Mario Lanza

The definitive biography by Armando Cesari

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The biography is the result of a lifetime study of the singer, and of research carried out in America and Europe over a period of thirty years. During this time most of Lanza’s important associates, fellow artists and personalities of the film and music world were interviewed. The book tells the story of one of the most naturally gifted singers of the 20th century. A singer destined to become an operatic superstar, but one whose involvement with Hollywood, and the resultant fame and mass adulation that followed, led him to become increasingly insecure and guilt-ridden for having prostituted his talent commercially. After his meteoric rise to stardom Lanza ended up both ill and a virtual alcoholic, and due to medical incompetence his life came to a tragic end in a Rome clinic at the age of 38.

Pulling no punches - yet avoiding the sensationalistic aspects of previous Lanza biographies - the book examines and dispels the false myths that emerged during Lanza’s short but turbulent career, and which have lingered to the present day. It is the only accurate and complete biography of Lanza written to date, and will therefore be of interest not only to his admirers, but above all to everyone who desires to read a true account of the singer’s life.

Preface by Placido Domingo

Any book that sheds light on the phenomenon named Mario Lanza is of importance. I call Mario Lanza a phenomenon advisedly, because his place in music history has always been controversial. Let us ignore the typical Hollywood hype which was inflicted on any star performer under the old studio system. What remains to this day as the essence of his persona is, to my mind, one of the truly great natural tenor voices of the past century - a voice of beauty, passion and power! The voice communicated to millions all over the world and I venture to say that his films did more to lure the general public to the art form of operatic singing than the voice of almost any other performer before his time. Of course the cinematic medium was a prime factor in this achievement, because a film reaches so many millions. BUT, and I spell this "but" with capital letters, that is no guarantee that the public will be spellbound, because there are film performers whom the public simply ignores. There was a visceral quality to the Lanza voice which even to this day - on reviewing the old films or relistening to the old recordings - grabs one with astonishing force.

Many people in the classical music world refused to recognize him and actually belittled not only his impact on the public but his God-given voice. As I write this, I have before me the 1980 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. There are five entries under the name of "Lanza" - Francesco Giuseppe Lanza, a composer and singing teacher who lived from 1750 to 1812, and three of his sons, all of them composers and teachers; the fifth entry is Alcides Lanza, Argentinian composer, conductor and pianist who was born in 1928. This is merely one example of him being dismissed by the musicological fraternity. Several years ago I was interviewed on a television program that dealt with Lanza. Afterward I received letters from a number of well-meaning musicologists who took me to task for "defending Mario Lanza." What these people didn't recognize, or didn't want to recognize, is that I made no references to his personal life, his behaviour or his troubles, but purely to his voice - a voice which, incidentally, not only made an impact on me, but also on many of my tenor colleagues, like Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras.

Why was there this antagonism? Was it because some people felt that success had come too easily to him - that he hadn't "suffered" for his art - or was it jealousy that someone who wasn't very sophisticated, academically speaking, could become such an effective "pied piper" for leading the uninitiated to the allure of the operatic voice?

As so often happens with time, attitudes change. The fact that we are still interested in his movies and recordings and that this book has been written proves that the persona of Mario Lanza has survived the test of time and that his voice remains a force of nature to this day.

Foreword by Lindsay Perigo

It gives me enormous gratification to be writing the Foreword to this book, "Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy," if for no other reason than that it was I who pestered its author into writing it, way back in the mid-seventies. Nearly thirty years later, lo! - it has come to pass! A classic case of "better late than never."

The perception of Mario Lanza has changed significantly during that period, in such a way as to make the late arrival of this biography in actual fact timely!

At the time of Armando's & my first meeting, Lanza's admirers still had to contend with the sneering dismissiveness of those who considered themselves arbiters of good taste. These latter seized on this or that rough edge, mis-pitch or mis-judgement, & claimed vindication for their view that the name "Mario Lanza" did not belong in the hallowed precincts of Great Singers, that he was a second-rate Hollywood singer who owed his popularity to the ignorance of the masses who adored him.

Now, as tenor Richard Leech has proclaimed publicly, it's "cool" to like Lanza again.

One reason for this is that precisely such respectable figures as Mr Leech - & the biggest possible names such as Pavarotti, Domingo & Carreras - have made no bones about the fact that it was Mario Lanza who inspired them to become opera singers. Maestro Domingo has graciously written the Preface to this very book! Maestro Carreras has recorded & toured "A Tribute to Mario Lanza." And so it goes. What can the critics say to that?

A second reason for Lanza's posthumous rehabilitation is that, in an era awash in "Super-Stars" it has dawned on serious observers that there's no necessary disconnection between greatness & popularity; that being popular doesn't automatically disqualify one from greatness. There were legitimate reasons for Mario's popularity - his looks, his charisma, his beguiling combination of intelligence with naivete - that were part of a package that spelled "greatness" & could not be dismissed with a mere sneer.

But the most obvious & inescapable reason for the upgrading of Lanza's status is of course, the voice. All that's necessary to know one is in the presence of greatness is to listen to it! The greatest voice ever bestowed on a human being, said his colleague George London. The voice - and, I would add - the way he used it. Yes, there were rough edges from time to time. But in a contest between a note-perfect performance devoid of feeling & a note-imperfect performance that brings you to the edge of your seat with pulse racing, spine tingling & hair standing on end, the latter is always going to win out. It is not just his godly voice that has rekindled the Lanza flame; it is also the super-human passion with which he delivered it. In Mario's own words, "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth."

Armando Cesari's biography is a fitting tribute to a beautiful voice & a beautiful soul. It explains the tragedies that stilled his talent far too prematurely. It is meticulously researched & scrupulously fair. I salute its author & its publishers on its timely release.