By Emilio Iodice
Professor of University and “Lover of grand voices”
Somewhere in paradise, there are opera houses, concert halls and parks where the great voices of the past serenade the angels and saints. I imagine that the Creator has a small chorus for himself of the sweetest and most pleasant voices who sing to him each eternal day and each eternal night.
In God’s splendid choir are the legendary sopranos, baritones and bassos and, of course, the tenors, whose vocal qualities are the harmonious foundation by which all voices are measured. I am sure that the King of tenors, Enrico Caruso, is there with his friends, the operatic princes like Gigli and so many other thrilling artists.
I also imagine that at God’s side is the Emperor of all the tenors who entertains him with the magical tones of power and sweetness that captures the divineness of the angels, the force of the wind and the warmth of the sun. At God’s side, sits Mario Lanza.
Of all the extraordinary voices in paradise why did the Deity choose Lanza?
The great tenors each had qualities that are incomparable. No one can compare with Caruso, who was a baritone who became a tenor. Other classical performers like Gigli stay within a marvelous class of voices that are the standard for the students of today and tomorrow. Lanza was one who leaped beyond the standards and measures of amazing singers and established a new category that remains unmatched even today. If Caruso was the Michelangelo of opera, Lanza was the Caravaggio, Lanza created a new form of art and introduced the same elements of “shadows and light” that could produce works of unforgettable vividness. Both artists made an indelible mark in their field and left us a body of work that is still held in awe for beauty, power, clarity and eternal vitality. Such is the contribution of Mario Lanza to music.
Lanza had the qualities of the greatest of tenors and the greatest of popular singers. He had a “natural” tenor voice that came with energy, drama, pureness and passion. His “mezza voce” combined with his magnificent range and volume made him unique among the greats. It is no wonder that he has been called the “greatest tenor in history” and it is no wonder that there is growing “Mario Lanza” cult, numerous web sites, international fan clubs and it is no wonder that there is an increasing interest in his work, with millions admirers around the world still enjoying his music. His voice had all the attributes of the best and the brightest and then some.
For five decades I have listened to and studied every outstanding tenor of the past and present and compared them to each other and to Mario Lanza. On a scale of one to ten, Lanza always ranks the highest. Obviously musical tastes have changed considerably in five decades. Yet Lanza’s quality and ability to “crossover” from the popular to the classical in a supremely masterful way, to give constant enjoyment, is still an unmatched phenomenon which to this day attracts fans from across the globe.
How to measure the qualities of a tenor? Sound, like beauty is in the eye and ear of the beholder. Some will challenge one masterpiece when compare with another but still acknowledge that it is a masterpiece. Such is a case with wonderful tenors. Each carries a vocal quality that is an inimitable expression of art that he plays like a fine instrument to make a sound that captivates, inspires, gives pleasure and ignites passion and love in our hearts and souls.
Some spectacular tenors have depth and breath of sound like Caruso and Pavarotti. They have mastery over the technique, the music, the language, science and art of singing and can chant with drama and power. Others also have tenderness and ardor like Gigli, Bocelli, Corelli and Domingo. A rare few have these qualities plus the skill to handle variety and sing with warm, tender voice to capture the hearts of the general public. To sing popular songs, as well as opera, and to make each one like a special event is a skill that is so rare that, arguably, no single tenor possessed, except Lanza. He, like Caruso, brought opera to the people with his movies, concerts and recordings. Lanza’s work still ranks on the best seller list today, a half century after his death.
His exercise in variety ranged from the marvelous Italian arias to pop music recordings that sold in the millions, to be the number one hits of the time. Yet even variety is not enough. It takes more, and Lanza had even more. He was rarely the first singer to interpret the piece but when he did, it was unforgettable, Lanza could vocalize with sweet soft passion or powerful drama to show that the expression came from the heart and the meaning came from the soul. His diction and pronunciation in Italian and English was superb and he took enormous care to handle each word and phrase with sentiment and feeling. Critics claimed he “shouted” and overused his gift and lacked the discipline of the great tenors who dominated the opera houses of his era. Some of the same criticisms were made of Maria Callas and Caruso. Those critics are footnotes in the history of great music while the giants, like Lanza, Callas and Caruso, are still admired today.
Finally, he had the one quality which for me reigns supreme. In art there are works that are of such high quality that they exceed the test of time and distance and have a “universal” element that cuts across cultures and nations. Such appeal surpasses generations and the challenges of ever changing tastes and styles. The “classics” pass all the epochal examinations, especially those that deal with constant popular allure. Perhaps the most difficult trial of all, in this regard, is the test of “repetition.” This, for me, is that hardest of all exams to pass for tenor. It is the challenge to give constant pleasure and enjoyment so that the listener never tires of hearing this thrilling and graceful sound. Mario Lanza achieved this, in my opinion, as no other tenor, past or present.
Popular music is like driving an automobile. It gives enjoyment and is practical and as routine as sun up and sun down. Opera is like flying and leaping into the skies and floating and swimming on clouds and currents of wind and air. Lanza could drive and fly at the same time and do each supremely well.
We are fortunate that Mario Lanza gave us the pleasure of scores of operatic and popular recordings and concerts in the few short years he was on the world’s stage. His golden voice was stilled when he was only thirty-eight. Fifty years later his following among the lovers of the sublime art of “Bel Canto” grows around the world, as more and more people discover the special gift and special sound that only he could give us.
Understanding the breathtaking talent of Mario Lanza is simple. Listen to him sing and he reveals a voice that one can take pleasure in continuously without ever tiring. To appreciate his work, I suggest focusing on the special “intonation” and interpretation he brought to classical arias and trendy melodies.
To hear the delightful sound of a popular crooner listen to him sing “Moonlight Serenade,” “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Toselli’s Serenade” and “Ave Maria,” and you will understand why he filled theaters with swooning girls and fans who to this day remember the experience. Lanza’s rendition of Neapolitan music was splendid and few could give a version of “A Vucchella” with more feeling and sentiment. I have heard many sing “Core ‘Ngrato” but never like Lanza. Concentrate on the tears and emotion in his voice as he expresses the ingratitude of a lost and bitter love.
Lanza captures a similar feeling in his thrilling performance of Leoncavallo’s “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, where the clown cries of his frustration to go on with the show while his heart is breaking. All of Lanza’s operatic arias reveal the brilliant marks of the glorious classic tenors combined with the remarkable traits of one who had a majestic voice that was exciting, dramatic and lovely at the same time. Listen to “Lolita” and you will understand what I mean.
On December 3, 2006 my first grandchild was born and I pray that someday she can enjoy and appreciate the pleasure that Mario Lanza is now giving to the deities. I imagine that in heaven tonight, God is sitting among the planets and the stars and listening to his chosen tenor sing to him of man’s earthly love and God’s eternal glory and peace. As he listens and dreams he sheds grace on all of us and keeps us in his sacred thoughts.
From The Lanza Legend Newsletter n°36, July 2007
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