Biography

 
This Special Biography has been provided by Michael Davis
 of The Australian Mario Lanza Society

Mario Lanza was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza 31st January 1921 in Philadelphia, his father Antonio emigrated from Filignano Italy when he was 16 years old, he served in the U.S. 37th 145th Infantry, and was severely wounded in the battle of the Meuse-Argonne Forest and was sent back to civilian life with a disability pension, Mario's mother Maria Lanza (from whose name he took the masculine version as his stage name) arrived in America from Abruzzi Italy at 6 months of age, she met Antonio in 1919 when she was just 16 years old and after a few weeks they were married, they moved into the Lanza family home at
  636 Christian St. Philadelphia where 2 years later "Freddie" as he was called by the family was born. When Mario was 9 the family moved to 2040 Mercy St, which was a great improvement on the overcrowded conditions at Christian St. Mario was educated at three schools St Mary Magdalene di Pazzi, the Vare Junior high school and Southern High school, it was said by his teachers that he would rather play sport than study, which from the point of view of his physical build and stamina would stand him in good stead for the endurance to project his voice with the power that was to be so evident in later years. Mario was raised in a house where there was an extensive collection of Caruso records which were played regularly, this was his first exposure to this type of music and singing, he used to sing along with these records, but his first real singing teacher was a baritone Antonio Scarduzzo who saw to it that Mario did not overexert his voice, but tried to steer him towards the learning of solfeggio, but this was one area of music that he could never master, he worked with Scarduzzo for eighteen months, his next teacher was Irene Williams, who not only oversaw his singing lessons but also arranged recitals at society gatherings, the problem with lessons was the lack of money to pay for them, at this time Mario's mother was working to provide this, but for full time lessons it was never enough, but help was at hand William K Huff the concert manager at the Philadelphia Academy of music arranged an audition with Serge Koussevitsky in one of the dressing rooms (Mario was not moving a piano) as is popularly said, Koussevitsky was so impressed that he invited Mario to study with him at Tanglewood in the Berkshires where Koussevitsky ran a school of music for promising singers and musicians, Mario worked hard at his studies and at the completion he sang the role of Fenton in Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" not an extremely large role for a tenor but it is demanding, the critics wrote "Another outstanding member of the cast was a young tenor, Mario Lanza, in the part of Fenton" his next big role was as private Cocozza in the U.S.Army based in Marfa Texas, while at this station he auditioned for Peter Lind Hayes and was accepted into the troupe that was performing a series of concerts on army bases around the country at the end of which he played a part in "Winged Victory" a
patriotic musical put together by Moss Hart, the show ran until May 1944, and Mario was discharged from service on 29th January 1945. Mario returned to New York with an army friend Bert Hicks who had a sister Betty living in New York at the time, she was introduced to Mario and they were so attracted to each other that after a short courtship, they were married in a civil ceremony on 13th April 1945. Luck was running Mario's way and through a friend baritone Robert Weede he secured a spot on the ABCs Celanese Hour radio show as a standin for Jan Peerce who was the regular tenor, Mario was thrilled to be in such company, also again through Robert Weede he was selected to do a series of radio shows "Great Moments in Music", which he did between October 1945 and February 1946.

 Mario was now studying with Polly Robinson and through her he met Sam Weiler who was to become his business manager, Weiler was of the opinion that Mario needed more serious training and arranged for him to audition for Enrico Rosati who had earlier coached Gigli, Rosati was enraptured with the Lanza voice and agreed immediatly to accept him as a pupil, Mario studied with Rosati for 15 months it was an up and down period for him due mainly to his aversion to study, but he was forever grateful to Rosati for the invaluable teaching that he received from him. Mario joined soprano Agnes Davis for a tour of Canada, they started at Montcalm Palace, Quebec 10th October 1945 and ended in Ontario in November 1946, the tour was a sensation. On 14th April 1947 Mario was to do a recital at the State Teachers College, Shippensberg, Pennsylvania, his accompanist was to Constantine Callinicos, who was to become his lifelong conductor and accompanist. The next milestone was to be the "Bel Canto Trio" Mario, soprano Francis Yeend and baritone George London, they toured The U.S. Canada, Newfoundland and Mexico from July 1947, the tour lasted almost a year, after which they were invited to do one more concert at the Hollywood Bowl, 28th August 1947 with a full symphony orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, as this was to be a night to show Mario off to Louis B Mayer and company, George London graciously left the stage to Mario and Francis Yeend, this was a magnificent concert as the recording proves, both Mario and Francis are in wonderful voice, this was the concert that was to change Mario's whole life and the direction that he would take, and tragically the opera stage was to lose the man whose tenor voice could have been the sensation of the century.

