I cried last weekend, when I watched The Great Caruso, the Hollywood film about Enrico Caruso’s life, released in 1951, and starring Mario Lanza. I cried — spoiler alert — because of how unfettered Italian opera was when the film was made, and also for deeper reasons I’ll get to, reasons that help explain why I do the work I do.
But about the movie. It might be easy to dismiss, if you haven’t seen it (or for some people, sadly, even if they have) as Hollywood fakery, sentimental and factually wrong. Caruso didn’t die onstage (as he’s shown to do in the film), and wasn’t tepidly received at his Met Opera debut because the Met’s high society patrons thought he was a Neapolitan peasant. Nor was he the simple Neapolitan the movie makes him out to be, since in real life he was a savvy businessman, and (something the movie doesn’t go near) had a long affair — and children — with an older, married soprano, before he met the New York socialite he himself married.
Forget that, though. The movie has a good heart, and — no small thing — it’s a living tribute to how much opera could be part of everyday life when it was made. Posters for the film highlighted pop songs that Lanza (and Caruso) sang, but on the soundtrack what you hear is one opera aria after another, almost all of them complete.
And even so, The Great Caruso was, as Wikipedia says, “a massive commercial success,” the most successful film MGM made that year. With opera arias showing up, over and over, on the soundtrack. The movie audience, at the very least, couldn’t have minded opera, and many of the people in it may have loved it.
Certainly it was part of our widest culture back then, as you can hear in the dialogue leading up to the song “Make ‘Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain, the glorious movie musical released in 1952. “The show must go on! Come rain, come shine, come snow, some sleet! The show must go on! So ridi, Pagliacci! Ridi!” An opera reference (OK, with garbled Italian) that we have to assume much of the movie audience would have gotten. Or else why put it in the film? (1950s movies weren’t full of wink-wink references to obscure things the way so many of today’s films are. And especially not at the climax of a comedy routine that leads into a song.)
About the star
And then — back to The Great Caruso — there’s Mario Lanza, whom I imagine some people may still dismiss, as I once did (without having heard him, fool that I was) as a Hollywood tenor, some kind of 1950s version of Andrea Bocelli, a nice enough singer in his way, but not really fit for opera.
Ha. Lanza, Hollywood or not, is, with no caveats, one of the very greatest — most powerful, most passionate, most communicative, most thrilling, most idiomatic, most faithful to the words, most vocally splendid — Italian tenors who ever lived. Soars up to high C like he’s thrilling with joy on a big drop on a roller coaster. As you can hear in this clip from “Che gelida manina,” unusually not performed complete in the film, but my God, what a thrill to hear the part they used. (And, no, Lanza doesn’t transpose the aria, as so many tenors do. That’s really a C. The Mimi, by the way, is Dorothy Kirsten, a real-life star soprano who comes off in the film not just as a top singer, but as someone with the full presence of a glamorous movie star.)
If you don’t thrill to that excerpt, you may as well stop reading now, because you and I are on different planets.
And there’s something else. Many opera stars back then had a larger than life thing going on, the kind of presence and excitement we find today mainly in pop. But Lanza goes further than that. He has the charisma of Elvis. And I say that as a long-time Elvis fan. Elvis, even in his dumbest movies, has a kind of transcendence on the screen, as if he gave us (even in a very casual way) an opening into a more radiant universe.
Lanza, at least for me, does the same thing. If you don’t believe it, watch him, in the movie, sit at the piano (OK, he’s not really playing) and sing “Torna a Surriento” for the woman he’ll marry. Sing it in a seductive, playful mezza voce, seducing with nuance and delight, not with vocal fireworks. Even his singing has Elvis’s charisma, but when you see him, the charisma doubles.
How great he was
Some other arias from the film (which, by the way, you can watch complete on YouTube, thanks to a benefactor who uploaded it):
“La donna e mobile,” in which Lanza becomes a complete (but seductive) scoundrel, a man hard to resist, but plainly dangerous to be around. And here — if you speak Italian, or even, like me, can’t speak it but understand it when it’s sung — you’ll notice what Lanza does with the words, becoming them, really, embracing every shade, every nuance in their meaning. Above all in the start of the second verse, where he shakes his head at the mere thought of anyone trusting a woman, but with an undercurrent of something not very pleasant. The comparison here might be to Sinatra. (Even if you think I’m going overboard again.)
