Monday, July 5, 2010

The Mystique of the "Faux" Opera Singer

Every generation seems to produce singers, who although not opera singers, are nonetheless compared to opera singers. Opera fans often hear the comment, "Oh, you like opera. You must like Bocelli."

Andrea Bocelli, possessor of slender technique and a vapid, lyric tenor voice, could hardly hold his own on the operatic stage. Yet he has an appealing personality and a bright, even brittle voice that lends itself to popular song, so the popularity of his recordings is understandable. He is hardly an opera singer.

What brings this topic to mind is an article in the July 2010 edition of Opera News about the late Mario Lanza. Lanza was born at a time, 1921, and in a place, South Philadelphia, where the operatic tradition permeated the large Italian-American community. He was possessed of a rich, full-bodied Italianate voice that, with nurturing and training, might have developed into a fine tenor in the lyric opera repertoire. His fame was assured with the success of the 1951 film The Great Caruso, in which he starred as the title character.

As an historical document, the film was laughable, but some fine singers from the Metropolitan Opera stable of that era, among them Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, and Lucine Amara, were persuaded to make cameo appearances. Little if any of their performances survived the final cut, but their presence in the cast lent some legitimacy to Lanza's operatic pretensions that his career did not merit. He sang during his brief life only three operatic performances, two in New Orleans and one in Tanglewood, none of them with any particular distinction.

Operatic tenors, to be sure, often are notorious for their self-indulgence, but none reached the level attained by Lanza. He died in 1959 from a heart attack brought on by substance abuse and obesity.

Not all great singers are blessed with great voices. But even those that are as prodigiously gifted vocally as was Luciano Pavarotti must still work hard and continuously to master their art. Early in his career when he was adopted as a favored colleague by Joan Sutherland, Pavarotti devoted himself to the craft of singing. Later in life he succumbed to the lure of celebrity and became so self-indulgent that he was fired by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Lanza had no discipline. His fame was fleeting, but he left no enduring record of vocal accomplishment, unlike Pavarotti, some of whose recordings are among the glories of the tenor repertoire. Lanza's recordings are those of a highly gifted and promising amateur.

A few singers, Lawrence Tibbett comes to mind, were able to bridge the worlds of popular music and opera. Did Lanza have the talent to do so? We'll never know. But we do know that he lacked the motivation and work ethic that is the hallmark of every successful opera singer. Great voices are born, but great singers are made.


  1. As an occasional Charlottesville resident, I can't stand for such a good local station to publish the above blog without some correction and ramification--a little more research and a little more balanced coverage. Truthfully, it reads as if written by a vestigial critic of the 1950s.

    Lanza, in fact, was and is an acknowledged operatic tenor of auspicious ability, and some of his recordings of arias such as Che Gelida Manina, E la Solita Storia, the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier, and E Lucevan le Stelle are considered among the standardbearers. And then there's his unparalleled musicianship of the Student Prince. Or the neapolitan songs contained in the album Mario! At his best. Or definitive renditions of Passione, Senza nisciuno, and Ideale among others included in the Mario Lanza Sings Caruso.

    Lawrence Tibbett himself said this about Lanza, "Lanza, in spite of the longhair criticism panning him as a 'movie singer' is the greatest musical talent of America in our century. A man who is bringing great music to the kids, the farms, the ghettos and the palaces." And Lanza did and still does.And I think, inarguably, Lanza has done so to a far greater extent than Tibbett--despite the baritone's monumental musical career and his activism in the music industry.

    Tibbett went on to emphasize Lanza's "natural zest, his unbelievable diction--unaffected yet clear and poetic," and added, "In fifty years people will recognize Lanza for the great artist he is." I hope that happens in Charlottesville.

    The fact is, his fame is far from fleeting. Global fan clubs abound. There's a tree in his memory outside Victoria and Albert Hall in London, a statue in Filignano, Italy--his father's birthplace, and regular soldout memorial concerts. And for better or worse--since they're eclectic and often misguided selections that don't place the work within the body of the career--Sony/BMG continues to release Lanza albums, and they sell.