The next short period was to be a whirlwind time for Mario, a screen test for the producers and directors of MGM, voice tests for his ability to produce his voice to the satisfaction of the sound engineers, and after having satisfied all and sundry as to his ability the prize was to be a contract with MGM for seven years, with a payment of a $10,000 bonus and $750 a week for six months while his first movie was being organized, the following six months he could do as he pleased, concerts, radio shows, recordings, whatever he liked, after which he was to make his first movie, for which he would be paid $15,000 and if the movie was a success his payment would be raised to $25,000 for the next movie, for the young man this kind of money and contract was a godsend he could not believe it was all happening, remember this was 1947, and imagine what sums like this would be translated to todays currency, enormous amounts of money, so he signed.

After his first movie "That Midnight Kiss" was completed and while the movie was being redied for release Mario Lanza made his professional opera debut with the New Orleans opera house association as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madam Butterfly with soprano Tomiko Kanazawa, the critical comment after this performance said in part "rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic tenor" also "His exeptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably", Mario sang two performances of this opera, to the sad loss to the opera world they were destined to be the only times that he would appear in a full opera role. 

MGM arranged a promotional tour for Mario, concerts around the USA, and a return engagement at the Hollywood Bowl 24th July 1948, with Kathryn Grayson in support, with the concert tour over Mario returned to New York for a recording session for RCA records, on 5th May 1949 his first recording session with Constantine Callinicos conducting took place, Mario recorded 4 tracks one of which was "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme this recording was voted operatic recording of the year by the National Records Critics Association, and was added to the RCA Hall of Fame. 1950 saw Mario's next movie The Toast of New Orleans from that movie came one of Mario's best known popular songs "Be My Love" this film also had 5 operatic numbers sung by Mario including the Love Duet from Madam Butterfly with Kathryn Grayson, this duet comes near the end of the film, and to see and hear Mario and Kathryn in these roles gives a glimpse of the magic that Mario would have brought to the live opera stage, this film was to establish Mario as a superstar, the film was a success and also the soundtrack, particularly Be My Love and The Bayou Lullaby. Then came the film that all agree was Mario's finest perfomance "The Great Caruso" Mario really put all his effort into this movie, he studied Caruso, his walk, his mannerisms, his stage style everything he could read about Caruso he read, for the time the film was being made Mario Lanza became Caruso, the record of the film was eventually to sell over one million copies and was the first operatic record to reach the heights of a Gold record. After the release of the film Mario went on a Great Caruso concert tour around the country to promote the film with Callinicos as conductor, every venue was sold out within hours of the box offices opening, in Pittsburgh they even sold tickets to the rehersal, and every seat was sold within hours. Mario was a huge success. One of the offer received at this time was from the Coca Cola Corporation for a weekly radio program to be called "The Mario Lanza Show" this offer was accepted and between 26th June 1951 and 22nd August 1952 59 programs were broadcast on CBS and NBC, Mario sang four selections and two from a guest artist, the most frequent guest was to be Canadian singer Giselle MacKenzie, Ray Sinatra was to take charge of the popular songs and Constantine Callinicos the classical numbers, the show was to be produced with a live audience, but after taking note of the over enthusiasm of the audiences at the concerts the management decided that the show would be recorded with audience responses added in, these shows were a showcase of the Lanza talent he sang everything from Cole Porter to Verdi, he sang popular songs, opera arias, religious songs, the whole range, these were to prove a much needed legacy in a couple of years.

