Myths about Mario Lanza

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Derek McGovern

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Jul 8, 2011, 11:40:53 PM7/8/11
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I recently deleted this thread after being taken to task by a non-member for being insensitive to the memory of one of the people I'd alluded to in it. I've now modified the offending paragraph, so here's Version Two. And just an update: I will be writing this article soon, but I'd still appreciate any feedback in the meantime on any additional annoying Lanzarian myths that you'd like to see addressed.    


It seems that nonsense about Mario Lanza turns up almost every day -- whether it's being spouted by YouTube miscreants, Opera-L belittlersamazon.com dissemblers, or other misinformers in both the print and electronic media. One minute it's the claim that Lanza's voice was too small to be heard in a decent-sized theatre, the next it's the assertion that the man was incapable of learning an operatic role. Even reputable journals such as Opera News have in recent years regurgitated some of the more outrageous claims -- e.g. "overall Lanza's voice displayed 'little nuance'," "his voice was enhanced by the sound engineers," "an operatic career did not seem viable." (And yet it was in the same Opera News in 1942 that leading musicologist and opera producer Herbert Graf, discussing Lanza's performances as Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Tanglewood, described the young tenor as "the find of the season.")

Then, at the other end of the scale, there is the almost-comic insistence by some fans that Lanza was at least several inches taller than he really was, that he didn't have a serious drinking problem, and that his behaviour in general was seldom, if ever, unreasonable. 

All of which brings me to the point of this thread. I'm planning to write an article soon for our main site that I hope will serve as a handy rebuttal to all of the nonsense being perpetuated about Lanza. The idea is that the next time some malcontent claims on YouTube that he has it "on reliable authority" that Lanza's voice sounded thin and small as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly -- or someone gleefully quotes the uncontested comments found in Roland L. Bessette's Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile about Lanza being incapable of learning even a relatively simple piece of music -- they can immediately be referred to this article. (It'll also save us from having to waste literally hours dealing with these doubters.) Naturally, I'll back up my rebuttals with quotes from unimpeachable sources.

What especially egregious myths would you most like to see shot down in this article? For me, it's the rubbish about the size and quality of Lanza's voice, his musicianship, general musicality, and musical memory that should be at the top of the list. At this stage I'm still pondering whether to restrict it to purely musical and vocal chestnuts, or broaden it to myths about the man's height, behaviour (including his supposed inability to get on with colleagues), death, etc. Any suggestions/thoughts appreciated!

Cheers
Derek    
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Steff via googlegroups.com to mariolanza
show details Jun 25 (13 days ago)
Hi Derek,

Fantastic idea, there even would be enough material to write a book!!!

Surely, the musical aspect should be paramount. Interesting to me:

-  facts about Lanza's musical development (e.g. I am still confuses re the question if he could read the music)
-  the myths about Lanza's recordings being "manipulated"  by sound technicians (stretched notes etc) - I also mentioned this in another post to you today - 
-  the truth about the "one-take-recordings. 
- Lanza's getting along with singing colleagues which I think is also an important aspect of his musicality ( e.g. was he team-oriented during recording sessions?)

But of course questions regarding his personality, his problems are of importance as well, given the fact that they surely influenced/ his singing and forced him
to make decisions in one way or another.

Steff

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Derek McGovern via googlegroups.com to mariolanza
show details Jun 25 (13 days ago)
Hi Steff: I'm certainly not setting out to write a book! Just an article comprising a list of the most annoying and frequently spouted myths -- followed by their swift debunking. Of course, by far the best source for Lanza myth-busting is Armando's book, and I'll be emphasizing that as well.

Cheers
Derek

Shawn

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Jul 8, 2011, 11:57:52 PM7/8/11
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Great idea! I too would like the emphasis to be on the voice itself. I can deal with the occasional attacks on Lanza's character or intelligence but when someone starts casting ad hominem doubts upon the voice that's when I get irritated. Recent remarks I have observed: "I certainly agree the voice was thin," "just a potentially(?!) good voice early on," "with RCA on hand the albert hall concert [may have been] miked," "He should have stuck with the Perry Como and Dean Martin impressions and left the opera for the big boys," and so on and so forth. A central myth debunking source would be quite handy. :)

Joseph Fagan

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Jul 9, 2011, 12:34:02 AM7/9/11
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A common myth about Lanza is that he got fired from the making of The Student Prince because he had gained too much weight!....which we all know was not the key problem.

