Marilyn Horne in 2007, inaugural honoree of the tribute series "Met Legends."
Today Horne is packing up her home of 40 years, steps from Lincoln Center, to relocate to Santa Barbara, California. Though born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where a street now bears her name, Horne has called California home since her family moved cross-country to Long Beach, within Greater Los Angeles. She was 11 years old.
"I grew up in Hollywood," says Horne. In 1954, just 20 years old, she dubbed the songs for the title character of Carmen Jones, which transposes Bizet's opera to a African-American setting in the recent war years while leaving the music practically intact. But the movie business was hardly the only game in town. Among countless luminaries in flight from Hitler's Europe who had taken refuge there was Lotte Lehmann, that unsurpassed exponent of the lied, who took Horne under her wing when she was 17. The young singer had scarcely begun to sing professionally when she caught the ear of Igor Stravinsky, who took her along to the Venice Biennale. Three seasons with the opera in Gelsenkirchen followed. Echoing the young Verdi, Horne calls the time in the ensemble her "galley years."
"To be a great singer of classical music is the hardest thing in the world," she says. "After all this time, I still go for a great voice, my dear, for anyone who can really sing. The details you have to be on top of are just endless. But first of all, you have to be born with a great voice. You can't go out and buy it. You can't manufacture it. You have to have that seed. And then you build on that."
Horne carries her 84 years the way others carry 60. Her mind is sharp, likewise her memory, and her speaking voice retains its unmistakable metal. Dwelling on the past is not her style. "I don't listen to myself," she says. "I don't watch myself." Yet in anticipation of the move to the West Coast, she has been forced to contemplate her archive of private recordings. "All my video tapes have been transferred to DVD, over 200 of them, in real time. A friend of mine had it done for me as a gift. I haven't really gone through them. Sometimes people send me clips on YouTube, and then I watch them on my computer. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised."
I saw it on YouTube: a favorite TV clip of Horne's, from "Three Little Pigs," also starring the redoubtable Eileen Farrell (left).
Making beautiful music: alongside Joan Sutherland, Horne helps rehabilitate the serious Rossini of Semiramide.
"Classical music is in crisis in this country," Horne says matter-of-factly. "Not all the big institutions will die out, but some will.Remember when there was live opera in prime time on network television? Well, we can forget about that.I don't know what we'll do. And there are so many incredible young singers out there." In 1994, to improve their chances, she inaugurated the Marilyn Horne Foundation, focusing on the endangered song repertoire, offering advanced training and performance opportunities to dozens if not hundreds of rising talents.
In such advocacy, she is by no means alone. "So many people have worked so hard to bring music to young audiences," she says. "So much money has gone into it, and so much effort. Carnegie Hall alone has done amazing work. But is it taking? I'm not sure."
Lately Horne was irked to read in the New York Times a review of the Met's new Così fan tutte, which dwelled, all too typically, on the oddities of the new production to the exclusion of any detailed assessment of musical values. "I should write the critic a letter," she remarks. "Does he have any inkling how hardit is to sing Così fan tutte, never mind all the extra shenanigans demanded by the director?" Needless to say, she frowns on Regietheater. "I even hate the word," she says. "I'm allowed to say that because I'm old." Her attendance at the opera these days is accordingly very selective.
Still, she sees some hopeful signs, notably in the constant flow of new American operas. "The question," she cautions, "is what will stick. I just don't know."
During her distinguished tenure as director of the voice program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara from 1997 to 2018, Horne mounted full student productions of demanding standard repertoire, from Die Zauberflöte and Ariadne auf Naxos to the second act of Jenůfa, plus rarities like Nino Rota'sIl cappello di paglia di Firenze.Yet among her most signal triumphs was a recent American opera that international audiences have yet to discover: William Bolcom's A Wedding, after Robert Altman's film of the same name.
Way ahead of the curve: under Horne's aegis, the Music Academy of the West offered William Bolcom's brand-new A Wedding (from left: Alek Shrader, Edward Parks, Olivia Savage).
She perks up at the suggestion of a Bolcom "trilogy"—along the lines of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas or Donizetti's Tudor queens—consisting of McTeague(his Wozzeck), A View from the Bridge (his Cavalleria rusticana), and A Wedding (what else? his Nozze di Figaro)? "That," she says, "would be a wonderful idea."
Though Horne has stepped back from administrative duties, her long-established annual teaching residencies at the University of Oklahoma (Norman) and the Oberlin Conservatory, including heavy schedules of private lessons and master classes, continue. When traveling, she amuses herself by studying the maps in in-flight magazines and placing dots wherever she has performed. "By the end of the flight," she laughs, "the maps are totally covered in ink." In America alone, she has chalked up recitals in all 50 states, wrapping up in 1999 in Laramie, Wyoming, at the Alpine altitude—challenging for many, and singers especially—of 7,167 feet or 2,184 meters.
Given all the boxes Horne checked off in her career, were there any she missed, from being born too soon or too late, perhaps, or because of some other stroke of bad timing?
"It's the most horrendous memory of my life," she replies. "I was offered Normawith Maria Callas, her last Normas in Paris. But I had a whole slew of recitals in the U.S., and my agents said, 'You have to honor your contracts,' which I've felt my entire life. That time I should have swum the Atlantic and rearranged my dates. I didn't. Thatwas a tragedy. Missed connections apart from that? No. I can't think of any."