Lanza began studying to be a professional singer at the age of 16. After appearing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, Lanza signed a seven-year contract with MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer, who saw his performance and was impressed by his singing. Prior to this, the adult Lanza had sung only two performances of an opera. The following year (1948), however, he would sing the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.
His movie debut was in That Midnight Kiss (1949) with Kathryn Grayson and Ethel Barrymore. The following year, in The Toast of New Orleans, his featured popular song "Be My Love" became his first million-selling hit. In 1951, he played the role of Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), his tenor idol, in the biopic, The Great Caruso, which produced another million-seller with "The Loveliest Night of the Year" (a song which used the melody of Sobre las Olas). The Great Caruso was the top-grossing film that year.
The title song of his next film, Because You're Mine, was his final million-selling hit song. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. After recording the soundtrack for his next film, The Student Prince, he embarked upon a protracted battle with Studio Head Dore Schary arising from artistic differences with director Curtis Bernhardt, and was eventually dismissed by MGM.
Lanza was known to be "rebellious, tough, and ambitious", and during most of his film career, he suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and, occasionally, other cast members. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper writes that "his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak". She adds that he was the "last of the great romantic performers". He made three more films before dying of an apparent pulmonary embolism at the age of 38. At the time of his death in 1959 he was still "the most famous tenor in the world". Author Eleonora Kimmel concludes that Lanza "blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time".
Born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was exposed to classical singing at an early age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian parents, Maria (Lanza) and Antonio Cocozza. By the age of 16, his vocal talent had become apparent. Starting out in local operatic productions in Philadelphia for the YMCA Opera Company while still in his teens, he later came to the attention of longtime (1924–1949) principal Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who in 1942 provided young Cocozza with a full student scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Reportedly, Koussevitzky would later tell him, "Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years."
His opera debut, as Fenton in Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor (in English), came at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood on August 7, 1942, after a period of study with conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. This was when Cocozza adopted the stage name Mario Lanza, for its similarity to his mother’s maiden name, Maria Lanza.
His performances at Tanglewood won him critical acclaim, with Noel Straus of The New York Times hailing the 21-year-old tenor as having "few equals among tenors of the day in terms of quality, warmth and power". Herbert Graf subsequently wrote in Opera News (October 5, 1942), "A real find of the season was Mario Lanza [...] He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera." Lanza sang Nicolai's Fenton twice at Tanglewood, in addition to appearing there in a one-off presentation of Act III of Puccini's La bohème with the noted Mexican soprano Irma González, baritone James Pease and mezzo-soprano Laura Castellano. Music critic Jay C. Rosenfeld wrote in The New York Times of August 9, 1942, "Irma González as Mimì and Mario Lanza as Rodolfo were conspicuous by the beauty of their voices and the vividness of their characterizations." In an interview shortly before her own death in 2008, González recalled that Lanza was "very correct, likeable, with a powerful and beautiful voice".
His budding operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory. He also appeared in the film version of the latter (albeit as an unrecognizable member of the chorus). He resumed his singing career with a concert in Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in September 1945 under Peter Herman Adler, subsequently his mentor. The following month, he replaced tenor Jan Peerce on the live CBS radio program Great Moments in Music on which he made six appearances in four months, singing extracts from various operas and other works.
He studied with Enrico Rosati for fifteen months, and then embarked on an 86-concert tour of the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948 with bass George London and soprano Frances Yeend. Reviewing his second appearance at Chicago's Grant Park in July 1947 in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, Claudia Cassidy praised Lanza's "superbly natural tenor" and observed that "though a multitude of fine points evade him, he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama."
In April 1948, Lanza sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association conducted by Walter Herbert with stage director Armando Agnini. Reviewing the opening-night performance in the St. Louis News (April 9, 1948), Laurence Odel wrote, "Mario Lanza performed ... Lieutenant Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably." Following the success of these performances, he was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi's La traviata. But, as biographer Armando Cesari wrote, Lanza by 1949 "was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned [that key mid-Verdi tenor] role."
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 had brought Lanza to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed Lanza to a seven-year film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This proved to be a turning point in the young singer's career. The contract required him to commit to the studio for six months, and at first Lanza believed he would be able to combine his film career with his operatic and concert one. In May 1949, he made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. His rendition of the aria "Che gelida manina" (from La bohème) from that session was subsequently awarded the prize of Operatic Recording of the Year by the (United States) National Record Critics Association.