Derek McGovern

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Jul 9, 2011, 12:51:01 AM7/9/11
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Hi Shawn: Don't you just love the fact that the (invariably anonymous) people who make those comments assume they know better than the many great singers who actually heard Lanza in person? 

The writer Christopher Hitchens once said of his critics that, "I always think it's a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem." And that's exactly how I feel about the people I've been dealing with on Opera-L, Amazon, YouTube, etc. Time and again, the Lanza-bashers, when cornered with inconvenient testimony that refutes their rubbish -- whether it's the small voice myth or whatever -- will take the ad hominem route, saying, "Well, you Lanza lovers need to get a life" or "In any case, the man was a disgusting womanizer." (I find it rather ironic that those who urge me to "get a life" where Lanza is concerned seem to spend their waking hours scouring YouTube uploadings of Lanza's singing for the sole purpose of denouncing the man!)

I'm not worried about those people, but it does bother me that their willful spreading of rubbish about Lanza may influence newcomers to the man. As the old saying goes, "If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

Cheers
Derek  

Derek McGovern

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Jul 9, 2011, 12:53:36 AM7/9/11
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Good one, Joe. Even my grandfather told me that one -- and he threw in the "running around in his underpants" story (no doubt taken from Time's 1951 cover article) as another factor in Mario's dismissal!

leeann

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Jul 9, 2011, 11:02:19 AM7/9/11
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This takes me back to a couple of years ago when I "found" Mario Lanza totally by accident. I was actually looking on YouTube for clips from Show Boat which had been the favorite movie of one of my daughters when she was little. Well, Kathryn Grayson led to Mario Lanza and that was that. I had never heard a voice so magnificent. My first reaction was visceral, which I later discovered is a pretty common description of the effect of Lanza's voice, so instead, here's a much richer quote Derek had shared from tenor Vladimir Atlantov:

When I listen to [Lanza], I feel as if some golden lava is flowing
toward me. I'm deeply moved when I hear him sing, and not only because
he has a voice of unique beauty -- it has everything from amazing
firmness, resolution and dramatism to piercing, throbbing tenderness."

One clip led to another, and I seriously doubt I moved away from YouTube that evening until I absolutely had to! 

But the thing is, it was so difficult to figure out what was really going on with that voice and who this man was.  And in retrospect, I'm pretty sure that difficulty lay in the extent and diversity of these egregious myths, careless comments--and yes, biographies purporting knowledge and authority. They just didn't compute with what I heard. But it takes a lot of work to cut through that garbage, to put the source of the information into context whether it's a cultural critic or gossip columnist of the 1940s and 1950s or someone writing today.

First, I'd want the myths people have already cited about the voice addressed. No question. And I think there's a tendency to write Lanza off as musically unintelligent--a myth totally debunked on this forum alone by those of you who know music. And as a newcomer, I wanted to know up front that this was a great tenor with an extraordinary repertoire and an influence that crossed generations and genres--that he was far more than a "movie star voice."

But I wonder if the personal doesn't have to be addressed to some degree at least--although not story-by-story.  As a Hollywood figure, clearly Lanza, the movie star, the fan idol, was in the public eye more than other greats--even Caruso, who sometimes managed the press well and sometimes was its victim. I could be wrong, but I'm not sure anybody much cared that Bjoerling had problems with alcohol...Lanza on the other hand!  And weight issues--it only mattered in Hollywood, not at the Met. And bad behavior?  Any star's questionable behavior, real or not, was fuel for the press, and Lanza stories brought readers to columnists and publications, just as his music brought money to Hollywood and RCA Victor. The thing is,  these rampant Hollywood stories are where many of the myths began, and while the voice is the important thing, highlighting the personal to some extent seems necessary with Lanza in a way that might not be so for other operatic tenors.  Best, Lee Ann

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Derek McGovern

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Jul 10, 2011, 1:58:38 AM7/10/11
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Hi Lee Ann: That description by Vladimir Atlantov (pictured below) is one of the most beautiful assessments I've ever read of Lanza's voice and singing. Atlantov must be a rather special person to feel such emotions. I also applaud his generosity!

Yes, I think some of the personal stuff does need to be addressed in the Myths article. I'm tired of reading even respected reviewers' opinions to the tune that Lanza was "a monster" -- as indeed Lee Milazzo of the American Record Guide concluded after reading Roland Bessette's Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile. Another irritating description of Lanza that pops up regularly is the bizarre view that he wasn't very bright. Then you have people like Liberace writing in his autobiography that Lanza "literally ate himself to death."

