At Marilyn Horne Tribute, Warm Memories and Salty Humor

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Last Monday, Marilyn Horne was the honoree at the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s 77th annual luncheon. Readers of this blog know of my particular admiration for her as an artist nonpareil and as a person. I am but one of a global chorus who feel this way. These include audience members who saw her in great opera houses and theaters and the millions of people who have seen her on television (in operas, on the “Tonight Show,” “The Odd Couple,” and "Sesame Street.")

Horne’s daughter Angela was on the dais. Her father was Henry Lewis, the outstanding conductor and collaborator with Horne (below, right). Angela, her husband Andre and their three children are central to Horne’s life. Being a grandmother is yet the latest role in which Horne excels. Angela spoke candidly about being the daughter of an opera singer: “We don’t talk about singing very much, but she is to me the greatest singer that has ever been. As I kid I did not appreciate her that much. She was gone or I had to sit through long operas. Now, with recordings and videos, I have come to appreciate her singing and what she brought to the music.”

In her remarks, Horne noted “I cannot imagine that everybody gets that kind of appreciation from a daughter. You, Angela, paid a big price for the honor I received today.” When, as a child, Angela had a cold, Horne would kiss her on the back of the neck to avoid catching it. This is a small but telling image of how singers who are parents must juggle responsibilities to both their children and their careers.

Horne also has adoring colleagues, her devoted friends (to whom she is devoted), and the many students whose talents and careers she has fostered since creating The Marilyn Horne Foundation on her sixtieth birthday in 1994. She also heads the Vocal Arts program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA. Each January, Horne and other artists teach master classes at Carnegie Hall and the young singers perform in recitals and at a gala concert. These are dates I always put in my calendar far ahead of time because I learn more about the art of singing and how it should be taught. Recently, she discussed the state of singing with her customary candor and smarts in an interview with Zachary Woolfe. (She also recently visited WQXR for an in-depth interview with Naomi Lewin.)

More than forty great singers, composers, directors and actors were present at the Opera Guild luncheon, many of whom worked with Horne or are her friends. To mention some but not all would not be fair, but I do want to single out two. Richard Bonynge who, with his wife Joan Sutherland, was such a close friend and collaborator with Horne, sat next to her on the dais and told funny stories of Horne in rehearsal and performance, quoting the mezzo’s use of language too salty to print even in a blog about opera.  

One anecdote involved Sutherland, Horne and Bonynge doing Semiramide at the Boston opera company run by Sarah Caldwell in the early 1960s. Ms. Caldwell had many strengths, but could also be quite disorganized and improvisational. In this case, by the final dress rehearsal the artists still had not seen what sets and costumes were being used. As Bonynge conducted, Horne “made her entrance as [the male character] Arsace on the prow of a boat, quite pregnant and wearing a black beard.” Starting with Bonynge and then the rest of the company and finally Horne, all laughed so hard that the rehearsal came to a complete halt.

Another legendary singer was present and it was wonderful to see her. Evelyn Lear is a remarkable artist whose performances remain seared in the memory of anyone who saw and heard her. She did not cover the vast range of styles and centuries of music that Horne did with such assurance (no one did, for that matter), but each of her portrayals was unforgettable. I will do a post about her in the future because she merits this recognition.

Mezzo Colleagues

Another speaker was Frederica von Stade who made her Met debut in 1970, the same season as Horne (though “at least ten years younger,” as Horne noted). She too told warm and funny anecdotes, including one in which a singer said to Horne that the auditorium of the Met is way too big. “No honey,” Horne replied, “your voice is just too small.”

Stephanie Blythe, with frequent Horne collaborator Warren Jones at the piano, sang three songs, facing Horne directly and at close range, bathing her in glorious sound and beautiful singing.  In her remarks, Blythe said that, at age 20, she was “tooling around in my car listening to Horne sing Handel, not knowing that Marilyn Horne would change my life fundamentally. I was never in Horne’s studio but [as a young artist who gave recitals under the auspices of the Horne Foundation] I feel I am of the school of Marilyn Horne, who puts music first, text first, audiences first.” Citing the importance of the recital in the career of a singer, Blythe said “the only way I would learn to be an opera singer was to learn how to sing songs."

I agree that Horne, Blythe and just a few other singers create not only the arc of an opera role but make every moment vivid and specific, as would a singer of art songs and lieder. The most moving part of an afternoon full of moving moments was when Blythe sang “What’ll I do?” by Irving Berlin, finding so much meaning in the words while giving full attention to the music. It is remarkable how, in a song or aria, a slight pause or emphasis on a consonant, or gentle lengthening of a vowel, can be so impactful when done by an artist who knows what she is doing.

Horne and Blythe both have distinguished themselves in the gorgeous music of Georg Frideric Handel. Here are Horne and Blythe performing “Hence, Iris hence away” from Semele. Note the precision of the singing as well as diction, yet how remarkably alive and present they are. You must understand that this is not just the result of talent but extensive work and preparation, with no short cuts.

I once was working with a famously difficult soprano preparing to sing this aria in concert. She learned it (or heard it) from her teacher as “Hens, hens, Irish hens away” and sang it that way. Clearly, she had not read the words in the score but was trained by rote in the aria. She became angry when I tried to correct her and insisted on singing it as she knew it, and she did. I assure you that this soprano will never receive a luncheon from the Metropolitan Opera Guild!

She Can Cook Too

In researching this dispatch, I came across a three-part program called “Aria and Pasta.” Recorded in 2000, this extended kitchen conversation with Horne includes a look back over her career as well as discussing her activities as a teacher. Ever precise, she did not refer to the iconic Italian cheese that Verdi adored as “Parmesan,” but as it should be called: Parmigiano. Enjoy these three segments.

Yes, Horne can cook pasta, but to know how she really cooks, you must experience her performing Rossini. Here is “Mura felici,” from La Donna del Lago, in concert in 1981, with Richard Bonynge conducting. Watch, listen, learn. Singing does not get better than this.

Horne is called “The Star Spangled Singer,” one who has been honored by and sung for presidents from both parties. At the luncheon, Horne concluded her remarks saying, “I am so appreciative to the patrons who help keep this art form alive. When we all go to the Great Beyond, we will be judged by our culture and not by our wars and politics.”