“Celeste Aida,” an aria whose weakness, in most performances, is to be just a little boring. The epitome, among Verdi arias, of what opera people call “park and bark,” a performance (or, as I’m using the term here, music) in which you just plant yourself on the stage and sing. But none of this is true with Lanza. Again it’s what he does with the words, which lead him to sing the music as if it were a living thing, breathing, supple, responsive. There are so many high points. In the recitative, when he imagines himself, as leader of the Egyptian army, receiving the acclaim of the entire Egyptian capital city; he’s full of gratified vanity. Then how easily he moves to enchanted revery as the aria begins. And then the passage all on one note, a revery so deep it can barely be sung, which in most performances sounds like one of Verdi’s less-good ideas. Not here. Lanza — now bringing gratified vanity into his dream of love — builds it into something exciting. And then how transfigured he is at the end, when he imagines placing Aida on a throne next to the sun. He gives, by far, the best performance of this aria I’ve ever heard.
“Vesti la giubba,” in a concert performance, restrained, noble, dignified. And heartbreaking. (And of course showing why this is an aria — thinking back to Singin’ in the Rain — so many Americans would know. An aria that, along with “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” from The Barber of Seville, served as a symbol for all opera.)
So of course Lanza doesn’t patronize the music by singing it with nothing more than polish and cheap thrills, like a superstar whose only thought is to wow his audience. instead he goes for broke as an artist, goes for broke musically, dramatically, and vocally, even roughening his voice (in “La donna e mobile”) when that’s what the drama needs.
And he doesn’t try to be Caruso. Doesn’t try to sing like him, or look like him, or to evoke him in any way. Instead, he does the best but most daring thing — he shows us a tenor who, for real, could have conquered the world the way Caruso did. (As Lanza did do, of course, though as a film star and operatic pop singer, not in opera.)
So — why I cried. First because I love Italian opera so much, and to hear it sung like this thrilled my heart.
And second because — as Lanza shows — classical music could be so much freer in the 1950s (and even more so, of course, in the early 20th century, when Caruso ruled) than it is now. These days, even Italian opera is performed with a kind of frame around it, with an aura that says, “This is art.”
Not back then. Back then, Lanza — even with the profits of a big movie depending on him — could sing opera without a frame, simply for what it was, approaching it (within an operatic style) as Elvis or Sinatra would approach a song. Natural, Colloquial. Directly communicating, without any subtext about how important, how artistic, how deeply civilized the enterprise might be.
I love that. And I want it back. I want classical music to be like that again.
Which brings me to the final, deepest reason that I cried. I love this music. I wish I lived in a world where it was loved by others as much as it was when The Great Caruso was made. Or a world in which musicians and audience were joined together as we see in a sweetly hokey moment in the movie, where during the Sextet from Lucia Lanza anxiously awaits word about the birth of his first child. Until someone holds up a sign backstage saying “It’s a girl!” And Lanza beams, and word spreads from backstage to the prompter, from the prompter to the conductor, from the conductor to the orchestra musicians, and from the musicians to the audience.
Hokey, like I said. I doubt it happened. Though in a Italy it certainly could have, if we can believe E.M. Forster, who, in a passage from his early novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, shows us people in a small Italian town shouting hello at the opera to their friends in the chorus, also during a performance of Lucia.
But whether or not the Lanza Lucia moment happened, I cried because, for a moment, with all my soul, I wanted to take a time machine back to an age when opera was so much loved, when the music leaped off the stage, and when singers and audience had a bond of a kind we’d never see today outside of pop. (Or, as I’d like to say, outside of rock & roll, but those days, too — the days when rock ruled supreme — are also gone.)
Thinking more soberly, I know I can’t go back. And maybe wouldn’t really want to. 1950s culture wasn’t wonderful. We have our troubles now, but at least my son won’t grow up reading a comic book, as I did (it was Blackhawk), in which a Chinese character, among a band of fearless heroes, was shown as tiny, bucktoothed, and comical.
But still I want opera — and all classical music — to come alive as happened then. Which, as all at once I understood, is one big reason why I’m working hard to help to bring it back.