I won't write the article as a formal essay, though. I want the information in it to be immediately accessible, so I'll probably divide the piece into sections -- e.g. the artist and the man -- and simply list the various myths in bold, with brief debunkings alongside each of them, together with linked references for those who need to read more.

It'll be fun to write this article!

Cheers
Derek


Derek McGovern

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Aug 8, 2011, 10:49:22 PM8/8/11
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Just an update on the Myths essay: I finished the rough draft yesterday, and Lee Ann and I are now working on the layout. The idea is to make this a companion piece to our Opera Singers on Mario Lanza article, which will also be going up on our main site soon. 

The "Myths" piece ended up being longer than I'd anticipated, but I think it works. While I've concentrated on addressing the nonsense written about Lanza the singer -- small voice, couldn't learn, always shouted, etc -- I did tackle four of the most annoying myths about the man as well, e.g. "Lanza was a monster."   

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Derek McGovern

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Aug 8, 2011, 11:05:01 PM8/8/11
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While I'm on the subject of essays, if anyone's interested in writing an article for our main site, please do drop me a line. As we all know, there are some wonderfully talented writers among us, and if there's a particular Lanza recording, or album, or film that you'd like to explore -- or some other worthy Lanza-related topic -- I'd love to hear about it. It may even be a post that you've written for this forum that you'd like to turn into an extended piece. 

Cheers
Derek

leeann

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Jun 29, 2014, 12:28:52 PM6/29/14
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Dr. McGovern's given me the pleasure of telling you that the Myth articles are live on Mario Lanza, Tenor as of this morning. Derek, of course, does the hard work of writing. I have all the fun of the webwork and an advance peek at the splendid content.

Myths About Mario Lanza, the Artist tackles questions about the power of Lanza's voice, his vocal technique, his ability to learn music, and his experience in opera performances among other issues.

Myths About Mario Lanza, the Man challenges some of the fundamental rumours that impact Lanza' s reputation and spill over into his credibility as an artist.

You can also link to these articles if you'll scroll down a bit on our slightly-revised Home page where you'll find updated connections to the newest content on the site from time to time.

And, you'll find another announcement and links to yet another new article, "The Opera Singers said..." under the thread Opera Singers Who Worked with Lanza or Saw Him Live.  It's awfully good to have these issues addressed directly and consolidated on the website in Derek's terrific and clear writing style.

And tomorrow  there's yet another announcement of more content coming.  Best, Lee Ann

Shawn

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Aug 13, 2011, 2:34:55 PM8/13/11
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Brilliant stuff! Thanks to you both.

Derek McGovern

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Jun 29, 2014, 12:29:23 PM6/29/14
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Thanks, Shawn! I hope the two essays—and the "Artist" one, in particular—can serve as handy refutals to the kind of nonsense we both read on YouTube and elsewhere every day.  

Many thanks to Lee Ann for employing her wonderful talent for web design on these essays (and also on "The Opera Singers Said..."). She's greatly enhanced the layout, and, needless to say, I'm thrilled.  

Cheers
Derek   

Lou

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Aug 15, 2011, 1:14:25 PM8/15/11
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Hi Derek and Lee Ann: Another terrific collaboration! Thanks and kudos to you both.

Derek:  After reading your myth-debunking essays and "The Opera Singers Said...," anyone with an ounce of sense should have no difficulty disabusing his or her mind of annoying misinformation picked up in good faith from Lanza’s detractors. Unhappily, however, there will always be a  handful of incorrigible malcontents who, for example, would rather believe the trumpet player who stated that Lanza’s voice was enhanced by sound engineers than famed conductor Franco Ferrara, who asserted that Lanza’s was “a big voice, and anything but small.” If I may slightly paraphrase writer Franz Werfel (of Song of Bernadette fame): For those who do not want to believe, no explanation is possible (emphasis mine).

Cheers,

Lou

Joseph Fagan

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Aug 15, 2011, 1:46:52 PM8/15/11
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Lou, I keep on going back to the Queen Of England's comment to Mario after his Command Performance: " I never knew that human lungs could produce such volume". (quoted from Armando's great bio) .How is THAT for a testament to his vocal power? I would say she is a pretty credible witness!! The motivation of these naysayers even after 50 years has always been a mystery to me. I have also found it interesting when people poo-poo Mario by saying he "was no Caruso", yet when questioned ..they admit they have never heard a Caruso recording! Go figure!

Derek McGovern

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Aug 16, 2011, 12:52:06 AM8/16/11
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Hi Lou: I'm glad you liked the essays. It was fun writing them!

