Marilyn Horne’s Birthday: A Supremely Talented Opera Singer Turned 80

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Marilyn Horne, American opera singer (left), and Henry Lewis, American conductor and bassist. Taken in 1961

Marilyn Horne, American opera singer (left), with Henry Lewis, American conductor and bassist. Image by Carl Van Vechten.

“I must absorb everything while I’m still singing and step onto the stages of my many homes, and look out at the familiar surroundings, at the people who have come to hear me, to hear music.” –Marilyn Horne

Marilyn Horne is an opera star. At the age of 80, she is finally being honored for her art. With a career that spans more than four decades, Horne is as dedicated to music now as she was in the 1970s; a time when she insisted on singing Rossini at La Scala in Milan the way she felt the composer intended his work to be sung – not the way the conductor wanted it sung.

This mezzo-soprano superstar now devotes her time to helping young singers find their voices and their careers in music.

Marilyn Horne’s Rise in the Music World

Born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, on January 16, 1934, Marilyn Bernice Horne didn’t show her exceptional musical skills until she was 16. She quickly developed a passion for her music, a passion that was strongly influenced and encouraged by her father, Bentz Horne.

Marilyn starred in the role of Hata in Smetana’s opera, The Bartered Bride. This was her debut in professional opera and she was only twenty. Later the same year (1954), Marilyn sang the voice of Carmen Jones in Oscar Hammerstein’s interpretive re-write of Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen.


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The mezzo-soprano carried her career to Europe and made an international name for herself singing in such roles as Mimi in La Bohème, Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, and at the inauguration of Gelsenkirchen’s new opera house in 1960 as Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck. Her role as Marie became Marilyn’s ticket to opera stardom.

Marilyn didn’t just sing classical opera, but also performed popular music. During this time, she made brief appearances on television shows like The Odd Couple where, in the early 1950s before her debut on the world stage of opera, she played the role of Jackie, a would-be opera singer who ends up becoming a professional opera singer.

About the same time, she also appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Popular music continued to play a part of the mezzo-soprano’s career. As the diva said in an interview with WQXR, “I’ve sung everything – from soup to nuts I’ve sung it. If I have a legacy, it’s that I did sing so much variety and that it can be done.”

A Matter of Opinion: Fighting for Young Talent

Throughout her career, Marilyn fought one battle after another, mostly with the very opinionated big names in the classical music industry. If she didn’t want to perform a piece the way the conductor thought it should be performed, she held fast and refused to perform at all until the conductor acquiesced and accepted her interpretation as being closest to what the composer originally intended.

In 1994, she launched the Marilyn Horne Foundation at Carnegie Hall in New York. The Foundation’s mission is to encourage young talent and nurture audiences for the art of vocal recital. The foundation continues, having expanded its scope to fund and support numerous young singers across the United States and to conduct over a hundred educational programs.

Marilyn continues to work with the Foundation to help young singers find their place in the music world. Her artistic battles also continue. She believes that opera houses are “too infatuated with overly conceptual productions while ignoring the lavish, albeit traditional, spectacles.” She claims that productions hire too many singers today because of appearance. “If you have three singers vying for a role today,” she said in her interview with WQXR, “and they sing equally, the person who looks great is going to get it.”

A Mezzo-Soprano Diva Receives Honours as She Turns 80

With a legacy that lies in variety, the music world now honours Horne for a long life of devotion to the world of music. She has made over a hundred recordings and given more than a thousand recitals. Horne performed at such important events as President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and received numerous awards, including the National Medal of the Arts and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

A tribute at Carnegie Hall plans to honor Marilyn Horne with a diverse program that includes everything from Beethoven and Broadway, to Mahler and Montsalvatge. This mezzo-soprano superstar has instigated many trends in opera including the bel canto revival in the 1960s, the art song recital and fleeting burst of opera on television. For her eightieth birthday, Tom Huizenga of NPR’s Deceptive Cadence notes, she is receiving yet another honor: “the hard-won honor of being a supreme singer – plainspoken about her art, with the tenacity to keep it strong.”

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© Copyright 2014 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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