The Toast of New Orleans
Lanza's first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, both opposite top-billed Kathryn Grayson, were commercial successes, and in 1950 his recording of "Be My Love" from the latter became the first of three million-selling singles for the young singer, earning him enormous fame in the process. While at MGM, Lanza worked closely with the Academy Award-winning conductor, composer, and arranger Johnny Green. In a 1977 interview with Lanza biographer Armando Cesari, Green recalled that the tenor was insecure about the manner in which he had become successful, and was keenly aware of the fact that he had become a Hollywood star before first having established himself on the operatic stage.
"Had [Lanza] been already a leading tenor, if not the leading tenor at the Met[ropolitan Opera House], and come to Hollywood in between seasons to make a picture, he would have had [the security of having] the Met as his home," Green remarked. According to Green, Lanza possessed "the voice of the next Caruso. [Lanza] had an unusual, very unusual quality...a tenor with a baritone color in the middle and lower registers, and a great feeling for the making of music. A great musicality. I found it fascinating, musically, to work with [him]".
The Great Caruso
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso, which proved an astonishing success, though it did not adhere strictly to the facts of Caruso's life. At the same time, Lanza's increasing popularity exposed him to intense criticism by some music critics, including those who had praised his work years earlier. His performance earned him compliments from the subject's son, Enrico Caruso Jr., a tenor in his own right. Shortly before his own death in 1987, Enrico Jr. wrote in Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family (posthumously published by Amadeus in 1990) that, "I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography... Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural voice placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct." He went on to praise Lanza's tempi and phrasing, "flawless" diction, and "impassioned" delivery, adding that, "All are qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain." In conclusion, he wrote that, "Lanza excelled in both the classical and the light popular repertory, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father's exceptional talents."
The Student Prince
In 1952, Lanza was dismissed by MGM after he had pre-recorded the songs for The Student Prince. The reason most frequently cited in the tabloid press at the time was that his recurring weight problem had made it impossible for him to fit into the costumes of the Prince. However, as his biographers Cesari and Mannering have established, Lanza was not overweight at the beginning of the production, and it was, in fact, a disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over Lanza's singing of one of the songs in the film that led to Lanza walking off the set. MGM refused to replace Bernhardt, and the film was subsequently made with actor Edmund Purdom miming to Lanza's voice. Ironically, the eventual director of the film was Richard Thorpe, the same man whom Lanza had pleaded with MGM to replace Bernhardt, and with whom the tenor had enjoyed an excellent working relationship in The Great Caruso.
Depressed by his dismissal, and with his self-confidence severely undermined, Lanza became a virtual recluse for more than a year, frequently seeking refuge in alcoholic binges. During this period, Lanza also came very close to bankruptcy as a result of poor investment decisions by his former manager, and his lavish spending habits left him owing about $250,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
Lanza returned to an active film career in 1955 in Serenade, released by Warner Bros. However the film was not as successful as his previous films, despite its strong musical content, including arias from Der Rosenkavalier, Fedora, L'arlesiana, and Otello, as well as the Act III duet from Otello with soprano Licia Albanese. Ms. Albanese said of Lanza in 1980:
I had heard all sorts of stories about Mario [Lanza]. That his voice was too small for the stage, that he couldn't learn a score, that he couldn't sustain a full opera; in fact, that he couldn't even sing a full aria, that his recordings were made by splicing together various portions of an aria. None of it is true! He had the most beautiful lirico spinto voice. It was a gorgeous, beautiful, powerful voice. I should know because I sang with so many tenors. He had everything that one needs. The voice, the temperament, perfect diction. . . . Vocally he was very secure. All he needed was coaching. Everything was so easy for him. He was fantastic!
He then moved to Rome, Italy in May 1957, where he worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome, and returned to live performing in a series of acclaimed concerts throughout the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Despite a number of cancellations, which resulted from his failing health during this period, Lanza continued to receive offers for operatic appearances, concerts, and films. In 1958, for example, he gave a concert tour of the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
In September 1958, he made a number of operatic recordings at the Rome Opera House for the soundtrack of what would turn out to be his final film, For the First Time. The Artistic Director of the Rome Opera, Riccardo Vitale, offered him the role of Canio in Pagliacci in the theater's 1960/61 season. Lanza received offers from the management of the La Scala and San Carlo opera houses. However, his health continued to decline, with the tenor suffering from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis and acute high blood pressure. His old habits of overeating and crash dieting, coupled with binge drinking, compounded his problems. On The story of Variety with Michael Grade (BBC 4, 30 May 2012) it was revealed that Lanza was often violent when drunk and that he suffered from the DT's, seeing things that were not there.
