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January 19, 2010

Mario Lanza's death at 38 gets a fresh look from doctor, biographer

Elsewhere in Tuesday's paper you can find my humble little story about renewed interest in the untimely death at 38 of tenor Mario Lanza, the huge -- no pun intended -- movie star of the 1950s. I didn't have room to include everything I had hoped to squeeze into that story, so I'll just add a few things here.

There were any number of contributing factors to Lanza's demise in 1959: obesity, heavy drinking, liver damage (naturally), enlarged heart, thrombophlebitis, hypertension. Baltimore-based Dr. Philip A. Markowiak took a fresh look at the available evidence (Lanza's extant medical records are not complete) and, with the singer's biographer, Armando Cesari, tried to nail down the culprit.

In the process, the doctor was surprised to discover that Lanza submitted to a weight-loss treatment that involved injections of

a hormone labeled hCG, derived from the urine of pregnant women -- and even more surprised to see that said treatment is newly fashionable, plugged on infomercials. Dr. Markowiak doesn't buy any of the claims for the therapy, and, in a just-published article for a journal called The Pharos, suggests that Lanza was already "at extreme risk of cerebral hemorrhage" from untreated hypertension, and that he may well have suffered a fatal hemorrhage "precipitated by hCG-induced thyrotoxicosis."

The doctor does not blame all the medical professionals who treated Lanza in the '50s; they may have missed some symptoms, but treated others. And he notes that charlatans pushing dangerous fads -- in addition to hCG, the tenor tried "sleep therapy" that involved intravenous feeding -- have hardly disappeared today.  

There are many unfortunate things about Lanza's short life. A lot of opera singers go through terrible pressures, of course, and experience assorted health problems. Lanza seems to have hit the fatal jackpot, long before he ever really fulfilled his artistic potential. He only performed in a couple of complete operas ("Merry Wives of Windsor" while a student at Tanglewood, a "Butterfly" in New Orleans) before MGM snapped him up in 1949 and turned him into the first really big cross-over artist. So most of what we know of Lanza's singing today is from a mix of greatest-hit arias, a Neapolitan song or two, and the pop tunes that were part of his movies.

In an e-mail I received from Armando Cesari, who lives in Australia: "Lanza’s biggest dream was that of an operatic career. The thought of singing on the operatic stage and being accepted as a legitimate opera singer was ever present in his mind. At the time of his death he had in fact accepted an offer from Riccardo Vitale, the Artistic Director the Rome Opera, and had told Vitale that after undergoing an operation for the thrombosis early in the New Year he would begin preparing the role of Canio in Pagliacci for the 1960/61 season. In order to achieve his dream Lanza would have had to drastically change his life style. Had he been able to do this I have no doubt that he would have concentrated on performing complete roles in various opera houses while making the occasional film purely for monetary purposes."

Personally, I never got on the Lanza bandwagon, although I can certainly understand and appreciate his appeal. A lot of great singers point to him as an early inspiration, and the public embraced him with a fervor that would probably not be seen again for a tenor until the heyday of Pavarotti. Here's a sampling of what made Mario Lanza a global star half a century ago, and a reminder of how tragic his early death was:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:24 AM | | Comments (10)


You did not mention possible Mafia involvement in Mario's death.
It has been reported that Mario was asked to perform at an Italian
function which he refused. Speculation continues that Mario was
financially indebted to Mafia organizations during his rise to fame.
Of course, we will never know definitively how accurate any of this is.
Ciao! Pablo

For anyone interested in Lanza at his operatic best go to the Opera Arias and Duets CD to the Otello, "Dio ti giocondi,' duet with Licia Albanese and the following,"Dio me potevi scagliar." Obviously Lanza was on his best behavior with Albanese because of the respect he had for her and she very much liked his voice. Their singing is impassioned and vibrant and his 'Dio' is heartbreaking and vocally secure.

Thanks very much for that recommendation. I confess I haven't heard that one, and, as an old Albanese fan, I look forward to finding it. TIM

For more on Mario Lanza, I suggest a visit to the Mario Lanza Museum in Philadelphia. It is a small museum in Lanza's old neighborhood. The staff there provide a wealth of information on Lanza's life.

Just watching Mario Lanza in movie role of Caruso and wondered about his untimely death but was interested in his children? He had four?? Are any of them musical or have their father's voice????

Perhaps your readers would be interested in a recently-opened website, The site includes writing and analysis of the tenor and his voice by Derek McGovern and Armando Cesari as well as a storehouse of photos, performance video clips, radio interviews, film discussion and more. This new site is dedicated to an objective exploration of Lanza's life and his work.

I have been a fan of Mario Lanza for a long time (I am almost 70). He had a marvelous voice but to be honest I was not fond of his acting ability. I have most of his movies and watch them often. At present I am watching The Great Caruso again.

Lanza was murdered by Luciano's people a week after an incident in which he threw one of them down a stairs at his apartments. How they faked his heart attack is not known, but it is a typical Sicilian dodge.

I,too, have read that Lanza was murdered in an italian hospital by mafioso's dressed as doctors and killed him by something. it was for turning down an invitation from Luciano to perform.

Unfortunately cannot remember where i read it years ago...But more likely than all the other so called medical theories.

I'm skeptical of the Mafia story, which sounds more like an attempt to explain the seemingly unfathomable. Here are two facts that might, just might, substantiate the natural causes theory after the fact. Lanza's two sons died prematurely of heart attacks, one at 55, the other at 37. It may be something in the genes, aggravated by the stresses and the obesity and the drinking.

He probably died of natural causes. Both his sons died prematurely of heart attacks, one at 55, the other at 37, so this was probably something genetic, aggravated by obesity, heavy drinking and the terrific stress of being a film star.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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