Opera Meets Film: Mario Lanza’s Brilliance In Rudolph Maté’s ‘For The First Time’

By John Vandevert

The amount of films about opera and that use opera are endless, and yet, as it happens, time and time again the same studio seems to make an appearance. But, more importantly, the operatic stars at the center of these films seem to be just as copious as the titles. Completed by Austrian director Rudolph Maté in 1959, the film “For The First Time” was a defining film in the cinematic career of Italian-American tenor Mario Lanza, whose in-film colleagues included the great Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and German actress Johanna von Koczian.

But what makes this film particularly notable is where it was located in the history of its studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and what music was used. In many ways, Lanza’s career was far too short and in many others, his career brought him profound success in everything from opera to popular song to cinema and more. Who knows what could have happened if he’d lived past 38 but one thing is for sure: This film, along with the many others starring him, helped immortalize his name in cinema history.

First, A Plot!

American tenor Tony Costa, played by Mario Lanza, becomes a celebrated singer and equally notable figure for his many scandals regarding his performance track record and ad hoc performances. Because of his shenanigans, manager Ladislaus Tabory takes Costa to Capri to settle the storm he’s created. However, people begin noticing who he is in town and after being asked to sing in the main square, Costa begins falling for a girl who remains unmoved by his singing. This annoys Costa and he attempts to woo her even more.

The girl turns out to be Christa Bruckner and after WWII, she lost her hearing and thus cannot react to his singing. Costa’s love for her grows with each passing day and when Costa’s current girlfriend arrives to the island, he leaves her. After leaving for his next tour, Bruckner comes with him as Costa hopes to help her with her deafness. Despite risks of surgery, she regains her hearing and when Bruckner can hear his singing again the relationship deepens and a fruitful relationship ensues.

Then, Some Context!

“For the First Time” was shot in 1959 by Maté for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. (MGM), the same studio responsible for the films like the failed 1917 film ‘Thaïs’ featuring Mary Garden, the 1935 Marx brothers film ‘A Night at The Opera,’ and the 1940 film which inspired opera singers like Jamie Barton, ‘The Cat Above and the Mouse Below.’ However, it’s notable that in the late-1950s MGM had reached the tale-end of their nearly 40 year-long wave of success, with 1959 being remembered as the company’s greatest financial year thanks to the sound remake of ‘Ben-Hur,’ one of MGM’s most acclaimed silent films. Nevertheless, by the late-1970s MGM had ceased to be the film giant it once was, with most of its business having moved into hospitality under new management.

The year prior, moreover, was just as seminal thanks to MGM’s musical film, ‘Gigi,’ starring French-American actress Leslie Caron in the principle role, the film especially poignant chronologically as 1957 marked the first year in MGM’s history that the company lost money due to the retirement of two of MGM’s potent contributors, playwright Dore Schary and film executive Nicholas Schenck. And adding fuel to the expanding conflagration is the fact that in 1957, MGM’s animation department was proving too expensive to keep operating and so it was shut down. In the midst of these imbricated difficulties, MGM were able to produce some highly celebrated musical films like ‘An American In Paris’ (1951) and ‘Singin In The Rain’ (1952), unfortunately followed by several big-budget flops like ‘Silk Stockings’ (1957), a film which tried to cash in on the burgeoning rock and roll movement with little success. As a result, even as early as the 1940s, MGM was in need of strategies that could bring audiences to theatres and much needed revenue to the company in order to sustain its continued success and regular operations. 

One of those said strategies included getting high-profile singers and performers of the day to participate in films, and under Dore Schary’s leadership, famed tenor Mario Lanza, whose training began at 16 and whose career saw him sing with celebrated contemporaries like Spanish soprano Irma González and whose voice inspired singers like José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, came on board. Starring in films like ‘The Toast of New Orleans’ (1950) and, most famously, ‘The Great Caruso’ (1951), Lanza helped bring some much needed attention back to MGM at a time when the company needed it most. That ‘For The First Time’ is not considered to be MGM’s greatest musical film, the title going to ‘Gigi,’ speaks to the already tempered reception to Lanza by MGM audiences who, as it turned out, shot the film six weeks before his death in October at the age of 38.

Perhaps one could read this as a prophetic occurrence, as MGM only had 20 years left to its cinematic name before eventually falling apart. In 2002, MGM was known as the MGM Entertainment Business Group, but in 2020 Amazon bought MGM and renamed it Amazon MGM Studios Distribution, with the company’s hard-hitting music and films now a long distant memory. But it bears remembering that once, MGM was at the very center of American cinema and was a leading player in creating some of American culture’s most iconic musical films, even if the only findable traces are within the records of the Library of Congress, Wikipedia, and YouTube.

Finally, The Music!

The film uses a large amount of operatic repertoire, ranging from Giuseppe Verdi to Ruggerio Leoncavallo, and Edvard Grieg to Franz Schubert. However, a little digging reveals that much of the repertoire may have been chosen in light of what Mario Lanza had already sung or was familiar with at the time. As a dramatic tenor, his forte was Verdi, Puccini, and the likes within the gamut of the Italian bel canto tradition. Roles like Otello, Calaf, Pinkerton, Fenton, and Rigoletto a mere sampling of what made Lanza’s name so acclaimed during his time and for many years after. On Lanza’s 2001 posthumous CD, it’s obvious the great abilities for dramatic lyricism Lanza possessed and wielded during his career, while the many recordings made by him during his lifetime demonstrate Lanza’s unique marriage of opera and popular song thanks to his dual career in film.

So important was Lanza to opera that stars like Roberto Alagna credit him for being a strong influence upon their own development, while during his lifetime negative reviews were a rare occurrance, if ever given at all. Had Lanza not been drafted into WWII, his opera career might have seen his go to the Metropolitan Opera House and beyond, but if he hadn’t been drafted much of his film career may not have begun. Regardless, the songs and arias used in the film speak to the legacy of music created by Lanza during his life, Italian love ballads and German lieder setting effortlessly next to robust operatic lamentations and celebratory odes. A good example of this marriage of “high” and “low” musical traditions is “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), recorded by Lanza in 1951, and the famous Neopolitan song “O Sol Mio,” written by Giovanni Capurro and recorded by Lanza on numerous occasions (i.e., 1950, 1958, 1959, 1960). So loved was Lanza’s version that recordings are now on YouTube where they have gained upwards of 1.5 million views for just one video.

But what about some others? Lanza’s iconic “Vesti La Guibba,” first recorded in the early 1950s for RCA Records and then again in 1951 for Sunrise Records, secures Leoncavallo’s tragic clown as among one of the most iconic roles ever sung by Lanza. The quintessential lament was featured in “For The First Time,” Lanza on stage in the signature depressed clown makeup, and if all things had gone right during the last days of Lanza’s life he would have opened up Rome Opera’s 1960-61 season in the signature role.

However, before that could take place, being short on money, in 1959 Lanza had agreed to star in the film, “Laugh Clown Laugh,” but it became apparent he wouldn’t live to see the film’s creation. What’s even more tragic is that just ten years prior, he’d been making plans to sing with the great Maria Callas at the time thanks to a filling out of his voice which left him confident in growing his operatic standing with his contemporaries. As a result, in the late-1950s his voice had grown deep and rich and he was set for Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ according to Director of Rome Opera. Featured in the film was another iconic lied, Franz Schubert’s 1825 “Ave Maria.” Recorded for Sunrise in 1951, RCA Records in 1955, this became an equally important song in Lanza’s musical oeuvre and was featured in a 1957 broadcast for ‘The Christopher Program’ at The Vatican in Rome, Italy. 


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