My history hero: Mario Lanza (1921-59)

Tenor Russell Watson explains why he admires a 20th-century musician...

Mario Lanza c1950. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Mario Lanza was a tenor, actor and Hollywood star. Born Alfredo Arnoldo Cocozza in Philadelphia, he was introduced to classical music by his parents – Italian immigrants – while he was still a child. After singing at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, he signed a film contract with MGM and went on to star in a number of hit films, most famously The Great Caruso (1951). The volatile, hard-living Lanza struggled with his weight throughout his life. He died at the age of 38 following a heart attack.

When did you first hear about Lanza?

As a child. In the days before videos and DVDs, my mum would always want to watch certain films when they were repeated on the telly, one of which was The Great Caruso. So I grew up with an appreciation of classical music, and never really differentiated between classical and pop. As far as I was concerned, it was all just music.

What kind of person was he?

He was an obsessive-compulsive type of character. On the one hand, he was incredibly driven, but on the other he was quite fragile in some respects. Lanza had a hugely addictive nature, and one of his main problems as an actor was the amount of weight he would put on very quickly. He could eat pounds of steak or heaps of chicken at one sitting – and would consequently pile on the pounds over the course of a weekend. A movie director would tell him to lose weight and he would go off to a ‘health farm’ where he would be put into a semi-coma in a bid to slim down fast. It’s also said that he had Mafia links and – conspiracy-theory time – it’s even been suggested that they may have done away with him.

What made him a hero?

A little bit like me, he didn’t come into classical music via the conventional route – that is, he didn’t study at a music college before becoming a tenor. He was actually best known for making records and appearing in films, and only appeared in operas later in his career. But he had a fantastic voice, a natural-sounding voice – one of the things that made him so popular was that his voice hadn’t been over-coached.

What was Lanza’s finest hour?

Without doubt, The Great Caruso, in which he starred as the great Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. It’s a superb movie. Lanza’s singing is amazing – if Caruso had still been alive, I think he would have loved the picture too. MGM threw the kitchen sink at the movie, and The Great Caruso was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, making Lanza one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs. Indeed, it was the number one film at the British box office in 1951. One of the songs he sang in the film, ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year’, was a million-seller. And it’s a picture still worth watching – I’ve seen it dozens of times.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Lanza?

He had some unattractive character traits. It was almost as if there were two sides to the guy: the side that was loving, giving and generous – and the other side that was really quite aggressive, unpleasant and unruly. As a performer myself, I can appreciate the huge amount of pressure he was under – and sometimes a performer’s way of dealing with that pressure is to release the gas valve. But there are stories, for instance, of Lanza and his wife quarrelling and trashing the hotel suite where they were staying, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.

Can you see any parallels between Lanza’s life and your own?

Well, we both came from working-class backgrounds. His mother also doted on him, a bit like mine did with me. And neither of us studied at music college. But perhaps that’s where the parallels end…

If you could meet Lanza, what would you ask him?

If I ever got to sit in a room with him, I’d like to ask him: out of all the people you worked with, who was your favourite? And who was the biggest a**hole?!

Russell Watson was talking to York Membery.

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Russell Watson topped the classical album chart with his debut album, The Voice, in 2001 and has since become one of Britain’s most popular classical crossover artistes. He begins a new tour, Songs from the Heart 2016, in March and is currently recording a new album. Find out more at russellwatson.com