It was just the kind of story I wanted to be blown away by. And the fact that I hadn’t even heard a rumor about it over the years made it turn out that way.
I do remember learning about the legendary American-born tenor Mario Lanza (1921-1959). Years ago, I first heard bits of his recordings and saw a couple of his films too. He was a popular singer and film actor in the late 1940s and 1950s. Though his appearances in operas were relatively few, he did sing selections from the operatic repertoire in concerts and on recordings. He also sang popular songs, including those that originated in the musical films in which he starred. At the time of his death at age 38, he was planning to return to the operatic stage.
I had been surprised when I learned that Mario Lanza was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia. It was hard to imagine that Mario Lanza was anybody but Mario Lanza to those who idolized him. His mother’s name was Maria Lanza. And the story is told that he chose a stage name very close to hers.
He inspired a generation of singers, including The Three Tenors (Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti). All three said that they listened to Lanza’s recordings or saw his films in their younger days.
Preparing for a Classic Mornings celebration of the Mario Lanza centennial (January 29), I engaged in a little online browsing. Within seconds, I noticed a headline about the young Pavarotti having met Lanza. This was news to me. After all the features and documentaries about Pavarotti that I’ve seen and heard, this item somehow escaped my attention.
There was a link to a clip from the 1951 film The Great Caruso, in which Lanza portrayed yet another legend: Enrico Caruso. He was singing the Ave Maria by Charles Gounod. Though I had seen the film, it was a long time ago. I’d forgotten that he sang that work – and with a choir. And I almost jumped out of my seat when I came to learn that the choir boy next to Lanza, who also had a solo part in the Gounod, was the young Pavarotti! There were comments at the website about the boy’s resemblance to the singer who would become an international star. Not having remembered childhood pictures of Pavarotti and unable to even begin to picture him without his beard, I just took their word for it.
I was stunned. I never knew that the two had met as co-stars in that film. It was almost like three tenors years before “The Three Tenors.” There was Lanza, portraying Caruso alongside the young tenor-to-be: Pavarotti!
I have to admit that I always do a little investigating whenever I come upon such an amazing find. And indeed, I found – at a website that attempts to set the record straight on all sorts of topics related to Mario Lanza - that he and Pavarotti never met. With a smile I read on. According to that site, the young singer’s name was Michael Collins – not to be confused with the famous British clarinettist of our time, nor with all of those named Michael Collins at the Internet Movie Data Base. His name didn’t even appear there in the full cast list of The Great Caruso.
I checked to see if he went on to become a singer. And I learned that he didn’t even sing in the film. According to the all-Lanza website, he merely lip-synched his part, which was sung by the American soprano Jacqueline Allen (1925-2009) for the film.
I wasn’t at all disappointed. In fact, I had a good laugh over the brief adventure. It brought to mind soprano Marni Nixon, who had supplied the singing for a number of actresses over the years, including Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in the film My Fair Lady.
Just a few years after The Great Caruso, Mario Lanza sang in the film version of Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s operetta The Student Prince. But he wasn’t in the film. English actor Edmund Purdom “acquired” Lanza’s voice for the songs. There are all sorts of stories out there about why Lanza didn’t appear in the title role. But I stopped there. I had had enough entertainment for one day, learning about the innocent “lip-synching Pavarotti designate.”
OK, I did follow through on one additional thought that came to mind. And yes, there are lots of Mario Lanza and Luciano Pavarotti classics in karaoke versions out there.
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