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Let Us Now Sing the Praises of the Fourth Tenor

July 15, 1994|Rip Rense | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Everybody asks Damon Lanza if he can sing. When we met for coffee the other morning, I asked him too.

" I could hire myself out to clear out parties!" he said, laughing. "Just put me up there. I'll start singing and everybody will leave. I knew from an early age that I couldn't sing. When people ask me if I sing, I say, 'Yes, I do--very badly.' "

The reason people always ask Damon this question is his last name. It was given to him by a fellow named Mario, who was his father. Mario Lanza, as you might remember, could carry a tune. Well, that's a bit of an understatement. In my unpublished novel, I described the voice of the late tenor as "the northern lights in a throat." I don't know if that's good writing, but I believe it to be an accurate description.

I first encountered the strange power of Mario Lanza' voice, incongruously enough, during the summer of 1967 in Isla Vista, Calif. The Summer of Love, as the media has canned it. I was visiting my older brother in the isolated cliff-side college town, a place teeming with hairy heads full of daisies, and two-fingered peace signs. "Sgt. Pepper" played constantly in apartments; it was an unbroken sound track of the moment, rarely out of earshot.

Unbroken, that is, except when my brother cranked up Mario.

My brother, you see, preferred Lanza to the Beatles. Periodically, he would rent Lanza's movie, "The Great Caruso," and project it in the living room of his rustic, rambling beach house. It was during one of those screenings, one warm night, that I first suspected something unearthly was coming from Lanza's larynx.

The front door had been left open, as it often was, and Mario's passionate tones spilled out into the street. As he sang the wrenching notes of the Verdi aria "Vesti La Giubba" a number of "freaks" (a flattering term at the time) wandered in, some in questionable states of consciousness. They entered the room quietly, irresistibly, sat spellbound, then left quietly when the movie ended. Probably in even more questionable states of consciousness.

It was a remarkable thing. The Voice had beckoned them.

Ever since that night, I've been a sucker for Mario Lanza. Like Mario, I much prefer his operatic recordings--his "Che Gelida Manina" (the 1951 version) makes my hair look like Don King's--but I have to say that even some of the schmaltz gets to me. I admit to watery eyes while hearing him sing "Golden Days" from "The Student Prince."

All of which means I have a lot in common with three guys putting on a little recital Saturday at Dodger Stadium: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. (Hint: It isn't soccer.)

"The 'Three Tenors' have been asked, 'Why did you get into singing?' " Damon told me, "and they all said, ' Well, we got into singing because we watched Mario Lanza movies.' "

It's true. The Three Tenors have long acknowledged Mario's influence. Domingo paid him tribute by narrating the definitive video documentary on his life, "The American Caruso," in the early '80s. Carreras just released a CD tribute to Mario, and Pavarotti has sung the praises of Mario in interviews.

As onetime amateur tenor Bob Dolfi, a longtime friend of the Lanza family, put it:

"When the Three Tenors sing, there's not three up there, there's four. That's what I honestly believe."

Dolfi and another longtime Lanza family friend, Henry Garcia, joined Damon and me for coffee. The excuse? For them, it was a question of love and duty--they're dedicated to preserving Mario's memory. For me, it was news.

Lanza died under mysterious circumstances in 1959, but two brand-new CDs--the first releases of entirely new Lanza recordings since his death--have appeared in the past couple of months.

The voice does not die. Why?

"I think my father's singing came from his heart and his soul--from deep within," said Damon, 41, a Los Angeles restaurateur in partnership with Dolfi.

"Some singers sing mechanically, according to how they've been taught, and they do it wonderfully. But my dad once made a statment that every time he sings, he dies a little. Because he's giving so much of himself, so much from the heart, the soul. I think that's what people really love to hear. It's like a gift from God."

Many others have suggested that the Fourth Tenor's vocal gifts were practically supernatural. Lanza suspected he was possessed by the ghost of Caruso; he was born in 1921, the year Caruso died.

True, critics have pointed out a lack of refinement witnessed in more studied singers, but Lanza's voice was so naturally beautiful and breathtakingly powerful that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini pronounced it "the greatest voice of the 20th Century." That pretty well makes the case.

And I'll take heart over technical perfection every time.

"When people ask, 'What makes Lanza so great?' " Dolfi said, "my answer to that would be if you sing an aria, and it calls for a high C, what distinguishes who is better? Feeling. Mario sang with tremendous feeling."

The voice first beckoned Dolfi at age 11.

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