Rebirth of Reason


What Could and Should Have Been
by James Kilbourne

October 7, 2004. Philadelphia, Pa. The curtains of the movie theatres and opera houses of the world were closed today in memory of the great Mario Lanza, whose phenomenal career and life came to a peaceful end in his home town of Philadelphia. It is here that he had come to die at age 83, after a career that touched the lives of millions from every corner of the world.

Born on January 31, 1921, the same year that his hero Enrico Caruso died, Lanza starred as the famed tenor in the movie The Great Caruso (1951), when he was less than thirty years old. After some legendary battles with MGM studios following the wildly successful film, Lanza made The Student Prince (1953), The Desert Song (1954), and The Vagabond King (1955). It was in 1955 that Mario Lanza made history, however, when his first complete opera movie, La Boheme, was released to undreamed of financial success. His collaboration with Michael Todd in this successful effort led to the filming of another twenty-four complete operas, all of which are still shown in regular re-releases around the world. All twenty-five operas are now available in DVD format, complete with background extras and interviews, and with translations in over twenty languages. They have become the basis of a high school educational program that has grown to encompass all the fine arts and is offered in over forty countries.

Most of his fellow-artists in these great projects have now passed on. However, Beverly Sills was quoted as saying, “The highlights of my career were the movies I made with Mario of Manon (1967) and Roberto Devereux (1972). Just to sing with such an artist would be enough for a lifetime. Having the films by which to remember him forever is a great comfort for me today.”

After the surprise financial success of La Boheme with Renata Tebaldi, Lanza made three more hit films with her: Andrea Chenier (1956), Madama Butterfly (1956), and Otello (1958). However, it was Mario Lanza and Maria Callas, both American artists, who combined to create the great opera revival that continues to this day. They made eight opera movies together: Tosca (1957) Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliaci (1959), Norma (1960), I Puritani (1961), La Traviata (1962), Turandot (1964), Carmen (1965) and Medea (1975). Callas was often quoted for her remark about Pagliacci: “Mario Lanza’s performance as Canio defines the power of opera. This was the combination of music and drama in a characterization to which all artists aspire. You could hear a pin drop in the theatre the night of the film’s debut in Rome. No one moved for several minutes after the curtain came down. Canio’s tragedy was shared by everyone that night, and the reaction is the same each time this performance is presented.”

During his long career, Mario Lanza made 19 million-selling recordings, including “Be My Love” (1950), which forever remained his theme song. Other best sellers included “Climb Every Mountain” (1965) and “The Impossible Dream” (1968). His five albums of opera and Broadway duets with his fellow- American artist Anna Moffo all surpassed one million in sales, as did their Lucia di Lammermoor (1964). But to many it was his last million seller, “Bring Him Home”(1987), from the movie Les Miserables, that is considered his finest non-operatic recording. It has become the theme song of those who wait for their loved ones held by authoritarian regimes, and is said to have inspired the release of many political prisoners by sympathetic prison guards in Eastern Europe during the collapse of communism.

Sales of his 1959 recording of the complete I Pagliacci, which was the only recording of a complete opera to sell two million copies, more than matched Caruso’s 1917 sales of one million copies of that opera’s show stopping “Vesti La Giubba.” Mario said that his three favorite opera movies were Turandot (with Callas and Renata Scotto, 1964), Aida (with Leontyne Price, 1969), and his 1979 remake of Otello (with Lindsay Perigo as Iago and Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona). The last, with Lanza’s darkened voice and greater insight into the tortured mind of Shakespeare’s brooding Moor, is generally considered the finest opera on film.

Each year that Lanza made his opera movies, he would open the season at a major opera house, starting with La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, continuing with I Puritani at La Scala in 1961, and concluding with his final tour of Otello at most of the major opera houses around the world between 1979 and his retirement from the operatic stage in 1984 at the age of 63. Despite temperatures that dipped into the teens, lines started forming at the Met three days before his last performance on his 63rd birthday, and no one who was lucky enough to be there that night would argue with the New York Times critic Alan Rich’s assessment of the evening: “The performance was overwhelming, and pure Lanza. He was lost in the role of Otello, and we were lost in Mario Lanza. The voice, surely the most prodigious and beautiful that this listener has ever heard, was more powerful and human than I had ever heard it. For over 40 years, Mr. Lanza shared with us this great voice and his grand soul. He opened our eyes to the transformational power of musical drama. His last night on the stage, the artistic culmination of his career, was his and opera’s greatest triumph.”

Mario Lanza continued singing at sold-out concerts until the age of 67, when he made his farewell at the White House, singing the Schubert “Ave Maria” and Malotte’s “Lord’s Prayer” before President and Mrs. Reagan. He was last seen in public at the White House in 2002, when President Bush presented him with the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

The singer’s death came gently and in loving peace with his wife of fifty-eight years, Betty, and their four children by his side. Thousands of fans kept a vigil outside his window in his childhood neighborhood known as “Little Italy.” The crowds had covered the streets with straw, “so that the horses and carts would not disturb the great man in his final hours” - a symbolic remembrance of the expression of public affection for Giuseppe Verdi a century earlier at the end on another great era in music.
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