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Marilyn Horne:
The Song Continues

Marilyn Horne Master Class

When it was announced that this January would be Marilyn Horne’s last as artistic adviser of The Song Continues—her annual week of recitals and master classes that has been at Carnegie Hall since 2004—her successor, Renée Fleming, echoed the sentiments of so many singers with whom Horne has worked. “The marriage of poetry and singing and music to me is the most refined, the most glorious art form,” Fleming began, “and that you used your agency as a great opera star to support this art form has been an incredible inspiration. You’ve been a great mentor to me.” As her final season at the helm of this annual festival of song comes to a close, Horne looks back on her teaching career, while those who have benefited from her expertise also reflect on her singular influence.

With her international operatic and concert career still going full tilt at age 60 in 1994, Marilyn Horne remembers, “I never thought I’d teach—I didn’t dream I had the capacity for it.” But then her longtime accompanist, distinguished pianist Martin Katz, asked her to teach a master class. “Oh, I couldn’t do that—I wouldn’t have anything to say,” she responded. “Oh, but I think you would have a lot to say,” Katz insisted. Horne reluctantly agreed, and promptly fell in love with teaching young singers.

More than 20 years later, she has become one of the singing world’s most important teachers and mentors, and many of her pupils rank among today’s brightest young stars. The phenomenal technique and artistry she demonstrated throughout her performing career is now poured into the next generation of promising talent. “I’ve had a fantastic time,” she says “The reward is seeing the singers advance, get better and better. I’m only here for them, and I’m thrilled with their successes.”

“I wouldn’t have had a career without her,” says Lester Lynch, a big-voiced dramatic baritone specializing in Verdi roles who now sings at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, and Houston Grand Opera, as well as with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Staatsoper Berlin. “She’s my ‘opera mom,’ and everything I’m about to do—new roles, new songs—I always look to her for coaching and advice. She has such great ears and a knowledge of the repertoire that not many possess now.”

“Marilyn is someone with whom I have worked to bring several bel canto roles to life—especially Adalgisa in Norma and Giovanna Seymour in Anna Bolena,” reports the extraordinary, fast-rising mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who has excelled in those roles at the Metropolitan Opera. “I honestly wasn’t sure I could sing Adalgisa before I went and worked on it with her, but the pointers she gave me made all the difference. How lucky I am that she is willing to give of her time and energy!”

Lyric soprano Nadine Sierra was only 20 when she felt too young and nervous to enter the Met’s National Council Auditions. “Marilyn said, ‘Who cares how old you are? Go in there and sing without any expectations. Use it like a performance and not an audition.’ It was the best advice a performer could ever be given. I live by those words today!” (And they indeed worked, for Sierra became the youngest soprano to win the Met Auditions in 2009.)

Teaching and Mentoring

Since 1997, Horne has been director of the voice program at the renowned Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary. That’s also where Horne began studying seriously at age 19 with legendary soprano Lotte Lehmann. Though Horne is retiring this year from the directorship, she will continue to teach singers there, as well as at annual week-long master classes at Oberlin College and the University of Oklahoma. And she will also maintain her involvement with the Marilyn Horne Song Competition at the Academy.

Renee Fleming and Marilyn Horne

 

What does she look for in evaluating young talent? “Having the voice is the first big thing. You can’t go out and buy it—you’re born with it,” she says. “You can tell something about the sound quality in just a few bars—whether you want to keep listening. I then listen for musicianship, accuracy of pitch, and rhythm. I also look for a big personality—that’s a must!”

Beyond her expertise at developing and refining young voices, Horne is a true mentor who guides her singers into the professional world, giving them opportunities to strengthen their skills by performing and using her worldwide reputation and contacts to open doors. “Marilyn really did give me so many opportunities,” says Barton. “All of my invitations to sing at Carnegie Hall for the first five or six years were thanks to her. Using her name and reputation to help get a young artist’s career off the ground—what generosity!”

“After 9/11, my contracts suddenly dried up as all the uncertainty caused American opera houses to drop performances,” Lynch reports. “I was about to give up the career and go back home to Ohio to get a teaching job. And Marilyn was saying, ‘I’m not going to let this happen—you should be on the stage!’ She picked up the phone, and in 10 minutes she had funding for me to go to Europe for auditions.”

The Marilyn Horne Foundation gave Sierra grants and performance opportunities while she was struggling to make ends meet at the Mannes School of Music, as well as studying with Horne at the Music Academy of the West. “Her foundation brought me and other singers from around the nation to middle and high schools for performances, to get experience, and to talk to kids about classical music and opera. Then she took me and two others on a Mediterranean cruise she was doing: a singing/working vacation! It was all wonderful and exactly what I needed.”

Career Challenges of Today

Horne is very aware that the classical music business has changed considerably since she launched her career in the 1950s. “There are not as many opportunities for singers as when I started. We have opera houses that program fewer operas and fewer performances of them. Singers who really deserve careers are leaving the field because they can’t earn a living. And the song recital is almost gone in America. You don’t hear classical music on the radio and television as you could in the culture I grew up in—or as you still can in China, Japan, and Korea.” Therefore, she uses her formidable energy and ingenuity to launch gifted singers and then enable them to thrive.

Inspired by Horne, Barton is someone who has committed herself to making song recitals a core part of her career. “Marilyn Horne was one of the first classical singers I ever listened to,” remembers Barton. “The more I looked into her recordings, the more I fell in love. Here was an artist who did everything from American songs to Rossini arias. Seeing this variety gave me unspoken permission to pursue that in my own artistic career. I love programming a recital. Discovering new music that moves me—and getting to tell an hour or two of short stories in one evening—is endlessly attractive.”

For her young protégés, Horne is far more than a teacher. “She is so warm and supportive,” says Sierra. “There’s not a diva bone in her body!” Lynch adds: “She’s so strong. She’s taught me that you need fortitude and flexibility to make a career. You might have a cold or be jet lagged, so you must be able to rely on your technique and your discipline. She’s also taught me that you should always stand by your word. She’s my role model—and a dear, dear friend.”

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