Happy Belated Valentines Day! But the above title does not refer to the love celebrations of February 14. Instead, it refers to the title of a Mario Lanza hit in 1951.
If you are of a vintage younger than me, you might say, “Mario Who?” Yet for those who were adults during the 1950s, Lanza was a larger-than-life tenor despite being only 5′ 7″ tall. He became a sensation in opera, in films and was a recording star, with “Be My Love” his first million-record hit. Some compared him to Enrico Caruso, whom he portrayed in a movie, “The Great Caruso, and indeed, Caruso was Lanza’s singing idol.
Unfortunately, he died in 1959 at the age of 38. Nonetheless, his voice is still remembered by music aficionados. To honor Lanza, her father’s favorite singer, Denise Chávez, co-founder of the Border Book Festival, created a fund-raiser centered on the life and career of Mario Lanza.
Since Lanza’s family came from Abruzzo, on January 31st, we held a Mario Lanza birthday party here in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we honored the late operatic singer by preparing foods representative of the Abruzzo region of Italy.
While none of the volunteer chefs who prepared the feast was Italian, a scrumptious and authentic meal was served to 50 guests. We dined on an antipasto of bread, cheese, salami, olives, carrots; crepes in chicken broth; polenta with sauteed swiss chard, grillled eggplant and a three pepper vegetable dish on top; Tiella, a vegetable casserole; chicken and beef kabobs, tomato sauce on pasta made with a genuine “chitarra,” a wooden pasta machine that sings while producing the pasta. Of course, wine accompanied the meal and for dessert we had homemade biscotti of three different varietiies, pizzeles, and affogato, vanilla gelato in hot espresso. I know I’m leaving out the names of a few more dishes, but I’m still too full to remember them all.
Costumed singers, Stephen Jones and Martha Vera, from El Paso, entertained us with operatic arias during the meal, then led us in a Mario Lanza sing-along including “That’s Amore,” “O Sole Mio,” “Arrivederci Roma,” “Volare,” “Santa Lucia,” “Funiculi, Funicula.” We followed this with a Mario Lanza Quiz and the person guessing the most correct answers received a $40 bottle of Sicilian wine.
We use the expression, “He must be turning in his grave,” when something abhorrent to a deceased person occurs. On January 31, 2014, Mario Lanza must have been so astonished by this tribute to him in Las Cruces, NM, he must have been singing in his grave on what would have been his 93rd birthday.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who was a newlywed when she first heard Mario Lanza sing, “Be My Love.”