Interesting that you should mention that trumpeter-turned-impresario, Max Gershunoff, who claimed to Opera News in 2005 that Lanza's voice was enhanced when he performed on live radio in 1945-6. As Armando pointed out a few years back, apart from standing closer to the mike, what kind of enhancement would have been possible on a live broadcast?!

I did email Gershunoff about his comments, but he never responded. Bill Ronayne recently interviewed him, however, for his newsletter. This time, Gershunoff had nothing but praise for Lanza's voice, and nothing was said (or asked) about any "enhancements." So what on earth prompted Gershunoff to make that peculiar comment in the first place? Did he hear the transcriptions of those performances years later and imagine that the reproduction of Lanza's voice was different from what he remembered in the radio studios? Or, like Amara, does he blow hot and cold on Lanza? I'd love to challenge him on his 2005 comments.

By the way, you made me laugh with your paraphrasing of old Franz!!

Cheers
Derek 

Derek McGovern

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Jun 28, 2014, 10:38:06 PM6/28/14
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Hi Joe: The only problem with using the Queen as a witness is that she's not exactly an authority on voices :) Then there'll be those who ask, "But wasn't there a mike on the stage at the London Palladium?" That's why I love throwing the comments of voice experts like Richard Bonynge or great singers back into the faces of these "naysayers."

Surprisingly, "Myths about the Man" has received more "hits" so far than "Myths about the Artist." I really thought it'd be the other way round! But I guess it illustrates how interested people still are in Lanza the person. And that's not a bad thing either :) Speaking of which, I was tempted to address amateur psychiatrist Roland Bessette's assertion that Lanza suffered from bipolar disorder -- a "diagnosis" that seems to have spread like Dutch Elm Disease, and is now accepted as fact by many who post about Lanza elsewhere. (We also had "Doc" Jeff Rense implying on Mark Kidel's 2005 documentary that Lanza suffered from multiple personality disorder -- "there were several people inside him," and "that's why there was so much trouble.") Perhaps when I next update the essay...

I hope you noticed, by the way, that I included in the "Myths about the Man" essay the one that you wanted addressed about Lanza being fired from The Student Prince because he was supposedly too fat? :)

Cheers
Derek

 




Derek McGovern

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Sep 4, 2011, 11:44:42 PM9/4/11
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There's an ongoing discussion on Lanza at amazon.com that I've mentioned before, and in fact I've just been posting there about the Myths articles on our main site (which, incidentally, have attracted a great deal of attention over the weekend from the grandi-tenori and Opera-L forums; the daily "hits" on those and other pages have quadrupled over the last two days).

But while re-reading part of the amazon thread just now, I was reminded of Armando's magnificent post there. It's too good to be languishing in a hard-to-find amazon thread, so I've decided to reproduce it here:


My friend Derek McGovern, who among other things wrote the liner notes for the CD accompanying my Lanza biography "Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy," alerted me to a discussion on Lanza taking place on Amazon.


I skipped through the various postings dating back to 2009 and was astonished to find just how many misconceptions, myths, and, let me say it, downright ignorance still persists when it comes to discussing Lanza.

"He had a small voice" "Couldn't be heard beyond the third row," "Couldn't sustain," "Was unable to learn a role." "Didn't have a proper technique."  I could go on ad infinitum.

Over a period spanning approximately forty years I have interviewed countless singers, conductors and musicians that worked with Lanza. I have also studied singing and voice production and, as such, feel that I know a thing or two about the subject.

To begin with, as a result of his studies with Gigli's teacher, Enrico Rosati, Lanza possessed a solid technique - a perfect voice placement coupled with the ability to turn in the passaggio, and correct diaphragmatic support "which enabled him to sustain and sing for hours without tiring." Dorothy Kirsten's comment. Kirsten was not exactly an admirer of Lanza the man. She considered him egocentric, or in her own words, "cocky." Kirsten may have been a pretty good singer but she was obviously not a good psychologist --- had she dug a little deeper she would have discovered that Lanza's cockiness was merely a façade to masquerade for his, by then, considerable insecurities. Lets face it, it's one thing to make your debut at the Met as a relatively unknown singer and quite another as the world famous Mario Lanza.

Which brings me to another misconception, "Lanza took the easy way out --- he chose Hollywood."

On the contrary, Hollywood, or precisely MGM, chose him. He had no particular ambition to be in films, since his goal had always been an operatic career, but with a contract that offered him $750.00 a week, when he was earning approximately $300.00 per concert, he accepted reasoning that he could make a film per year (he stipulated that his contract be for only six months of the year) while continuing with his concert and opera career.

