The death last week of Opera’s great mezzo-soprano, Rise Stevens (at the age of 99!), who most classic movie fans remember from 1944’s Going My Way — yes, she’s billed right up there with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald — made us consider what other stars of that genre had been successful in movies.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here to remember Miss Stevens (pictured above) and the other Divas from the Grand Opera stage, who ventured onto, and sometimes lit up, the silver screen.
Before Going My Way, Stevens, fresh from the stage of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, had co-starred with Nelson Eddy in 1941’s The Chocolate Soldier. She and Eddy play husband-wife singers engaged in a test of her marital fidelity.
Opera stars in films was nothing new, of course. One of the most famous sopranos of all time Geraldine Farrar had starred in dozens of films. Ironically, they were all silents.
In the mid-thirties Grace Moore (One Night of Love) and Lily Pons were hits on screen. Ezio Pinza had his shot at movie stardom in the 50s after his Broadway success in South Pacific, AND after playing 22 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera in some 50 productions.
It would be hard to find a film of Farrar’s but the avid movie fan can see Pinza, Pons AND Stevens all in one film, 1947’s Carnegie Hall.
Many Opera stars made films. Lawrence Tibbett, Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Paul Robeson. But perhaps the most famous and well known actor who went from Opera to films and stayed there with great success was Fortunio Bonanova.
A native of Spain, Bonanova made his opera debut as a baritone in 1922. In movies, he was a leading man, then a character actor. He appeared in films for over 40 years, ranging from Citizen Kane — portraying the comically frustrated Signor Matiste, vocal coach of the title character’s singing-wife (Dorothy Comingore) — to Fiesta (above) to Double Indemnity.
The question arises: was Mario Lanza ever a genuine opera singer. Yes, but merely in a handful of productions (including Madama Butterfly) prior to his movie career. He is by no means in the same class as those opera veterans mentioned above.
When he was signed to an MGM contract, Lanza was more a concert performer. He, of course, portrayed one of history’s greatest opera stars, Enrico Caruso, in 1951’s The Great Caruso. At his death eight years later Lanza was known — thanks to his movies — as the most famous tenor in the world.