Marilyn Horne: An Evening with an American Legend

Last week, I attended an evening sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse with the opera great, Marilyn Horne. Dressed resplendently in a floor-length red brocade gown and coat (with glittering sequins), Horne slowly swept in as the star she has been and always will be, escorted by her interviewer, F. Paul Driscoll, the editor-in-chief of Opera News. The once dark-haired Horne now has blonde hair and is a wee bit stout.


Seated, she spoke with him about her life’s work and commented upon the video clips of her legendary performances with Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Montserrat Caballe which we were all privileged to see.

If you have heard Horne perform, you know she is an opera star’s opera star. If you have never heard or seen her, then words alone cannot do justice to her powerful and disciplined voice and acting skills. (But you can still hear and see her on CDs and DVDs. Do not pass through life without giving yourself this profound pleasure).

Opera may historically be Europe-centered and our most famous stars may, historically, also have been Europeans but Horne is as American as pumpkin pie. Her northern European ancestors actually came over in the Pilgram-era. Horne grew up first in Pennsylvania and then in southern California. Her body mannerisms and verbal colloquialisms, including low whistles, are pure Americana. A priceless home video of herself and Joan Sutherland yukking it up at Horne’s home shows them singing an American folk tune and cracking up over it. Another video shows Horne tap dancing and harmonizing with Carol Burnett on Burnett’s television program.

Horne’s voice has the most thrilling mezzo-alto timbre and when she hits a note: any note, it is invariably a solid line drive down center field and into the bleachers. (This analogy strangely suits her). Horne’s voice does not wobble to the left or to the right and its sheer power and strength is almost a natural wonder, like the Rockies or the Sierras.


What I did not know was that Horne was also Dorothy Dandridge’s “voice” in the movie Carmen Jones, that she sang in The Rose Tattoo (which starred Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster), was in the chorus for the movie Joan of Arc (which starred Ingrid Bergman), and also sang for the film The King and I.

How much more American can she be? Well, she also sang backup Doowahs for small record records which featured an “imitation” Patty Page or Peggy Lee. And she won a singing competition on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts.

I am not sure I want to remember the most imperious of Amnerises (Pharoah’s daughter in Aida), the most sultry of Delilahs (in Samson and Delilah), or the most contrite of Adalgisias (in Norma) in this way–but why not?

Her last performance at the Met was in 1996 in Falstaff and she gave her last recital in 1999. However, unlike my beloved Maria Callas, Horne did not disappear into one of her tragic roles nor did she retreat from the field simply because she herself could no longer perform.

Wisely, Horne still continues to teach master classes, give private lessons, and mentor younger singers through her own foundation. Thus, there is something happily and positively American about her that has seen her through several dark nights.


And Horne dished dirt. For opera lovers, the “dirt” consists of who sang higher than whom, who nearly fell off the ledge on stage, who could not remember her next lines, whose pronunciation was hopeless or comical, and which conductor or director refused to allow which opera great to sing.

There must be something in the drinking water or in the air in America to account for someone like Horne. Without blowing her voice out, and without dying of exhaustion, she has performed in an astonishing number of concerts and in fully staged operas by Handel, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, Bizet, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Saint-Saens, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Berg, and Corigliano (whom I am privileged to know and whom I met through the librettist, William Hoffman, who is my good friend).

The evening was extraordinary. F. Paul Driscoll was a tender and appreciative interviewer. At one point, Horne wept and said something to the effect that her career has “come to a close.” Her interviewer quickly stated, “The song continues.”

Driscoll is right and he is also prophetic.

Many opera stars were in the audience, including Dolora Zajick who is currently singing one of Horne’s roles: Adalgisia in Bellini’s Norma. Five days after the evening with Horne, I saw this production of Norma. Although Zajick was her usual wonderful self, she-who-played Norma was not; enough said. Disconsolate, I came home and put on Horne, Sutherland, and Pavarotti performing two of the arias from Norma and was immediately revived.


Try it, you’ll like it.


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