In April 1959, Lanza reportedly suffered a minor heart attack followed in August by double pneumonia. On September 25, 1959, he entered Rome's Valle Giulia clinic for the purpose of losing weight for an upcoming film. While in the clinic, he underwent a controversial weight loss program colloquially known as "the twilight sleep treatment," which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. On October 7, a day before his scheduled discharge, he died suddenly at the age of 38. No autopsy was performed, but it has been speculated that the phlebitis in his left leg that Lanza was suffering from at the time may have led to a fatal pulmonary embolism (possibly arising from his prolonged immobility). A massive heart attack was another distinct possibility due to Lanza's history of hypertension. At his funeral were singers Maria Caniglia and Lidia Nerozzi and actors Franco Fabrizi and Enzo Fiermonte. American crooner Frank Sinatra sent his condolences by telegram.
Betty, his widow, returned to Hollywood with their four children but died five months later at the age of 37. Cesari cited the apparent cause of her death, according to the coroner, as "asphyxiation resulting from a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving medication." In 1991, Marc, their youngest child, died of a heart attack at 37; six years later, Colleen, their elder daughter, was killed at 48 after being struck by two passing vehicles on a highway. Damon, the couple's third child and elder son, died in August 2008 of a heart attack at 55. The last remaining child in the family and youngest daughter, Elisa, survives her siblings.
Lanza's brief career covered opera, concerts, recordings, television and motion pictures. He was the first RCA Victor Red Seal artist to win a gold disc and the first artist to sell 2 1/2 million albums. This highly influential performer has been credited with inspiring successive generations of other opera singers, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and José Carreras. Singers with seemingly different backgrounds and influences were also inspired by him, even including his RCA Victor label-mate Elvis Presley.
Lanza was referred to by some sources as the "new Caruso" after his "instant success" in Hollywood films, while MGM hoped he would become the movie studio's "singing Clark Gable" for his good looks and powerful voice.
In 1994, outstanding tenor José Carreras paid tribute to Lanza during a worldwide concert tour, saying of him, "If I'm an opera singer, it's thanks to Mario Lanza." His equally outstanding colleague Plácido Domingo echoed these comments in a 2009 CBS interview with, "Lanza's passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera ... to a kid from Philadelphia."
Even today "the magnitude of his contribution to popular music is still hotly debated," and because he appeared on the operatic stage only twice, many critics feel that he needed to have had more "operatic quality time" in major theaters before he could be considered a star of that art form. His films, especially The Great Caruso, influenced numerous future opera stars, including Joseph Calleja, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. According to opera historian Clyde McCants, "Of all the Hollywood singers who performed operatic music . . . the one who made the greatest impact was Mario Lanza." Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper concluded that "there had never been anyone like Mario, and I doubt whether we shall ever see his like again".
Portrayal on stage
In October 2007, Charles Messina directed the big budget musical Be My Love: The Mario Lanza Story, written by Richard Vetere, about Lanza's life, which was produced by Sonny Grosso and Phil Ramone. It premiered at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Greenvale, New York.
Mario Lanza Boulevard is a roadway in the Eastwick section of Lanza's native Philadelphia, close to Philadelphia International Airport and ending on the grounds of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.
The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, which honors Lanza's legacy and also provides scholarships to young singers, is located at 712 Montrose Street in South Philadelphia. Link label
Philadelphia's Queen Street Park was renamed for Lanza in 1967. Link label
Lanza was born at 636 Christian Street in South Philadelphia. A Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission marker stands outside of the house.
A large mural dedicated to Lanza stands at Broad and Reed Streets in Philadelphia.
In 1983 a 90-minute PBS documentary, Mario Lanza: The American Caruso, hosted by Plácido Domingo and featuring Lanza's family and professional associates; was nominated for a Primetime Emmy as "Outstanding Informational Special."
