiastically say, “YES”! And you can encourage them to Discover Mario Lanza– Superstar Tenor Who Took Hollywood by Storm!
For more on classic American movie musicals, visit my earlier post: