Tuned into 'voice of the century' Music: It's been nearly 40 years since his death, but tenor Mario Lanza's singing is enjoying a comeback.


Michael Bolton contorts his way through a new album of

operatic arias. Aretha Franklin struggles through Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards. The Three Tenors are && almost as popular as Elvis.

Opera is no longer longhair (or blue hair) music. At sellout performances across the country, Verdi and Leoncavallo are often the hottest dates in town. And the matinee idol/tenor who first made operatic singing a hot date with mass audiences 48 years ago -- Mario Lanza -- seems to be making a comeback. No easy trick for a man who died in 1959.

Consider: Lanza -- proclaimed the "voice of the century" by conductor Arturo Toscanini -- is the subject of a biography, "Tenor in Exile," by Roland Bessette, due next year from Amadeus Press. After 20-plus years, the Mario Lanza Society's annual galas in Philadelphia, Lanza's home town, continue to attract fans from around the planet. Actor/tenor Charles GaVoian is garnering rave reviews with his one-man play, "The Mario Lanza Story" -- with runs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and elsewhere.

In Maryland, there will be a musical tribute to Mario Lanza tomorrow Sunday at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Tenor Thomas Chambers and soprano Sheila Wormer will perform more than 30 of Lanza's songs in their two-act show.

(The cost is $25; performances at 2: 30 p.m. and 8 p.m. For more information or to order tickets call 410- 337-8666 or 301-460-5469. The "Salute to Mario Lanza" is a fund-raiser for the Grand Lodge of Maryland, Order of Sons of Italy in America.)

All Three Tenors -- Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- acknowledge Lanza's impact, having performed his signature hit, "Be My Love," at the Dodger Stadium concert in 1996. Carreras and Domingo, who cite Lanza movies like "Because You're Mine" as an early inspiration, have recorded CD and video tributes to the tenor. Domingo narrates the video documentary, "Mario Lanza: the American Caruso," and Carreras performed a Lanza tribute concert in London last year that attracted tens of thousands. And yes, there is an extensive Mario Lanza Web site (www.sightings.com).

Now comes the crowning touch: brand new, never-released Lanza music.

The tenor could re-enter the charts with the recently issued, lavishly packaged "Be My Love: Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM," from Turner Classic Movie Music/Rhino Movie Music ($16.98.) It is the first release ever of soundtrack music from Lanza's five MGM films, and is merely the first of an expected series of Lanza vault releases from Turner/Rhino.

Hidden treasure

"These were jewels sitting in the vault waiting to be liberated," said George Feltenstein, vice president of marketing at Turner and producer of the project. "If the fans support this, there will be more. I'm hoping we'll be able to do full soundtrack albums for 'The Great Caruso' and 'The Student Prince.' I would love to be able to have all the recordings eventually come out. I'd say there are easily at least 40 to 60 tracks that could be released."

Why the lingering popularity? Why the Lanza fan clubs around the world?

"It's due to a lot of things," said GaVoian. "Certainly, there is that absolutely astonishing voice, and movie star quality. But he died so young -- it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors, but a whole generation of singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still draws."

Terry Robinson, Lanza's close friend, physical trainer, and author of "Lanza: His Tragic Life" (Prentice-Hall, 1980), was more succinct: "It's the voice. There's never been anything like it. It brings people together."

Lanza grew up in Philadelphia, honing his vocal powers by singing along to Victrola recordings of Enrico Caruso. He later trained operatically, and toured the country in the late '40s with George London and Francis Yeend as the Bel Canto Trio.

The executive secretary of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer discovered the young singer after hearing him perform as a last-minute substitute at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, and insisted that he meet her boss. Mayer took an instant liking to the magnetic, handsome tenor, and signed him to a seven-year contract. After the release of his first movie, "That Midnight Kiss," in August 1949, Lanza became a matinee idol.