- Winged Victory, Twentieth Century-Fox 1944 (uncredited chorus member)
- That Midnight Kiss, MGM 1949
- The Toast of New Orleans, MGM 1950
- The Great Caruso, MGM 1951
- Because You're Mine, MGM 1952
- The Student Prince, MGM 1954 (voice only)
- Serenade, Warner Bros. 1956
- Seven Hills of Rome, MGM 1958
- For the First Time, MGM 1959
Select recordings on CD
- Mario Lanza: The Legendary Tenor, (1987)
- Christmas With Mario Lanza (1987)
- The Great Caruso And Other Caruso Favorites (1989)
- Mario Lanza Sings Songs from The Student Prince and The Desert Song (1989)
- The Mario Lanza Collection, (1991)
- Mario Lanza Live From London (1994)
- Mario! Lanza At His Best (1995)
- Mario Lanza: Opera Arias and Duets, (1999)
- Mario Lanza Live at Hollywood Bowl: Historical Recordings (1947 & 1951) (2000)
- Serenade/A Cavalcade of Show Tunes (2004)
- The Essential Mario Lanza (2007)
- Bessette, Roland L. Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile, Amadeus (1999), p. 65
- Vogel, Michelle. Children of Hollywood, McFarland (2005), p. 65
- Mario Lanza (I) – Biography
- Fischer, Lucy; Landy, Marcia. Stars: The Film Reader, Routledge (2004) p. 216
- Hopper, Hedda. The Whole Truth and Nothing But, Pyramid Books (1963) ch. 18
- Mannering, Derek. Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods, Univ. Press of Mississippi (2005) p. xv–xvii
- Kimmel, Eleonora. Altered and Unfinished Lives, A.F.A. (2006) p. 191
- Mario Lanza – Photoplay, Sept. 1951
- Great Tenors
- Briggs, John. Leonard Bernstein: The Man, His Work, and His World, World Pub. (1961), p. 55
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2nd. ed, 2008), p. 21
- Zermeño, Erick B. Interview with Irma González. Pro Ópera (April 2008), pp. 32–5.
- Mannering, Derek. Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods, University Press of Mississippi (2005), pp. 33–4
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2004), p. 60
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2004), p. 78
- Mannering, Derek. Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods, University P. of Mississippi (2005), p. 61
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2004), p. 132
- Stern, Michael. An American in Rome, B. Geis Associates/Random House (1964), p. 287
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2nd. ed., 2008), p. 168
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2nd ed., 2008), p. 167
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville (2004), pp. 201–02.
- Mannering, Derek. Mario Lanza: Singing to the Gods, University Press of Mississippi (2005), p. 175.
- "Mario Lanza in Scotland | News". Opera Scotland. Retrieved 2012-04-14.
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: an American Tragedy, Baskerville (2nd. ed. 2008), p. 280.
- Cesari, Armando and Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D. Mario Lanza: A Fatal Zest for Living, The Pharos (Winter 2010), pp. 4–10. Reprinted in 
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (2004) Passage link
- Hopkins, Jerry. Elvis: The Final Years, Mass Market (1986), p. 79
- Cesari, Armando. Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, Baskerville Publishers (2004) p. 4
- Interview with José Carreras for New Zealand Television, 1994
- Plácido Domingo Interview with CBS, January 2009
- McCants, Clyde T. American Opera Singers and Their Recordings, McFarland (2004), p. 132
- "Richard Vetere Collection". Stony Brook University Special Collections & University Archives.
- 1983 Primetime Emmy Nomination for PBS Special about Mario Lanza Retrieved April 18, 2013
- Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated
- Mario Lanza on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Retrieved April 18, 2013
- Studwell, William E. "Mario Lanza". In The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, ed. Salvatore J. LaGumina (New York: Garland, 2000) 332–33.
- Lanza, Damon & Dolfi, Bob. Be My Love: A Celebration of Mario Lanza. Chicago, IL, 1999. ISBN 1-56625-129-X.
- Mannering, Derek. Mario Lanza; A Biography. London: Hale 1991.
- Strait, Raymond & Robinson, Terry. Lanza: His Tragic Life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
- Bernard, Matt. Mario Lanza. New York: Macfadded-Bartel, 1971.
- Callinicos, Constantine. The Mario Lanza Story. New York, NY, 1960. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 60-12480.
- Bessette, Roland L. Mario Lanza: Tenor In Exile. Portland, OR. ISBN 1-57467-044-1.
- Mario Lanza, Tenor – Essays, videos, rare recordings, discography and forum.
- Mario lanza biography at Opera Vivrà
- The Lanza Legend
- Mario Lanza at the Internet Movie Database
- Mario Lanza at the Internet Broadway Database
- Mario Lanza discography at Discogs
- MarioLanza.net Hosted by Jeff Rense.
- History of the Tenor – Sound Clips and Narration