ETUDE the music magazine - January, 1950

My First Big Opportunity

by Mario Lanza

As told to James Francis Cooke
(Second of two articles)

After studying violin and piano briefly and unsuccessfully, I discovered at the age of 19 that I had a voice. Soon I began serious vocal study. I used all my free time for singing, and listened to every operatic record I could find.

I worked for my grandfather in his grocery and trucking business in the heart of Philadelphia’s “Little Italy.” He was strictly a business man and did not hesitate to tell my music-loving father that he was disgusted by the hours I wasted daily listening to records of operas over and over again. “Now,” he said, “the boy is 19 and a man. He should get right down to real work.” He gave me a job of driving a truck.

One day I had to drive the truck to deliver a piano to the famous old Philadelphia Academy of Music, the city’s renowned and acoustically fine structure on Broad Street. All the famous musical visitors to America since 1857 have appeared there. Great singers from Adelina Patti to this day have performed on its stage. Most of the Presidents of the United States since Abraham Lincoln have spoken in the Academy. I feel like taking off my hat every time I pass its doors.

Mr. William Huff, Executive Secretary of the Philadelphia Forum, had heard me sing and when I arrived with the truck and the piano at the Academy, he was amazed to see me in truck-driver’s clothes.

Dr. Serge Koussevitzky had just completed a vigorous rehearsal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was in his dressing room soaked in perspiration. Mr. Huff took me to an adjoining dressing room and said, “Now start singing and sing as you never sang before.” I jumped at the idea and commenced with Leoncavallo’s “Vesti la giubba.”

Before long, Dr. Koussevitzky came out with his wonderful eyes glowing and greeted me with extreme enthusiasm. “Where is that voice – that wonderful voice?”

On the spot he invited me to come to the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. When I arrived at Tanglewood three weeks later, Dr. Koussevitzky placed me under the direction of strict taskmasters such as conductors Leonard Bernstein, Lucas Foss and Boris Goldovsky who drilled me mercilessly in solfeggio eight to ten hours a day.

Dr. Koussevitzky also insisted upon changing my name from Alfred Arnold Cocozza to Mario Lanza, which was derived from my mother’s maiden name, Mario Lanza.

In august I was considered advanced enough to make my debut as Fenton in Otto Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Singing opposite me in the role of Ford was the baritone, Mack Harrell.

He stared at me and said, “Aren’t you the Cocozza boy who studied violin with me at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia?”

It was true. I, a former violin student turned singer, was teamed in the opera with my former violin teacher, who also had become a singer. We had a good laugh over this strange trick of destiny.

After Tanglewood I had many offers for concert appearances, based on the reviews of my appearance, which were printed in the New York papers. Manager Arthur Judson immediately signed me up for a 10-year contract for concerts. R.C.A.-Victor followed with a recording contract. Even more important to me at that time was the check for $3,000 from R.C.A.-Victor to help me continue my studies. They did not ask me to make records until four years later, when they felt that I was ready.

Then on September 2, 1942, the President of the United States sent me a document headed “Greetings” which, plainly speaking, told me “You’re in the Army now.” All my plans had to stop. Uncle Sam was calling and Uncle Sam doesn’t wait.  My Army career was spent largely in music, and I did not even get out of the U.S.A. I was assigned to the Air Corps and spent three years in the division devoted to such stage productions as “On the Beam” and “Winged Victory.”

My debut in opera took place in “Madama Butterfly” in New Orleans. This was followed by appearances with the Philadelphia and Boston Symphony Orchestras. Then came concerts before massed open air audiences at the Hollywood Bowl and at Grant Park, Chicago, where I sang for 76,000 people. America is still the land of opportunity for vocal aspirants.

Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson sing in the recent Metro-Goldyn-Mayer production, "That Midnight Kiss".
The motion picture was premiered in Lanza's native Philadelphia.

Mr. Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer heard me sing in the Hollywood Bowl and gave me a seven-year contract with a sliding scale beginning with $750 a week for the first six months of each year. They have me scheduled for a picture dealing with the life of Caruso and also for a musical version of Sancha Guitry’s “Deburra” in which I shall have the honor of appearing with Ezio Pinza.

Mr. Mayer has assigned Maestro Giacomo Spadoni to me as my coach. Maestro Spadoni was at the Metropolitan Opera for ten years and at the Chicago Grand Opera for 22 years and had coached many famous singers. He drills me for one hour each day.

Under tutelage of Maestro Giacomo Spadoni,
Mario Lanza has gained a repertoire of six operas, is now adding four more.
Maestro Spadoni has coached many famous singers.

One must never forget that the singer is himself a musical instrument and that his first obligation is to keep that instrument in the finest possible condition. No matter how good a violin or a piano may be, a Stradivarius or a Steinway out of tune is worthless.

Many singers break down early in life from wrong living habits. I am six feet tall. A year ago I weighed 286 pounds. My normal weight should be about 180. Today it is 180 and with the help of my physical trainer, who subjects me to a severe daily routine as he would a prizefighter, it is going to stay there.

But a singer must have fun. He must be happy. He must not worry or be depressed. I find my happiness in my work and at home with my wife and baby.

Very valuable to me also have been the continued counsel of my producer, Mr. Joe Pasternak, and the suggestions of Mr. Jose Iturbi.

Every public artist should have a good business advisor. I owe a great debt to Mr. Sam Weiler, whom I met early in my career. Mr.  Weiler is a New York business man who not only provided me with the necessary funds for study and preparation, but has given me his keen and sagacious judgment in all business matters. Such a mentor is most important.

Mr. Weiler, who calls himself a “frustrated tenor with ambitions,” was coaching with Miss Debarau Robinson of Carnegie Hall to whom I also went to learn new compositions.One day we met in her studio and he decided at once to give up his ambitions and devote himself to promoting my career. What a marvelous, unexpected windfall for me! He sent me at once to Maestro Enrico Rosati. I studied with him for 15 months.Maestro Rosati was the teacher of Beniamino Gigli from Gigli’s boyhood in Rome.

What does a voice trainer do? He takes what God has given the singer and teaches him how, by breath control, relaxation and proper placing, to sing in the most natural and simple manner. When I first went to him he said, “I have heard you on the air in the Celanese program. You have the voice I have been waiting for for 25 years, since my bambino, Beniamino Gigli, was a little boy.”

Slowly, carefully, he took me laboriously through exercises, at first very pianissimo, for the entire gamut of my voice, so that now I can sing for hours without becoming tired.  Such a training provides the drill which a singer must go through every day of his life. It is what the Italians know as bel canto. Mr. Weiler not only paid for my lessons, my travel, home, living expenses, promotion costs and provided me with fine clothes, but has cared for all my business needs. Do you wonder that I am grateful to him and that we made him the godfather of our baby? He has put out in all to date, nearly $60,000. I make public this figure to let young singers know that the expenses of a vocal education may run very high.

One thing I insist upon in my work is that I will not be hurried or permit myself to overwork or oversing. Mr. Edward Johnson of the Metropolitan Opera invited me to join that company, but without time for adequate preparation and repose, this would certainly be inadvisable. I do not want to be presented to the world’s greatest operatic audience until I have acquired a large repertoire of operas and the seasoned experience in interpretation only long study and more maturity can bring.

"I Learned to Sing by Accident" - Etude December 1949 Article

Mario Lanza Feature Articles