His lirico spinto tenor voice was considered by his supporters to rival that of Enrico Caruso, whom Lanza portrayed in the 1951 film The Great Caruso, although compared to Caruso, his operatic career was negligible. Lanza sang a wide variety of music throughout his career, ranging from operatic arias to the popular songs of the day. While his highly emotional style was not universally praised by critics, he was immensely popular and his many recordings are still prized today. He died of pulmonary embolism aged only 38.
His operatic debut, as Fenton in Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, was at Tanglewood on August 7, 1942, after studying with conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. It was here that Cocozza adopted the stage name Mario Lanza, which was the masculine version of his mother’s name. His performances at Tanglewood won him critical acclaim, with Noel Straus of The New York Times hailing the 21-year-old tenor as having "few equals among tenors of the day in terms of quality, warmth, and power."
His operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory while in the Air Corps. He also appeared in the film version of the latter (albeit as an unrecognizable member of the chorus).
He resumed his singing career in October 1945 on the CBS radio program Great Moments in Music, where he made six appearances singing various operatic selections. He later studied with noted teacher Enrico Rosati for fifteen months, then embarked on an 86-concert tour of the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948 with George London and Frances Yeend. Reviewing his second appearance at Chicago's Grant Park in July 1947 in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, the respected music critic Claudia Cassidy praised Lanza's "superbly natural tenor" and observed that "though a multitude of fine points evade him, he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama."
In April 1948, Lanza sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association. The conductor was Walter Herbert. Writing in the St. Louis News, critic Laurence Odel observed that, "Mario Lanza performed his duties as Lieut. Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably." Following the success of these performances, Lanza was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata. However, as biographer Armando Cesari observes, by 1949 Lanza "was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned the role [of Alfredo]."
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 had brought Lanza to the attention of MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed Lanza to a seven-year film contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. This would prove to be a turning point in the young singer's career. MGM's contract with Lanza required him to commit to the studio for six months, and at first Lanza was able to combine his film career with his operatic one. In May 1949, he made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. However, his first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, were very successful, as was his recording career, and Lanza's fame increased dramatically.
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso, which proved an astonishing success although it did not adhere to the facts of Caruso's life. At the same time, Lanza's increasing popularity exposed him to intense criticism by some music critics, including those who had praised his work years earlier.
In 1952, Lanza was dismissed by MGM after he had pre-recorded the songs for The Student Prince. The reason most frequently cited for Lanza's dismissal in the tabloid press at the time was that his recurring weight problem had made it impossible for him to fit into the costumes of the Prince. However, as his biographers Cesari and Mannering have established, Lanza was not overweight at the beginning of the production, and it was, in fact, a disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over Lanza's singing of one of the songs in the film that led to Lanza walking off the set. MGM refused to replace Bernhardt, and the film was subsequently made with actor Edmund Purdom miming to Lanza's vocals. Ironically, the eventual director of the film was Richard Thorpe, the same man whom Lanza had pleaded with MGM to replace Bernhardt, and with whom the tenor had enjoyed an excellent working relationship on The Great Caruso.
Depressed by his dismissal, and with his self-confidence severely undermined, Lanza became a virtual recluse for more than a year, frequently seeking refuge in alcoholic binges. During this period Lanza also came very close to bankruptcy as a result of poor investment decisions made by his former manager, and his lavish spending habits left him owing about $250,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
He returned to an active film career in 1955 in Serenade. However, despite its strong musical content, it was not as successful as his previous films. Lanza then moved to Rome, Italy in May 1957, where he worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome and returned to live performing in a series of acclaimed concerts throughout Britain, Ireland and the European Continent. Despite failing health, which resulted in a number of cancellations during this period, Lanza continued to receive offers for operatic appearances, concerts, and films.
In late August 1958, he made a number of operatic recordings at the Rome Opera House for the soundtrack of what would turn out to be his final film, For the First Time. Here he came into contact with the Artistic Director of the Rome Opera, Riccardo Vitale, who offered him the role of Canio in Pagliacci in the theater's 1960/61 season. Lanza also received offers from the management of the La Scala and San Carlo opera houses. At the same time, however, his health continued to decline, with the tenor suffering from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis and acute high blood pressure. The old habits of overeating and crash dieting, coupled with his binge drinking, compounded his problems.
In April 1959, Lanza suffered a minor heart attack, followed by double pneumonia in August. He died in Rome in October of that year at the age of 38 from a pulmonary embolism after undergoing a controversial weight loss program colloquially known as "the twilight sleep treatment," which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. Attendees at his funeral were the singers Maria Caniglia and Lidia Nerozzi and the actors Franco Fabrizi and Enzo Fiermonte. Frank Sinatra sent his condolences by telegram. Lanza's widow, Betty, moved back to Hollywood with their four children but died five months later at the age of 37. Biographer Armando Cesari writes that the apparent cause of death, according to the coroner, was "asphyxiation resulting from a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving medication". In 1991 Marc, the younger of their two sons, died of a heart attack at the age of 37; six years later, Colleen, their eldest daughter, was killed at the age of 48 when she was struck by two passing vehicles on a highway. Damon Lanza, the couple's eldest son, died in August 2008 at the age of 55.
Lanza's short career covered opera, radio, concerts, recordings, and motion pictures. He was the first artist for RCA Victor Red Seal to receive a gold disc. He was also the first artist to sell two and half million albums. A highly influential artist, Lanza has been credited with inspiring the careers of successive generations of opera singers, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and José Carreras, as well as those of singers with seemingly different backgrounds, and influences, his RCA Victor label-mate Elvis Presley being the most notable example. In 1994, tenor José Carreras paid tribute to Lanza in a worldwide concert tour, saying of him, "If I'm an opera singer, it's thanks to Mario Lanza."
Mario Lanza, the Once and Future Tenor ; He Died 40 Years Ago, but He'll Be Back - If His Fans Can Stop Feuding
Oct 08, 1999; "The great power of Mario is that he brings people together," says William Earl of the UK's Mario Lanza Society. We're discussing...