Monday, July 5, 2010
The Mystique of the "Faux" Opera Singer
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As an historical document, the film was laughable, but some fine singers from the Metropolitan Opera stable of that era, among them Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, and Lucine Amara,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.