Department: Mario Lanza Isn’t Dead Yet

Well, technically, he is — and has been for more than 50 years now. 
But his legacy lives on in a tiny South Philly museum, thanks to a handful of devoted 
fans still searching for the next great singing sensation

 

Flórez was a Mario Lanza Institute scholarship winner, and when the young singers rise for their individual performances at the ball, you get the feeling that opera might have a future — a dark, swarthy, attractive future, actually. The competition is arranged in an American Idol-esque format, with the four singers contending for various prize amounts before three opera-singer judges. While winning a Lanza Institute scholarship might not be akin to making one’s debut at the Met, it’s still a respected award for young singers, which is why about a hundred of them auditioned this year in a preliminary round.

The three male singers this year are gorgeous, including one James Franco look-alike who turns out to be a fantastic tenor. Obviously, this is a tenor crowd, so the James Franco-looking guy, an Academy of Vocal Arts student named John Viscardi, is immediately pegged by the audience as the winner. (He’s so good, in fact, that he’s headlining the Academy of Vocal Arts’ gala the next night.)

This part — boosting young careers — is perhaps the proudest legacy of Lanza and the institute, giving the volunteers and ball-goers a purpose beyond adoration. John Luciani, the 80-something tour guide, jumps up and starts filming Viscardi’s aria with a surprisingly modern-looking tiny video camera (is that a Flip?), the Texans are up and camcorder-ing like crazy, and everyone’s thrilled to have such a, well, Lanza-like voice right here in the Doubletree’s ballroom.

Jeanette, though, disappears for the competition and returns only when they’re ladling out the chicken florentine soup. “I listen from outside,” she explains. “I want to hear them, but I can’t watch. I feel too sad that they can’t all win.”

WHILE THE BALL WAS A SUCCESS, things aren’t what they once were in the world of Mario Lanza supporters. Lanza’s own family is mostly gone — his wife died just six months after his death, from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, and only one of his four children is still alive, a daughter who lives in Beverly Hills and occasionally attends the ball in Philly. A handful of visitors comes to the museum each week, and while the institute’s president, Bill Ronayne, is only 52, he’s going to need to find younger volunteers over the next decade to keep the place open. “We have people offering to help out all the time,” says Ronayne, who’s confident the institute will carry on ad infinitum.

But at a time when even the fate of those famous South Philly neighborhood parades is on the line — and those are attended by thousands — you have to wonder where that confidence comes from. When the pride of Christian Street has been dead for more than 60, or 70, or 80 years, will people who never knew Lanza until he was gone still walk across town to preserve his place in history? You get the feeling that what the place needs is someone like Nicolas Cage’s baker in Moonstruck, a young, opera-crazed eccentric who’ll come in and learn the ropes, and carry on the ridiculously detailed tours and the ball and the competition, and answer the posthumous fan -letters and e-mails that Jeanette handles now. Really, what the institute needs is another Jeanette, who hasn’t taken a vacation from Mario in 13 years and is probably deserving of a little time off. “I want to visit Mount Vernon,” she confesses. “Maybe I’ll take a bus tour.”    

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