    Yes, there was a downside to Lanza's life and career--more than adequately covered and frequently misrepresented both today and by press and critics of his time, and many sensationalist stories are repeated and repeated without correction.

    But check out the Mario Lanza, Tenor googlegroup. Try the article "Mario Lanza: a Radical Reassessment" by Derek McGovern ( or "Mario Lanza: A Speech by Armando Cesari" on that forum. (

    Cesari, too, is the author of the most definitive biography of Lanza, Mario Lanza: an American Tragedy which also includes an historic CD of Lanza's music.

    Then over on another site begun by one of Lanza's sons, Lanza Legend, Philadelphia writer Orlando Barone also brings heart and warmth to the phenomenon that was Lanza. (

    Or better still, listen to his music.

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  5. Perhaps in his zeal to defend Lanza, Jules missed the point of the post. There is no question that Lanza had a fine voice, but the facts speak for themselves. His repertoire consisted of three performances of two roles. He never sang on any of the world's leading stages–not the Met, Covent Garden, Vienna, nor La Scala. He recorded no complete operas, and, other than his recital discs, which are quite fine, he left no recorded legacy of the standard tenor repertoire. If he had left a complete recorded opera, it would have been featured on the Sunday Opera Matinee for all the listeners to hear and judge for themselves.

    The tragedy for the opera world is that Lanza, through self-indulgence, indiscipline, or career choice, did not nurture a fine voice into a great operatic career. His career might be contrasted with those of the Three Tenors, all of whom had fine operatic careers (in the case of Domingo, one of the great operatic careers), as well as commercial success. His voice might have warranted a comparably distinguished career, but it takes more than voice to make a great opera singer. Would his signature role have been Cavaradossi, Radames, Rodolfo? We'll never know. He will always have his defenders, of course, and they will continue to enjoy his slender recorded legacy.

  6. I'm coming to this discussion very late indeed, but I wanted to correct what I see as uninformed criticism of Lanza in this article.

    Firstly, it's completely incorrect to assert that Lanza's rare forays into opera were without "any particular distinction." His *two* (not one) performances as Fenton in Nicolai's comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor produced rave reviews. The New York Times gave high praise to the 21-year-old Lanza's diction, musicality and voice, which was described as having "few equals among tenors of the day." Opera News' Herbert Graf (the Metropolitan Opera director who staged those performances) wrote that Lanza was "the find of the season." And conductor Boris Goldovsky recalled in his memoirs that Lanza's performances were "a hit" with the Tanglewood audiences.

    Lanza also performed in a staging of the complete Act III of Puccini's La Boheme at Tanglewood. One of the two performances he gave was under Leonard Bernstein. Again, the tenor received high praise from the critics---on this occasion for both his voice and his characterization of Rodolfo.

    Lanza was no less successful in the role of Pinkerton six years later at the New Orleans Opera. In addition to receiving high praise from the three principals who performed alongside him (Tomiko Kanazawa, Jess Walters, Rosalind Nadell) in interviews conducted after his death, he received glowing reviews from the professional critics for his vocal characterization of Pinkerton, his "exceptionally beautiful voice," and strikingly romantic presence.

    At the time of his death, Lanza had undertaken to return to opera, with a performance as Canio planned for the Rome Opera in the 1960-61 season. He had also enlisted the help of his friend and mentor conductor Peter Herman Adler to prepare for his return, and was working diligently with a top vocal coach in Rome at the time of his death.

    Hollywood may have sidetracked him for a decade, but it's unfair to claim that the man was completely lacking in self-discipline. The fact that he managed to perform 86 (solidly operatic) concerts with Frances Yeend and George London over a ten-month period should at least pour some doubt over that assertion.

    As for the claim that Lanza left behind no "enduring record of vocal accomplishment," I suspect that the many great opera singers who have been inspired by his legacy would beg to differ!

    May I suggest the following article for further information:

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