Friends, in the middle of October, I went to see Marilyn Horne. She is about to celebrate her 75th birthday; her foundation (devoted to singing and song) is celebrating its 15th. I talked with her for a couple of hours in her apartment. And a piece appeared in National Review (12/1/08): “Celebrating Horne.”
I propose to expand on that piece now, using more of our interview. Call it a Horne-a-palooza — a Horne extravaganza, or Horne-o-rama. Anyway, it will be a feast for Horne fans, which you surely are, if you know her.
Who is she? Ah, let me be clear: She is one of the greatest singers who ever lived (a mezzo-soprano, although she began life — or at least her career — as a soprano). She is also an extremely smart, interesting, articulate, and fun woman. If you ever have a chance to sit down with her, don’t pass it up, for heaven’s sake.
Her apartment is on the West Side of New York, overlooking Central Park. (It is also near the Metropolitan Opera, where she spent many a night, on the stage.) As I enter, she speaks of the New York Sun. The paper has just folded. She says that she did not care for its “political pages,” but cared a lot for its arts pages. (I was a Sun music critic, which is why she mentions the paper.) Indeed, she subscribed.
Horne is an outspoken liberal Democrat, and the Sun was right-leaning. I like to think that, if she had been born at a later date — say, when I was — she would be right with me, but that is a subject for another time . . .
Her nickname is Jackie, and sometimes she claps her forehead and says, “Okay, Jack, get the brain in motion: Why can’t I remember that?” But she remembers plenty, trust me.
Around the apartment are busts of Rossini, Schubert, and other figures with whom she has been friendly. There are also pictures of her grandchildren: the three of them. “Someone said that having a grandchild is like falling in love again,” she says. “And it’s so true.”
I remember that she recorded the song “Always,” late in her career. And she said she needed some inspiration: so she put a picture of her granddaughter, Daisy, on the music stand. “It’s a great song,” she says, “and it’s not just a love song” — a song of romantic love. “You can sing it to a grandchild you adore.”
And I relate to her one of my favorite stories. Someone asks Irving Berlin which is his favorite song, of all he has written. He answers “Always.” And this person has the temerity to say — this is where the story is a little hard to believe — “But Mr. Berlin, it’s such a simple song, anybody could have written it.” And he, according to the tale, answers, “I know — but I did.”
She began her life in Bradford, Pa. — and I remember that she had some hard things to say about this town in her memoirs (published years ago). Does she retain any ill feelings? No, she says: none. “I think I was disappointed, because when my father tried to get people to subsidize me in some way — to go to Europe or whatever — they declined.”
Does Bradford claim her now? “Oh, yes,” she says. “As a matter of fact, there’s a bust of me in the new concert hall.”
And “my foundation is there,” she says — the Marilyn Horne Foundation. “We present two artists a year there.” (The foundation is based in New York, but reaches out to all corners of the country.) “It’s very difficult to get an audience” in Bradford, as it is most everywhere else.
Horne remembers what the builder of a performing-arts center in South Carolina told her: “It was easier to get money to build the center than it is to get behinds in the seats.”
I tell her that a recital was always my favorite musical event (and it’s recitals that the Horne Foundation especially supports). She says, “Me too.” She remembers hearing Menuhin “when I was eight or nine.”
Horne finished her growing up in the Los Angeles area. And she speaks of “a gilded time in my life,” from about age 17 to age 22. She rehearsed with Stravinsky in his home, she heard Aldous Huxley speak, she ran into Schoenberg, though “I never got to know him.” (His widow, “Gertie,” she knew “quite well.”)
And then there were the many Hollywood figures: You’re talking about a gal who sang with Judy Garland at a party chez Rock Hudson.
She says that she saw André Previn not long ago: “We never performed together, but we were on the same program, and it was in the Hollywood Bowl. This was probably in 1947.” Previn played Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Horne, still a girl, sang in the chorus. They sang a song called “Halloween,” by Lionel Barrymore (!). Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza sang the Love Duet from Madama Butterfly.
“And we were all in love with Lanza. He was young and thin and gorgeous — and that sound! Man, he was the real thing. He would have been a spinto tenor. He was a spinto tenor. That was the real thing, and Kathryn became a really dear friend later on.”
Horne married Henry Lewis, a double-bassist and conductor. He was the first black player in a major symphony orchestra, the first black conductor to lead a major orchestra: a pioneer. (Horne is white, I might mention.) Horne speaks of him frequently during our conversation together. “He was quite something. We divorced, ultimately, but I miss him very greatly. He’s been dead now for quite a while” (1996).
We talk about mementos — souvenirs, documents — of her career. “I’ve never been good with taping my performances. Just . . . I don’t know . . . It’s like I never kept a journal, and I regret it. My colleagues have so many recordings — they’re recording every breath they take, and I think, ‘My God, I should have done that.’ But I have enough. So many things that people have given me — air-checks and things like that. I have a closet or two full.”