What he or no one else anticipated was the enormous impact he was to make on the cinema going public after his first film was released. Producer Pasternak had predicted "It will take at least ten films for you to become established." On the contrary, with the instant success of his first three films culminating with the record breaking `The Great Caruso, and million sellers RCA recordings, Lanza's fate was sealed.

He no longer had the time for studying new roles, consequently the role of Alfredo in La Traviata, for which he was contracted for with the New Orleans Opera, had to be cancelled.

Hollywood also meant working in an environment which was the total opposite of an operatic one --- one where Lanza would have worked with competent coaches and conductors. Instead, on the operatic material he was working mostly with Constantine Callinicos, whom I can only term operatically incompetent. Callinicos had no idea how to conduct opera --- the orchestra under his direction was dullness personified, the tempi inevitably too fast.

As such, Lanza's recording output between 1950 and 1952 is an extremely erratic one, ranging from magnificent performances such as M'appari and E lucevan Le Stelle, to downright unstylish and over the top ones like the 1952 Arlesiana aria.

In fact, as an artist, compared to 1947-49 period, Lanza had regressed. Then, in 1955, working with a great coach (Giacomo Spadoni) and a pretty good film conductor (Ray Heindorf ) Lanza produced some of his best singing for the soundtrack of the Warners film Serenade. O Paradiso, and Amor ti Vieta, are far superior to the earlier versions, while the Arlesiana aria is also outstanding even though it's not as lyrical as the superb 1948 "live" version. He also sings an excellent Di Rigori Armato and what I consider to be one of the best, Dio Mi Potevi Scagliar.

I will not comment on the voice size as Derek has dealt sufficiently with that "myth" in the various testimonials posted.

But I will say this much on Lanza's supposed inability or slowness to learn a part. He was by all accounts pretty bright and had what conductor John Green described to me as " A sensational ear." He was, after all, able to learn and sing both Fenton and Pinkerton.

In ending I will quote the basso David Franklin on the subject:

"The truth is that it is not in the least necessary for a singer to read well. It may be convenient for him to be able to learn new music quickly, but how long he takes to learn it in private is his own affair. The audience pay to hear the finished performance, however long it has taken to prepare, and never expect to hear, or want to pay to hear, a singer singing a part at sight.

"For the singer, sight-reading can be no more than a convenience. I would go further --- in some ways, good reading is a disadvantage. A bad musician must sing the stuff so often, to drill it into his memory, that at the same time he sings it into his voice.

"The only academic requirement of a singer, then, is that he shall be able to sing accurately from memory at a performance."

Armando Cesari

Derek McGovern

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Dec 10, 2013, 8:54:52 AM12/10/13
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Here's a great thread that's well worth revisiting. 

Barnabas Nemeth

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Dec 11, 2013, 5:03:54 AM12/11/13
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Hi Derek, I've received only this...


2013/12/10 Derek McGovern <derek.m...@gmail.com>
Here's a great thread that's well worth revisiting. 

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Derek McGovern

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Dec 11, 2013, 9:30:06 AM12/11/13
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Hi Barnabas:

Just to clarify: you received only my post and not the earlier posts on this thread because you use the email option for receiving messages. 

If you click here, you'll be taken to the forum discussion I'm referring to.

Cheers
Derek

Derek McGovern

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May 28, 2014, 11:13:06 AM5/28/14
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There was a time when one would have to scroll through several pages of results just to find our main site after googling "Mario Lanza," but how times have changed! We're now the second entry (after Wikipedia) when performing such a search, and, interestingly, the entry is a link to the essay Mario Lanza: Myths About the Man.  

Let's hope the increase in traffic to that page helps dispel some of the nonsense that's been perpetuated about Lanza the person. The Mafia nonsense is discussed on that page, so that's something at least!   

Derek McGovern

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May 28, 2014, 11:26:20 AM5/28/14
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A P.S. to the above: I've just realized that the search results differ depending on whether I'm using Google Chrome or Internet Explorer. When I perform a search on "Mario Lanza" on the latter, the second entry is still our site, but the page it brings up is this essay on Armando's book:


I'm quite happy about that too :)

And speaking of Armando, his excellent vocal placement essay has appeared consistently in our top ten most-visited pages for two years now. Other popular pages include this forum (#2), video television performances (#5), home and concert audio recordings (#9), and Mario Lanza: Myths About the Artist (#10). 
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