Happy Birthday, Mario!

Mario Lanza

(Broadcast January 31, 2001, on Lindsay Perigo's The Politically Incorrect Show.)

Lindsay Perigo

Today's editorial is pure self-indulgence. It's Mario Lanza's 80th birthday today. Or would have been - he died in 1959 at the age of 38. "Whom the gods love die young." I could not let the day pass without paying tribute to my hero. From the moment I saw The Great Caruso at the age of nine, I wanted to sing. The movie had the same effect on Pavarotti, Domingo & Carreras. They had voices - I didn't. It had the same effect on millions, as this Prince of Passion propelled his musical philosophy onto the screen: "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth." "I feel each note from the top of my head to the tips of my toes."

Like most MGM musical biographies, The Great Caruso was inaccurate, to say the least - more because of what it left out rather than what it included. But no one gave a damn - it was the musical thrill of a lifetime. Here's what Caruso's son, Enrico Caruso Jr said about it & its star in his book, Enrico Caruso - My Father & My Family:

"It was Lanza who made the picture a success. While the crowds idolized him, the experts and purists insisted that he was a far cry from the real thing, that he had no business impersonating the great Enrico Caruso, that he was no more than a gifted amateur who never learned to sing properly. In my opinion, this was a facile and unfair dismissal. Mario Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural
gift for placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly
infallible musical instinct conspicuously absent in the overwhelming majority of so-called 'great' singers. His diction was flawless, matched only by the superb Giusseppe di Stefano. His delivery was impassioned, his phrasing manly, and his tempi instinctively right -- qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain.

"Musically speaking, Lanza grew up on records, including my father's, yet he imitated no one; his recordings of operatic selections are original
interpretations. Let it not be forgotten that Mario Lanza excelled in both the classical and the light popular repertoire, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father's exceptional talents. Lanza's acting may have been elementary, but his innate charm and sincerity compensated for any
awkwardness. In addition to these attributes, Lanza bore a passing physical resemblance to my father. I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography."

Fifty years on from The Great Caruso, forty-two years after his death, Mario continues to inspire. Jerry Hadley attends the annual Mario Lanza Ball in Philadelphia, sings his heart out, & proclaims himself a "rabid fan." "If I am an opera singer," says Jose Carreras in a television interview I recorded with him, "it's thanks to Mario Lanza." Jose's Tribute To Mario Lanza at the Royal Albert Hall is still available on video. The opening words of a recent
American television documentary are forgivably hyperbolic: "Before the three tenors, there was just one - the greatest: Mario Lanza." Son Damon Lanza & his colleague Bob Dolfi publish a quarterly newsletter in Mario's memory, the Lanza Legend. The six-year-old violinist prodigy I spoke of months ago has just found a wonderful new teacher, himself a professional. Teacher wants Prodigy to play with more passion - & instructs him to listen to Mario's recordings. To a legion of fans the world over, many of them born after Mario died, he IS still simply "Mario" [Start music, The Song Angels Sing, Tk4, from chorus at 2' 02"] - the man who sang like an angel.

As we hear him now in the concluding moments of The Song Angels Sing, let me quote the words of one contemporary fan, just twenty-three years old: "You sang, you lived, you rumbled the stars themselves.  And you help give me courage to do the same" - & give voice to my own heartfelt:

Thank you - & happy birthday Mario!