But Lanza was forever between two worlds. On the one hand, he was hailed as potentially the greatest operatic tenor in history. On the other, he was a pop idol and sometimes crooner with hit films like "The Toast of New Orleans" and "Because You're Mine" -- which propelled songs like "Be My Love" to the top of the pop charts. Beleaguered as much as benefited by fame, the tempestuous Lanza ultimately abandoned Hollywood (or vice-versa) after a stormy relationship with studio bosses.

He died in Italy in 1959 at 38, officially the victim of heart trouble (he had a long history of alcohol and weight problems), but Robinson and some family members suspected Mafia involvement. (Lanza is alleged to have inadvertently offended the mob by failing to sing at a charity concert partly arranged by Lucky Luciano.)

A different company

The tenor's original MGM film soundtracks were never released because Lanza was signed with RCA in the early '50s, when the films were made. MGM, the first movie studio to have its own record company -- it "basically invented the soundtrack album," says Feltenstein -- could not legally release albums for Lanza's hit movies. Instead, Lanza made studio versions of songs from his films, with smaller orchestras, which RCA released shortly after the films came out.

The Lanza MGM soundtrack recordings, says Feltenstein, languished forgotten for decades, ultimately rescued only when Turner Entertainment bought the MGM vaults and began issuing soundtrack releases by its biggest stars, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

"I'm very familiar with Astaire, Kelly, Garland, Sinatra," said Feltenstein, producer of all the vault projects, "but my forte was not opera, or Mr. Lanza's material. So it meant I had to immerse myself in it, and I didn't think I was going to like it. Boy, was I surprised. I went from doing a project out of respect for his huge fan base to becoming a fan, myself."

The historic new CD -- with 22-page booklet illustrated with rare photos -- features two of Lanza's most important extended operatic recordings: the Act 1 finale from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," with Kathryn Grayson (from "The Toast of New Orleans"), and the sextet from Act II, scene 2 of Donizetti's "Lucia Di Lammermoor," in which he was joined by the Metropolitan Opera's Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Nicola Moscona, and Gilbert Russell.

"I remember that recording session," said Robinson. "All the other singers were right on their microphones, but Mario said, 'Move it back, move it back.' And the Met singers were amazed. They had no idea what kind of voice he had. They wanted him to come to the Met."

The CD, which features excerpts from "That Midnight Kiss," (1949) "The Toast of New Orleans," (1950), "The Great Caruso" (1951), Because You're Mine (1952), and "The Student Prince" (1954), also includes two outtakes. One of them, "Beloved," from "Student Prince," was one of the most important recordings Lanza ever made and one that marked a tragic turning point in his career.

This rejected "Beloved" was a torrid take that resulted in Lanza walking off the "Student Prince" project.

"I was standing there when he walked out," remembered Robinson. "He sang it too sexy, they said."

Point of view

The sticking point was interpretation. In the Sigmund Romberg operetta, the student prince is rejected by his princess for lacking passion. It is after being sent to Heidelberg to learn the ways of romance that he sings the ardent paean to the princess. The song is meant to be passionate, but the director, Curtis Bernhardt, didn't see it that way.

"Bernhardt said, 'You know, Mario, you are a Prussian prince -- don't do it so exciting,' " said Robinson. "Mario said, 'Look, when I tell a girl I'm going to take her tonight, and throw the mask away, well, I'm an Italian!' " Lanza walked out, and told the director, " 'If you want to direct me, you direct my acting, not my singing,' " Robinson said.

The conflict led to breach of contract lawsuits and culminated a couple years later with Lanza's departure from Hollywood.

Lanza eventually settled the dispute by completing the soundtrack, but backing out of the film. Edmund Purdom wound up lip-syncing Lanza's voice. The "Beloved" version used in film is "totally milk toast," said Feltenstein. "On the CD, you hear the passion and fire he wanted to bring to work. And he was right."

The Lanza children -- daughter Elissa Bregman and son Damon Lanza -- were delighted with the new release. "It's been a long time coming," said Bregman, from her home in Los Angeles. "I know there are people around the world who would appreciate any new material released on Mario Lanza. I hope this might inspire BMG [RCA's parent company] to release more of their [vault] recordings."

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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