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Passing on Her Legacy

Marilyn Horne, founder and guiding voice of The Song Continues series, has long demonstrated a commitment to nurturing gifted young vocal talent. The legendary songstress is honored on her 80th birthday in a festive evening of songs performed by an all-star lineup of special guest artists.

The Song Continues—January 13–15
Marilyn Horne Song Celebration—January 16

By Janet E. Bedell

With her endless range, jaw-dropping coloratura facility, and unforgettable butterscotch tone, Marilyn Horne made classical singing sound almost easy. But she wouldn’t agree with that idea at all. “I think classical singing is the hardest thing to do in the entire world. Ballet dancers like to argue with me about that, but I think I’m right. You have to use the maximum of your voice and your whole body to do it well. The instrument is in your body. And think of the thousands of words in several languages that one must memorize!”

Today, she is just as busy passing on her legacy to the next generation of singers.

For half a century, Horne showed what that maximum effort could produce in opera, in classical song recitals, in orchestral concerts, and in her beloved American popular song standards. Today, she is just as busy passing on her legacy to the next generation of singers. That warm, golden speaking voice is untouched by the years, as is her curiosity, her engagement with the challenges facing her field, and her appetite for hard work. Horne travels around the country nearly as much now as she did in her prime performing years: running the vocal program at Santa Barbara’s prestigious Music Academy of the West for promising singers and piano accompanists, giving master classes at major institutions as well as private lessons, and tracking the performances of her protégés. She also makes time for her three adored grandchildren: Daisy, 15; Henry, 10; and Alex, 9. “They’re just fabulous! That’s one of the really nice things about getting older—seeing them grow up.”

In 1994, she founded the Marilyn Horne Foundation to “support, encourage, and preserve the art of singing through the presentation of vocal recitals and related educational activities.” In 16 years, the foundation introduced more than 60,000 students to the vocal recital and presented 111 emerging artists in 285 recitals and 582 college students in master classes across the country. “All composers wrote solo songs, and they’re some of the greatest things they composed. You can be so many characters in songs. You can really show your versatility: You can sing something quiet that takes much sustained breath, then turn around and sing something funny, then something very dramatic. And believe me, young singers want to do it!”

Each January, Carnegie Hall continues the legacy of Horne and her foundation with The Song Continues, a week of master classes and recitals with young artists. This season—on the exact date of her 80th birthday—the series culminates in a gala with Horne’s friends and colleagues, who lend their talents to celebrate her career and ongoing influence.

Marilyn Horne 1988
Marilyn Horne in recital, April 9, 1988

The Ultimate Mezzo

Her voice, though large and rich, could fly and trill as fleetly as the lightest soprano.

From her first appearance with Joan Sutherland in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda in 1961 and her subsequent triumphs (also opposite Sutherland) as Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide, Marilyn Horne reigned as the supreme coloratura mezzo-soprano of both the Baroque and bel canto repertoires. Yet surprisingly, she began her career at age 20 as a lyric soprano and spent her early years at the Gelsenkirchen Opera House in Germany, singing such soprano roles as Mimì in La bohème and Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.

But Horne quickly became much more than Sutherland’s sidekick. Her coloratura abilities were astonishing. Her voice, though large and rich, could fly and trill as fleetly as the lightest soprano. Horne is matter-of-fact about this: “I had [the coloratura ability] early and didn’t really have to go after it. Singing coloratura is a technique; every voice can do it, they just have to know how.” Horne’s facility opened up a whole new repertoire for mezzo-sopranos—just as Maria Callas and Sutherland had for sopranos—and a new repertoire for opera houses generally: In 1984, the Metropolitan Opera staged its first Handel opera, Rinaldo, for her. Now Baroque operas appear on the schedule nearly every season. Horne’s sumptuous voice also lent itself to heavier repertoire. Carmen was one of her favorite roles, and she was also a stunning Amneris in Aida. “But I never put both feet into the Verdi because I didn’t want to give up the Rossini roles. I didn’t want to blow up my voice too big.”

As a singer, Horne made 64 appearances at Carnegie Hall, performing operas, the great Mahler song cycles with orchestra, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Verdi’s Requiem, and 13 solo song recitals. But today, she counsels her students not to try to tackle as much as she did.

Marilyn Horne Master Class 2010
Marilyn Horne Master Class, January 19, 2010

The Changing World of Classical Singing

Marilyn Horne has many students working with her today, both privately and in her master classes. How does she evaluate talent? “I’ve heard thousands of auditions—you can hear just two bars from someone and say, ‘Oh, my!’ What distinguishes someone is a gorgeous, beautiful vocal quality. That beautiful sound always takes precedence. The main thing after that, for me, is a big personality. And yes, you have to see what they look like, but the most gorgeous vocal qualities don’t always come in gorgeous bodies.”

Though Horne says “what Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera] has done at the Met with the HD broadcasts is really incredible,” she worries about the impact these live movie-screen transmissions have on young singers. “It makes new demands on singers. Every singer in an HD broadcast is miked, and that’s not what classical, operatic singing is about. Classical technique is meant to get the voice out and over the orchestra, into the auditorium, and up to the rafters. Mikes just equalize voices; it doesn’t matter whether they’re big or small. I worry in the coming decades whether voices will still be trained to achieve that carrying ability and whether there will be teachers to teach it.” Savvy about the challenges facing classical music today, Marilyn Horne is doing everything in her power to enable young singers to reach the heights of expressive art she achieved for so many decades. And to ensure that the art of song will always continue.

Janet E. Bedell is a Massachusetts-based writer on classical music. She is the program annotator for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and many concerts at Carnegie Hall.

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