Handsome, velvet-voiced, and with a magnetic personality, Italian basso cantante Ezio Pinza (b. Rome, Italy, May 18, 1892; d. Stamford, CT, USA, May 9, 1957) was one of the most brilliant international opera stars of the mid-twentierth century. He is probably best remembered by today’s audiences, through the original cast recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as the creator of the role of Emile de Becque (“Some Enchanted Evening”) for which he was awarded the 1950 Tony® for Best Actor.
Fortunato Ezio Pinza, his parents’ seventh child and their first to survive, grew up in Ravenna and intended at first to be a civil engineer. His father, however, recognizing the beauty of his natural voice, encouraged him to study at the local conservatory and go on to the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. He made his operatic debut in Cremona in the role of Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma in 1914, but shortly thereafter both his career and his studies were interrupted by World War I and military service. When the war was over, the career gathered momentum, and since Pinza learned all his roles by rote, he never did actually learn to read music. (“I’m no musician. I just know how to make nice sounds.”)
His debut role in Rome in 1920 was King Mark in Wagner’s Tristan e Isolde (in Italian). Ezio Pinza then had a three-year contract under Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in Milan, beginning in 1922 with Pimen in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and creating the role of Tigellino in the premiere of Arrigo Boito’s Nerone in 1924. In 1926 he found an enduring home at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, appearing first as Pontifex Maximus in Spontini’s La vestale (with Rosa Ponselle in the title role), and reigning for the next twenty-two years as America’s leading bass. Although he made occasional excursions to South America, Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra, the Salzburg Festival, San Francisco, and Chicago, he appeared in over 850 performances at the Met, singing fifty-one different roles. Pinza’s most popular by far was Don Giovanni, in whose golden costume he blazes in a splendid portrait hanging in the Met’s gallery.
In 1948 Pinza retired from the Met to move into Broadway musical theatre. At fifty-six, his chiseled good looks and enchanting voice undiminished, he starred with Mary Martin in South Pacific, a show that won a Pulitzer Prize as well as every Tony Award® for which it was nominated – Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor/ress, etc. –, to a total of thirteen. It ran until January 1954, for 1,925 performances. Ezio Pinza then spent the next two years starring with Florence Henderson in Harold Rome’s Fanny.
Pinza was as attractive on film and the small screen as he was on stage. In his first film, Carnegie Hall (1947), he played himself, on a star-studded roster of classical musicians like Arthur Rubinstein, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Lily Pons, and Jascha Heifetz. Two formulaic musical farces from MGM came out in 1951, with Pinza as the charming European aristocrat: Mr. Imperium with Lana Turner and Strictly Dishonorable with Janet Leigh. Pinza’s last film role was the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (singing a bit of Boris Godunov in costume) in Tonight We Sing (1953), a biography of impresario Sol Hurok. Aside from appearing as a frequent guest on television variety shows in the ’50s, Pinza had his own sitcom, Bonino (1953), playing a recently-widowed Italian-American opera singer with six children. It did not last long.
Ezio Pinza had a wife and three children, and made his home next to the Westchester Country Club in Rye, NY. Shortly before his death due to a stroke, he finished his memoirs, which were published in 1958. His funeral took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and he was buried in Greenwich, CT. He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.