Mario Lanza

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A mural in South Philadelphia of Mario Lanza as Verdi's Otello.

Mario Lanza (January 31, 1921 - October 7, 1959) was a popular American tenor and actor whose short career spanned from the late 1940s to the late 1950s.

Early life and singing career

Mario Lanza was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza on January 31, 1921 to Antonio (Tony) Cocozza and Maria Cocozza (née Lanza) in South Philadelphia. Tony, who was a World War I veteran receiving full disability benefits from the government due to injuries sustained in the war, and Freddie, which is what young Mario was called by friends and family, often listened to the records of tenors Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Giovanni Zenatello, and especially Enrico Caruso. Maria, who gave up her dreams of becoming an opera star to raise her son, was thrilled when Freddie began to talk of perusing a career singing in the opera. Maria took Freddie to an audition with Irene Williams, a former opera singer and then voice teacher. Williams was impressed with Freddie's voice and agreed to be his teacher. Under Williams, young Freddie worked hard to learn how to read music and develop the foundations of a solid vocal technique.

In 1941, the twenty year old tenor was given an audition before the world-famous Russian conductor Serge Koussevitsky. Koussevitsky was impressed with Cocozza's rendition of "Vesti la giubba" and immediately offered him a scholarship to attend the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts where he would receive training from conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. It was at Tanglewood where Cocozza first used masculine version of his mother’s name, Mario Lanza, as a stage name. At Tanglewood he would also make his operatic debut as Fenton in Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.

During World War II, Lanza's career was interrupted when he was drafted for military service. He managed to find his way into Special Services where he would entertain the troops and would be known as the "Service Caruso." Upon being discharged in 1945, he relocated to New York City, with his wife Betty, where he received a contract from Columbia Artists Management, Inc. Lanza regularly filled in for the Metropolitans Opera's Jan Peerce on the popular radio program, "The Celenese Hour: Great Moments in Music."

In 1947, Mario Lanza, along with soprano Frances Yeend and bass-baritone George London, would form a group called the Bel Canto Trio. The Bel Canto Trio performed 86 concerts throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico between July 1947 and May 1948.

Recording and acting career

1948 turned out to be a defining year for Mario Lanza because RCA Victor began to take advantage of the five year recording contract they had signed with him in 1945 and MGM signed him up for a seven-year contract to star in a series of feature pictures.



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