 After the success of the Caruso film the next project was to be "The Student Prince" mario was thrilled as he was looking to make a costume movie, but it was not to be there were problems with the production from the start and the film was shelved for the moment, in the meantime the studio insisted that Mario make "Because You're Mine" his co star was to be Doretta Morrow who had been a hit on Broadway debut in "The King and I" Mario did not like the idea of this movie and let everyone know even to the point of describing it as "Junk", the plot itself is very thin, but the film did produce a few hit songs for Mario including the title song, also "Granada", a lovely rendition of "The song the angels sing" also a magnificently feeling and powerful "The Lords Prayer" my opinion is that this is only equaled anywhere in the Lanza catalogue by his "Ave Maria" in Serenade, or perhaps his concert recording of "Agnus Dei". The press got hold of the remarks Mario made, and also the fact that he did not consider this film worthy of his talents, and that he was making life difficult for all involved in the project and they really gave him a bad time with their cutting and pointed articles, but Mario stuck to his beliefs he just was not happy with this film, but he got through it, the film was released and the box office partly vindicated his position, it was not the success that the previous three films had been. August 1952 was to be another landmark , the recording of the soundtrack of "The Student Prince", the whole recording was done in single takes, there were three new songs for the movie one of which was "I'll Walk With God" which was to become another Lanza classic, the singing on this recording is nothing short of perfection, from the full powered "Drinking Song"
to the emotional and tender "Summertime in Heidelburgh" his voice is in complete control, and every phrase is Mario magic at its best. But on the film set things were not to go well at all, the first scene to be shot was the "Beloved" scene on the terrace, the director Curtis Bernhardt decide he did not like the way the song was sung, he corrected Mario telling him that he was putting too much emotion in his singing and that he was to sound more stuffy and rigid and to project the feeling more of a Prussian prince, Mario of course took exeption to this, and promptly told Bernhardt that he was to direct his acting, and that the singing was his (Mario's) department, the director would not accept this and Mario would not be told how to sing by a movie director, the end result was that Mario walked of the set and vowed not to return as long as Bernhardt was the director, in the end the studio took an injunction against Mario for damages and losses, the damages came to $700,000 and $4.5 million for losses and for cancelling the picture, they were also successful in gaining an injuction over his singing carreer, he could not perform in public, on radio, record or in effect work at all for the remaining time of his contract with MGM, which at that time was another 15 months, a solution was agreed in May 1953 that the studio would remove the embargo on Mario if he would allow his voice to be used and another actor play the part of the prince, this was agreed to and the filming got under way with Edmund Purdom miming Mario, to be fair to Edmund Purdom he did a marvellous job, and the film is a credit to all concerned, and of course we have Mario's fantastic sountrack recording. The irony of the whole sorry situation is that when the film was finally made the director was Richard Thorpe the director who had worked so harmoniously with Mario on "The Great Caruso". During the time that the embargo was in force RCA kept up a steady release of new Mario records by useing the tapes from the Coca Cola shows. Mario could now go back to work, 30th September 1954 Mario appeared on Chrysler Motors show "Shower of Stars" he was not confident at appearing in public after such a long time so it was agreed that he mouth to old records, the press got on to it right away with lines like "Mario Lanza has lost his voice" and such reports, of course these days singers do this all the time for various reasons, but those days it was just not done, Mario had to prove the critics wrong so it was arranged that he appear on a second show on 28th October 1954, he sang two numbers "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca and "Someday" from "The Vagabond King" and he sang the both magnificently there is so much feeling in the singing of "Someday", that it makes you think what is it that drives a person to impart that much passion in a song. The next big project was for Warners the making of "Serenade" based loosely on James M. Cains novel, Mario's contract was for a salary of $150,000 plus 35% bonus of the films gross profit, and he was to have the final say on the musical content, which allowed him to add little known arias like "Amor ti vieta" also the "Ave Maria" is one of his all time best and most moving selections, his rendition of Cilea's "Lamento di Federico" is (my opinion) the best it has ever been sung, the film also includes his magnificent Otello duet "Dio ti giocondi" with Licia Albanese, listening to this track really makes one think just how great would he have been on the opera stage, such power, such emotion, and where it is needed such menace, and the aria at the end "Dio mi poteve scagliar" is quite an achievement from a tenor who had never sung the part in public, indeed some of those who have sometimes loose the plot on this aria. The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in August 1956, and was a moderate success, but it did serve one of its purposes it put Mario Lanza back before the public. 

