For the love of Lanza: Concert will celebrate the life and music of legendary tenor

He was the American opera singer who became a Hollywood star before his life was tragically cut short at the age of 38.

Tara Marisa Kelsey
Tara Marisa Kelsey

Now the music of tenor Mario Lanza will be celebrated with a concert at Sedgley’s Dormston Mill Theatre.

Organising the event has been a labour of love for Tara Marisa Kelsey, a mezzo soprano, who grew up listening to her father Frederick’s collection of Mario’s recordings.

“My father, who passed away four years ago, was a singer like myself and he was a huge Mario Lanza fan so I grew up with his music and it’s what influenced me to become a singer,” says Tara, who lives in Telford.

Mario was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia on January 31, 1921 and was of Italian ancestry. He grew up in a musical household and was enchanted by opera from an early year. His training to become a professional singer began when he was 16 and conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who was so impressed with his voice that he granted him a scholarship to his music school.

Mario made his debut as Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor and received rave reviews.

But his studies were interrupted shortly afterwards by the outbreak of the Second World War and he was drafted into the US Army.

He was soon singing to new audiences, this time in a soldier’s uniform, and appeared in two Army productions. Following his discharge, Mario signed a contract with Columbia Artists management and toured as a tenor before MGM made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

He made his film debut in That Midnight Kiss with Kathryn Grayson and Ethel Barrymore in 1949 and became an instant star. This was soon followed by movies including Toast of New Orleans and The Great Caruso, which saw Mario star as his childhood idol, Italian operatic tenor. Enrico Caruso As well as his movie roles, Mario made more than 500 recordings between 1940 and 1959.

In November 1957, he headlined the Royal Variety Performance, to an audience that included the Queen, Prince Phillip and the Queen Mother.

At the time of his death, from a suspected pulmonary embolism in 1959, he was still regarded as the most famous tenor in the world.

“Mario Lanza was known for bringing opera to the people through his great MGM films and recordings,” says Tara. “He has been described as the Elvis Presley of the late 1940s and 50s. He was the pin-up of the opera world, he brought people out in the same way as Elvis did.

“He was the ultimate crossover artist. People really loved his voice and he still brings so much joy to people today with his music. He has a huge following around the world.”

She has spent three years organising the tribute concert, taking place on September 9, which has been postponed twice due to the pandemic. On the night, she will perform alongside Italian tenor Simone Francesco Liconti, who will be travelling from Bergamo, Italy, to pay homage to Mario.

Accompanying them both will be gifted young pianist and instrumentalist Jobe Sullivan from Birmingham.

“It’s going to be a magnificent celebration of Mario’s life told through a rich repertoire of popular songs and great operatic arias to include Be My Love, Nessun Dorma and The Loveliest Night of the Year to name but a few.

“This concert has been a dream of mine for so long and it was a dream I shared with my late father. I know he will be looking down and thinking it’s fantastic,” says Tara, who has for many years performed in and around the Midlands taking the lead roles in both musicals and operettas. The singer is also looking forward to returning to the stage after the pandemic forced theatre closures.

“It’s been pretty soul destroying not being able to perform and do the thing I was born to do.

“There is nothing else on earth like performing live and connecting with the audience. You don’t get the same feeling and interaction performing over the internet. I think audiences are hungry for live performances, they want to be back in the theatres and music halls,” Tara tells Weekend.

As well as appealing to Mario fans, she hopes the concert will also introduce a new generation to his music.

“The whole essence of this event is to bring opera to the people of the Midlands who just don’t get to experience such an opportunity on their doorstep. Simone Francesco Liconti is a magnificent singer and he is very much looking forward to making his UK debut in Sedgley.

“Most people would expect to have to travel to London to see an Italian tenor on stage so it’s a unique event. It’s going to be a very special concert for Mario fans,” says Tara.

*Be My Love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza will take place on Thursday, September 9, at the Dormston Mill Theatre, Sedgley. To book tickets visit seaty.co.uk/bemylove or call 07957661222 for more information.

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