Singing to the Gods
by Derek Mannering
Published by Robert Hale
ISBN 0-7090-6876-X
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Opera Now
Review By Richard Fawkes
July/August 2002
Mario Lanza may have died over 40 years ago but the legend and the magic live on. In an age when singers with only a modicum of talent can become household names if they have a record company behind them, one might be forgiven for thinking Lanza was the first to be hyped into superstardom. After all, the man billed as an American Caruso only ever sang live two performances of Butterfly. He was a movie star who sang a few arias and pressed the self-destruct button.
But as Mannering's new biography vividly illustrates, Lanza had a voice that astonished all who heard it live (including such eminent musicians as Richard Bonynge), and, through films and records, had an immediate rapport with millions around the globe.
This is a rewritten version of Mannering's 1991 biography containing some 40 photographs, many quite rare. The earlier work was a fine account of Lanza's life, laying to rest such myths as Lanza being killed by the Mob. The revised book is not, however, the same material with new bits tacked on. While it follows the same chronological shape, Mannering has rewritten much of it, incorporating new research by himself and others including Roland Bessette, who produced his own Lanza biography in 1999. Mannering uses Bessette as a source of Lanza's contractual dealings but doesn't utilize his explanations as to why Lanza went on his frequent eating and drinking binges. He's also talked it seems to everyone who ever went near Lanza. The result is a detailed but colourful account of a colourful life full of interesting new tidbits. For example, Lanzaphiles have for years scoured scenes of Winged Victory, the Moss Hart wartime epic, to glimpse Lanza's first screen appearance in the chorus. It now appears he may not have been there since he was fired from the picture for not turning up, following several all-night parties.
Only once does the author strike a false note when, just before Lanza made his first film, Mannering suggests he deliberately abandoned his potential operatic career for Hollywood because films would bring opera to a wider audience. No evidence is offered for what has to be only conjecture. There's no doubt Lanza did harbor thoughts of returning to the operatic stage even if those who knew him also knew he never would. It was Robert Merrill, meeting Lanza before the Hollywood Bowl appearance that made the world sit up, who commented that Lanza would never make it as an opera singer; he was too scared of being on stage.
Lanza was 38 when he died, his career having lasted a brief 10 years. And yet he was one of the most influential singers who ever lived. His own life-story of the poor boy who made it and threw away everything through his inability to curb his excesses, would in itself make a remarkable movie.
Mannering succeed triumphantly in bringing the man and his music to life. More importantly, he makes you want to listen again and again to the recordings and marvel again at the enormous talent Lanza possessed while also shedding a tear at what might have been.

-- Richard Fawkes