1956 also saw the return to the recording studio, two records were made the first was "Lanza on Broadway" the second was "Cavalcade of Show Tunes" the first turned out to be a disaster, the record as released has and echo in it and the voice is terribly muted, although I am led to believe the master tape is a very different story, it has no echo and the voice is magnificent, apparently the problem lies with the compression introduced by the sound engineers when the master pressing was made, the second record is a different story, it is briliant throughout. Later in the year Mario was offered a film to be made in Italy, by Titanus-LeCloud Productions, it was again a very lightweight plot, but it was accepted and Mario and family left America on 17th May 1957 and arrived in Naples on 28th May 1957 to a tumultuous welcome from the citizens and dignitaries of Naples, it was hardly the low key arrival that he expected. The prerecording for the film went without a hitch, George Stoll was brought in to arrange the music, Victor Young wrote the title song, the film also was finished on time with no problems, everything was going well away from Hollywood and the personality clashes that were a big part of the problems with quite a number of the stars and studio bosses at that time. The film at the box office was not a great success, it had not advanced much from the other very light plot films, but it did show Mario's voice was as good as ever. By the end of the year a full schedule for 1958 had been agreed to, but first there was to be London and the Royal Command Perfomance on the night of 18th November 1957, contrary to the untrue stories that abound to this day, Mario did attend all the rehersals for the performance, also the stories of a drinking binge for three days before the concert are untrue, Mario was on his best behaviour, and the performance on the night was a tremendous success, with the usually sedate patrons, he got applause, cheers and bravo's, which is not usual at a Royal Command Perfomance, after a followup concert the following week Mario returned to Rome. Next year 1958 started with a tour of the British Isles in January then on to France, Germany, Holland and Belgium, the tour started well enough but later it became clear that Mario was not well and cancellations took place, of the fourty four concerts he was only to be able to complete twenty three, one concert 16th January 1958 at the Royal Albert Hall was recorded in stereo, and is available on CD, it shows that the voice had not suffered at all indeed it is a marvelous and artistically varied performance, on the 13th April 1958 Mario sang at the Osterhalle in Kiel, it was to be his last public appearance in concert. By the end of April he was back in Rome with offers pouring in from all over the world, he was to have toured Australia starting January 1960. In May 1958 Mario signed a contract for a film to be called "For the first time" the pre-recording of the operatic numbers was to take place at the Rome Opera House in August, this was to be a real test of the voice, the members of the Rome orchestra were sceptical of the Lanza voice, many of them thinking that it was a manufactured voice, if he got it wrong here they would be merciless, but he did not get it wrong, and everyone concerned was lavish with their praise, the director of the opera house wanted to give him a contract there and then, but he was not even yet ready to face the opera world, although later he did agree to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca at the 1960 season, "For the first time" was shot in Capri, Paris and Germany, the film was finished on time and on budget and released on 8th August 1959, it was an excellent box office movie, with acclaim for the singing, and acting for Mario and his co-stars, 1959 had been a busy year with new recordings and a succesful movie, he had recorded "The Vagabond King" album, and was starting on the "Desert Song" when he became ill and had to be hospitalized, and was admitted to the "Valle Giulia Clinic" with pneumonia he was released in late August and completed his "Desert Song" recording, it is ironic that at this time Mario had more contracts for more varied work than he had ever had before. 10th September he returned to Cinecitta studios for a recording session, the last item of which was Malotte's "Lords Prayer" this was destined to be his last recording. The next few weeks were taken up with finalizing preparations for a new movie to be called "Laugh Clown Laugh" on 30th September Mario again checked into the "Valle Giulia Clinic" for a check up, where his doctor found signs of arterio sclerosis and high blood pressure, a charity concert in Naples was cancelled, on 6th October he informed the doctors that he was feeling better and would discharge himself the next day.

On the morning of 7th October 1959 Mario Lanza died in circumstances that have been desribed as suspicious, although nothing has ever been proved, and his death certificate states "Heart Attack", he was 38 years old, and so was gone what could have been in different cicumstances the Man and the Voice that could have taken the opera world by storm, and arguably been the greatest operatic tenor of all time. Mario Lanza through his films and records brought opera to people that under other conditions would never have heard it, he has been an inspiration to some of the greatest tenors of later years notably the 3 tenors of today all of whom praise his singing, and speak of the inspiration that Mario Lanza gave to them. He leaves us a great legacy of films and records which we can admire and be really thankful for.

This is only a precis of the life of Mario Lanza for complete biographies the following books are available:-

"The Mario Lanza story". by Constantine Callinicos
"Mario Lanza Tragedy of a voice". by Hermann M. Hausner 1962
"Mario Lanza" by Matt Bernard 1971. 
"Lanza His tragic life". by Raymond Strait and Terry Robinson 1980
"Mario Lanza a biography". by Derek Mannering 1991
"My memories of Mario Lanza" by Eddie Durso 1992
The last is not strictly a biography but it gives a great insight into the character of 'Mario Lanza' as a boy and a young man, before he became famous, as it is told by another young man who was the closest of school friends of "Freddie" Cocozza.

For further information or comment on the site please email Michael Davis
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


 
 
 
 
 
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