That should be plenty. And Horne is pretty well represented on disc. I mention in particular a live recital from Salzburg that I’m especially grateful for — because it tells you what a Horne recital was like, when she was in her glorious prime. “That was a good recital,” she acknowledges. “I know I was on that night.” That’s putting it mildly.
(Find that recital here — it took place in 1979.)
Horne was also on when the Met celebrated its centennial — that was in 1983. She sang “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Samson and Delilah. Why did she choose that (or did she)? “I was singing Samson and Delilah in San Francisco at the time — at the opera — and I had to be flown in [to New York] by special plane, right after a performance.” The Met gala was the next night, “so I thought, ‘I’d better sing something I’ve got in my voice right now.’”
There were a bunch of retired singers — legends — sitting on the stage behind Horne and the other performers. One of them was Risë Stevens, who, as it happened, had been a famous Delilah. Horne greeted her after the aria — embraced her. She says that people criticized that as “calculating.” But that is untrue:
“I didn’t know all those former singers were going to be on the stage. I walked out, and there they were. And as I was singing, I said, ‘Oh, shit, Risë Stevens is sitting right behind me.’ I had to acknowledge her — it would have been terrible if I hadn’t. Calculating it was not.”
Of Stevens, I say, “She was pretty, wasn’t she?” “Beautiful woman,” says Horne. “Nice gal, too.” Could she sing? “Oh, yes. She could sing.”
Of her own performance of “Mon coeur” that night, I say, “It’s perfect.” Horne nods, “It’s good.”
(And, by the way, if you’d like to see what we’re talking about, go here.)
I say that some people regard Bryn Terfel as a natural, someone who came out of the womb singing. Discoursing generally on singing, she says, “A lot of us are born with voices that work — but you have to put an awful lot into it,” with studying, practicing, being coached, and so on. “It’s a very hard profession. I have argued with ballet dancers that it’s the hardest there is — singing.” And the challenge is as much mental as physical: actually, more.
And a singer, says Horne, is “half artist, half athlete.”
She mentions a young singer named Melody Moore — a good name for a singer, huh? She is “a wonderful young soprano,” and “you’re going to hear from her.” She’s “a full lyric, heading to spinto.”
And that leads to a broader point: “My standards are still the ones I was raised with — and everything has been upshifted. You’ve got many lighter voices these days singing things that should be sung by heavier voices.” That is a change for the worse, according to Horne (and a lot of others).
Take the role of Mimì, in La Bohème: “My Mimì, when I was coming along, was Renata Tebaldi, and she had probably the biggest voice I have ever heard. Renata had a huuuuge voice — I think it was even bigger than Birgit’s.” (Birgit Nilsson, of course, the Swedish Wagnerian.) “Birgit had a laser beam on hers, but Renata also had a laser beam,” and more. “Now I’m hearing lyric sopranos — light lyrics — sing Mimì, and that’s not for me.”
Another point: the increasing importance of looks in opera, because that is what administrators fasten on. Not everyone can look like Risë Stevens, of course — but this is opera, or singing theater, not the movies. Says Horne,
“We live in a visual age. The tube and Hollywood are probably the biggest influences we have, and, as someone said, no one eats in Hollywood. They are really skin and bones. I see these actresses — I remember seeing them when I was on the Johnny Carson show and so on. They were tiny. And that looks great on the screen,” apparently.
I relate to her a favorite joke: Zsa Zsa Gabor passes a wretched man on Rodeo Drive who is holding a sign that says, “Haven’t eaten in three days.” She says, “Oh, dahlink, I admire your villpower.”
I mention some great singers of the past, starting with Ebe Stignani. Horne: “Wow. I mean, that’s a wow. She was great, absolutely great. I never knew her personally, but Henry did — the San Francisco Opera would come down to L.A.”
She mentions that Stignani, a mezzo, had “a great top” — and this came in handy for Laura, to name one role (Laura in La Gioconda). “It’s really high. And I can tell you a funny story.” Not long ago, a famous mezzo-soprano appearing in La Gioconda passed Horne at a party. Said this mezzo to Horne, as she was passing, “Laura: Too high.”
“Yes,” says Horne, and “that’s why I never performed it, only recorded it.” This surprises me, because Horne was a soprano before she became a mezzo. “Yeah, but by then” — by the time she made the change — “I was getting to be happier a little bit lower. I didn’t have any fear of high notes or anything like that, but if you center your voice a little lower . . .”
Marian Anderson: a great singer, of course, and a great human being. But she had “real technical deficiencies,” as Horne says, and as everyone knows. She had two startlingly distinct — indeed, different — voices. Horne says that “she might have been a soprano” — a soprano who never developed in that direction. She sang “Pace, pace” (the soprano aria from La Forza del Destino) as an encore in recitals.
In the course of our discussion, Horne mentions the first opera she ever attended: Tristan und Isolde, in L.A., with Flagstad and Vinay. “I was maybe 15 or 16. My memory is that it was glorious. I remember falling asleep, because I had been in school all day. I didn’t know you needed a little nap before Wagner — now I know!”