Marilyn Horne: The Lioness in Winter

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Who could have known on January 16, 1934, when Marilyn Horne was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, that her birthday would become an annual occasion for singers and music-lovers to brave all kinds of weather and venture to New York to celebrate the beloved mezzo-soprano? They have been doing this since 1984, when Horne inaugurated what became an annual tradition of master classes and concerts intended to continue the art of the vocal recital.

All kinds of encomia have been heaped on Marilyn (whom, full disclosure, I have been proud to call a friend for three decades) and they have all been deserved. In the current issue of The New Yorker she is described as “America’s grande dame of classical vocalism.” For me, she is the best. Period.

After a glorious career of singing operas and songs in all styles and from four centuries, she gradually wound down performances and set up a foundation to keep song recitals alive and vibrant at a time when they seemed marginalized by more splashy entertainments. To do this, she trained a generation of young opera singers to include lieder, French art songs and wonderful American works as part of their performing lives.

This, of course, was not easy because presenters did not see vocal recitals (singer and collaborative pianist) as sexy. But with Horne as an advocate who combined great charm with soft power, she made it happen. A lifetime of working with colleagues who admired her, knowing politicians from across the political spectrum and being the deliberate, determined and funny person she is, today we have many of the top young singers who studied with her or received her counsel. And they sing songs.

This week, Horne, Martin Katz and Christa Ludwig all taught master classes at Carnegie Hall as part of The Song Continues, as Horne’s work is known. And, on her actual 80th birthday, January 16, there is a concert that will celebrate not only Marilyn’s birthday but her achievements. Many wonderful performers are scheduled with Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey serving as co-hosts. Among the singers are Renée Fleming, Jamie Barton, David Daniels and Piotr Beczala.

It is well known that Marilyn had a very serious battle with cancer a few years ago but The Great Maestro was not ready for her yet. She continues her work with undiminished passion. Her teaching combines decades of experience as a performer but she does not, like some senior artists, spend valuable time talking about herself. When she talks about what she did with a particular passage in a song, it is about how she solved a problem and not about what made her great. Thankfully, her wisdom and experience are preserved not only on legendary recordings and in the memories of music lovers, but in conversations such as this one:

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Horne brought to her January 13 master class her usual practicality, smarts and good cheer but also had a moment of wistfulness. When Kate Jackman, a fine young mezzo-soprano, sang Elgar’s “Where Corals Lie,” they worked through the ever-changing meter in the song (“You have to know how to count to sing this song”) and she pointed out how, though songs and arias are an alchemic combination of words and music, “the composer shows us how to use the words.”

Horne then looked at the words of this song (a poem by Richard Garnett) and paused on one phrase: “Music seeks and finds me still.” She paused, and there was a slight catch in her voice as she spoke. “Here I am old and, like an old person, cry a lot when I think of my life in music.” While we are all grateful to have her with us and are aware of her recent medical history, what struck me is that she says she cries when she thinks of her life in music. I don’t think she cries out of nostalgia but out of gratitude. Not only did she receive rare gifts but also knew how to use them and was lucky to live in a time and place where these gifts could be shared. Her teaching is a way of expressing her gratitude and creating what is referred to at Carnegie Hall as the Marilyn Horne Legacy.

When the next singer, tenor Christian Ketter, appeared, it was right back to work. He had selected "Core ‘ngrato" (Unfaithful Heart), a very difficult Neapolitan song sung in dialect and flooded with emotions that few singers know how to properly harness for the best results. Horne got right down to business on sound production, on vocal placement, pronunciation and more. She cautioned, “One should never place a tone in the throat—ever—if you care about longevity. Never let it go far down and back in the throat. Opening the jaw too much takes the voice down and back.”

She pointed to Giuseppe di Stefano’s performance of this song as being very close to her heart. But she did not insist that Ketter emulate di Stefano. Instead, she asked, “When you are at a party and have a little to drink--or perhaps you guys snort!—which tenor do you stand up and imitate?” This was an effective way of drawing out which singer of the past Ketter knew. His answer was Jussi Björling. 

Good teacher that she is, Horne explored Björling’s style and gave the young singer a lot to think about. “Make your sound brighter; yours is too dark right now.” “Say cah, not caw, when you pronounce the name Catari (the girl with the ungrateful heart). That will brighten your voice.” “I would like you to exaggerate the brightness, overdo it, make a fool of yourself. It’s just us!”

Then, another pearl that even most smart singers don’t know: “What sounds tinny to you is golden to us. What is golden to you sounds tinny to us.” In other words, a singer must learn to perform in a way that is not only secure and good for the voice but with the knowledge of how the sound he makes is received. A lot to think about!

She told the tenor and audience, “A few years ago, one of our prominent recording companies asked me to do an album of tenor arias. I told them even my taste is not that bad. But I did record ‘Vesti la giubba’ and I once sang ‘Celeste Aïda’ on the Garrison Keillor show (A Prairie Home Companion).”

The best evidence that Horne is a great teacher comes in the fact that you can see the transformation in the faces of young singers and hear it in their interpretations when they understand and integrate what she is teaching. 

With Jessye Norman at the piano, here is “Happy Birthday” sung to Marilyn in January 2013. Wishing her many, many more.