~ By Joe Curreri ~
Mario Lanza And Enrico Caruso
It was 1921. A great singer, Enrico Caruso, died. That very same year, as if to take his place, Mario Lanza was born.
Thus began a most unusual parallel between these two tenors and a number of coincidences that linked their lives. Even when Mario Lanza was baptized it was by a priest whose name was Father C. Caruso.
But it seemed like it was the love-mad, desperate Canio's lament in "Pagliacci" that connected them forever. Both Caruso and Lanza sang "Vesti la Giubba" with passion and power never heard before.
In Salerno in 1896 Caruso first undertook the role he was to make forever his own. He established the popularity of the work at the Metropolitan by singing Canio 76 times.
"Vesiti la Giubba" also led to the discovery of Mario Lanza. The story goes Lanza posed as a truck driver delivering a piano to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Outside conductor Serge Koussevitzky's dressing room, Lanza began belting out the familiar refrain from "Pagliacci." Koussevitzky burst out and embraced the young singer. "This," he is said to have shouted, "is the greatest natural tenor since Caruso! You come with me to study at the Berkshire Music Festival."
No doubt about it, the best recordings of both artists were their renditions of "Vesti la Giubba." Lanza's recording went on to become "gold," the first opera aria to sell 1 million copies.
The parallel continued throughout their lives. When Mario Lanza first used his lungs in his small crib, the boy's father knew he had a singer n the family. As Lanza grew, his father would play Caruso records on the Wind-up Victrola and young Mario would listen by the hour.
When he was 10, Lanza knew the arias of some 50 operas. At 15, he could discuss arias from the most obscure works with the professionals.
Each loved his mother dearly. Caruso at 15, was heartbroken when his mother died. For the rest of his life, no matter where his singing took him, his mother's photo adorned his bedroom. Lanza likewise honored and glorified is mother by adopting the masculine form of her maiden name, Maria Lanza.
But it was while in military service, Lanza owed his first big break to Caruso. It was the day he tried out to sing in a Special Services show. But unfortunately, on the day of the audition, he developed a sore throat. Never one to quit, Lanza sent instead a Caruso record which he had labeled, "Mario Lanza." He was immediately accepted. When he had recuper-ated, he reported for rehearsal. After singing several songs, the comment was made, "You're singing better now than on your record."
Caruso also owed his first big break to Mario -- Mario Morelli. Morelli was a native of Naples who fancied himself a composer, and he offered the young Caruso a piece called "L'Amico Francisco." It became the tenor's first professional operatic role. The year was 1894.
As Caruso soared to fame, the name Mario continued its association with his life. Caruso made the role of Mario Cavarodossi in Puccini's "Tosca" almost as much of his own as Canio in "Pagliacci." And Caruso idolized a famed singer who in his time used only his first name, the great "Mario." Even Caruso's valet was named Mario.
After thrilling his Hollywood Bowl audiences while on tour, Lanza was signed by MGM and assigned Giacomo Spadoni as his coach, the same Giacomo Spadoni who had worked closely with Caruso.
Another quirk of fate happened when Lanza played the l;ead role in "The Great Caruso." The associate producer of the film was Jesse Lasky, the man who had produced the only two films Caruso ever made.
"The Great Caruso" became a realized for Lanza. It was a role he had rehearsed all his life. All during the filming, Lanza behaved as much like Caruso as he could, off the set as well as on. He affected the tenor's mannerisms and dress. He took to wearing fur-collared coats and cloth-topped shoes, and began living on a lavish scale.
"Imagine," Lanza was quoted, "all my life this man is my idol. All of a sudden I get the chance to play him on the screen. I have to be Caruso! I don't want to be just an actor who looks like the man, singing his songs. No, I want to be this man, as he grows older, gets heavier."
The film brought $19 million into the studio coffers, and made Lanza a sensation across the country. He received a $100,000 bonus which was twice his agreement with the studio. With this and returns from his concert tour, radio shows and recordings, Lanza grossed over $1 million in 1951, it was the year he made the cover of "Time" magazine.
But difficulties and heartaches eventually drove both singers to another country. Caruso came to the United States, Lanza fled to Italy.
It was in 1901, the year of his greatest success at La Scala, when Caruso suffered his cruelest blow. The audience he most wanted to please, in his native Naples, hissed and booed him openly. He was stunned. "I will never come to Naples to sing again," he vowed.
Lanza went to
Italy to escape his constant squabbles in Hollywood. MGM fired the
tenor in 1954 when he walked off the set of "The Student Prince."
"I hate their sickly, sentimental scripts," said an overweight, temperamental
Lanza. "I'll go to Europe before I will debase my voice."
And 38 years later, Lanza died of a sudden heart attack. Just one month before he was to film "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," and while preparing for his Rome Opera debut in "Pagliacci."
Both deaths shocked and stunned the world. Thousands wept openly in Naples, lining the streets to view the horse-drawn carriage with the body of Caruso in 1921. And in 1959, the horse-drawn carriage with the body of Lanza reenacted the scene in Rome. Coincidence followed them even in death. Caruso had just recorded "Addio, Napoli," and Lanza his "Arrividerci Roma."
Ironically, their final resting places are in the cities they disliked: Caruso in Naples, Lanza in Hollywood.
Joe Curreri Is A Nationwide Freelance Writer Who Also Was The Publicity Director Of The Mario Lanza Institute And Museum For 35 Years. Joe's Column Will Also Appear On The Golden Music Memories Of Yesteryear Website In The Mario Lanza Article Section.