Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
In the mid-1970s, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne was singing in Paris: “Sheherezade” in an all-Ravel concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Maria Callas was by then living quietly in the city, and Horne received word that the great diva was in the audience. After the concert, though, Callas was a no-show in Horne’s dressing room.
Last week, Horne, now 77, began to chuckle recalling Bernstein’s reaction.
“When he found out that she hadn’t come back to say hello to me, he really called her a wonderful name,” she said. “It begins with ‘C.’ ” She laughed long and hard before finally catching her breath. “That was so Lenny.”
It's just a bit of gossip, but there's a lot of Horne in the telling: Her earthiness maybe but also that kind of candor paired with sensitivity, the signs of a performer perpetually balancing confidence against self-doubt.
“I think my problem with Callas—I think I should have paid homage to her,” she went on. “I probably should have called and asked if I could have visited her. I was stupid, right? To have thought that she would invite me.”
It wasn’t stupid to have thought that anyone would have invited her anywhere. The ’70s were glory years in Horne’s long, distinguished career, which stretched over five decades, from dubbing Dorothy Dandridge’s singing voice in Carmen Jones in 1954 to appearances on The Odd Couple and The Tonight Show that made her, for a time, the public face of opera in America. Meanwhile she was blazing artistic trails to the notice of opera's purest fans with performances in little-known bel canto operas. She will be celebrated in the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s annual luncheon today, featuring a musical tribute by fellow mezzo Stephanie Blythe.
Horne was wearing a bright yellow sweater and sitting on a bright yellow sofa in her apartment near Lincoln Center, which has wide views of Central Park and where she’s lived for 34 years. (To give a sense of how much classical music has changed, she moved in during a summer in which she made five different recordings.)
Though she spoke about her past with great relish, she lit up talking about her work with other singers. Founded in 1993, the Marilyn Horne Foundation continues to nurture young artists and encourage opportunities for song recitals. (Its activities were folded into Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute last year.) Horne herself has been director of the voice program at the Music Academy of the West, an eight-week summer program in Santa Barbara that she attended as a teenager, since 1997.
The proper way to teach voice is something she thinks about a lot, as well as the future of the art form to which she’s devoted her life. She worries about talented singers working with incompetent teachers, the kind who make singers sound good to themselves. (When you’re singing correctly, according to Horne, it sounds good to the audience but not to you.)
She worries about the emphasis on singers’ appearance in the era of HD broadcasts. One summer Horne herself lost 50 pounds—the right way, with good eating and exercise—and she is convinced her middle register promptly went flat and her voice got a size smaller.
But she recognizes that singers now have to be thin, or at least thinnish, to be hired; and that not all singers who are overweight can slim down and keep their voices beautiful. She is preparing singers for careers, and she is a realist.
“We do take people who are overweight,” she said of the academy. “But I have to warn them, and ask them, ‘How badly do you really want this?’ I never tell anyone more than 25 or 30 pounds. The bigger ones, we call them the Big Berthas. That’s hard because they need to take off much more. They have to go very slowly and in the end they don’t know if it’s going to work.”
She couldn’t remember a single Big Bertha who had successfully lost the weight while keeping the sound.
These days Horne spends a lot of time going to see her students and protégés perform. She had just returned from Toronto, where a young soprano named Simone Osbourne was singing her first Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Ms. Horne has worked with Osbourne, as well as with Lester Lynch, who was singing Rigoletto. As well as with Mireille Asselin, who was singing the tiny role of the Countess Ceprano.
Megan Latham, the Giovanna, spent three years at the academy and has sung lots with Horne’s foundation. Horne has known Christopher Alden, whose bracing productions “sometimes drive me nuts,” for decades.
This wasn’t a rarity. It’s not too difficult to find an opera cast similarly dotted with artists who have been touched by part of the great Horne teaching-advising-mentoring-nurturing apparatus. In addition to her foundation and the Academy of the West, she’s been a visiting professor at conservatories all over the country and gives frequent master classes.
“I do have a lot of people,” she admitted.
Horne likes to tell her students, “Don’t do me”—by which she means don’t be so voracious about repertory; don’t sing so much. But you can’t imagine a young singer not wanting to emulate her: The richness and agility of her sound, her biting diction, her concentrated, exuberant acting. She is perhaps best known for conquering—there is no other good verb for it——he coloratura mezzo roles of Rossini and Handel, but her repertory extended to Verdi, Meyerbeer, Puccini, and Bizet: she was a memorable Carmen.
A New York Times article about the Met's 100th anniversary in 1983 listed the hundred greatest singers who had ever performed with the company and included Horne. She was the only one still actively singing at the time. But her distinguished Met career didn’t come right away.
“My students don’t believe it when I tell them that from the time I made my professional debut it was 16 years until I made my debut at the Met,” she said. “I waited for the right role. They didn’t give me so many offers anyway, but when they did it was supporting stuff. I didn’t exactly dig in my heels, but I had this idea I wanted to go in in style.”
And in style she went: a new production of Bellini’s Norma alongside Joan Sutherland, Carlo Bergonzi, and Cesare Siepi in 1970. It was the first of more than 250 performances she sang with the company, including the title role in Rinaldo in 1984, the first time a Handel opera was done at the Met.
She doesn’t think she would have been able to do any of it without her salad days in the late 1950s at the opera company in provincial Gelsenkirchen, Germany. That’s the kind of spirit she likes to bring, in microcosm, to the Academy of the West: One that nurtures experimentation and is free from the backbiting and relentless competition she sees at other conservatories. But there’s only so much she can do: The HDs and YouTube clips proliferate (her assistant loves to show her Horne rarities that have ended up on the site), and they can promote the value of appearance and slenderness over vocal size.
“There’s no question that this is the kiss of death of great singing,” she said of the HDs. “When everyone’s on a microphone it’s the great equalizer. I’m very happy that I was in at the end of it, because great voices will emerge, but I don’t think it will ever be the same again. I’m not an old lady who says ‘Things aren’t the same,’ but the way I teach is not for microphones, it’s for getting the voice out and getting it right.”
On the walls of her apartment is a small but exquisite collection of letters and portraits of the great 19th century singers and composers: Meyerbeer, Verdi, Johann Strauss, Emma Calve. There is a photo of Pauline Viardot, an original lithograph of one of the last of the castrati, a letter written by Maria Malibran. There is something that feels very natural about it all being there: This is the company Horne belongs in.
The masterpiece of the collection may be a small piece of paper, little more than a scrap. It is a bit of music manuscript, and it the last song Bellini ever wrote. Horne sang it out in a voice still clear and assured (the qualities that, along with her legendary diction, will come in handy when she sings Katisha in The Mikado with the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall this spring).
“It’s going to still be a great art form,” she said of the future of opera. “And there are still going to be great singers. Maybe not as many. And the choices that they make are going to be crucial. But I’m betting that because these talents emerge all the time, they’re going to make their own opportunities to fulfill themselves. They want to sing. I don’t think you can put talent down.”