Marilyn Horne has become one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated opera singers, despite her decision to concentrate on the mostly supporting roles of a mezzo-soprano. Her vast range, technical precision, and confident stage presence have earned her great respect, lending force to her efforts to revive the florid singing of bel canto operas.
Horne, who was born in 1934 and as a child wished to become a famous diva, was already singing professionally by the time she was seven years old. Trained by her father, a semiprofessional tenor, Horne and her sister appeared together in churches and United Service Organizations (USO) centers during World War II. In 1951 she entered the University of Southern California on a voice scholarship and began studying with William Vennard. Horne later took masters classes with soprano Lotte Lehmann. She left the university in 1953 in order to concentrate on her career.
In 1954 Horne made her operatic debut with the Los Angeles Guild Opera in the mezzo-soprano role of Hata in Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The same year she dubbed the singing voice of actress Dorothy Dandridge in the film version of Carmen Jones. Conductor Robert Craft helped further her career by featuring her in his Los Angeles Monday Evening Concerts. He also introduced her to composer Igor Stravinsky for whom she sang in several concerts and recording sessions.
Horne left the United States for Europe in 1956 to gain more experience. Stravinsky and Craft helped arrange her appearance at that year’s Venice Festival, her first major exposure in Europe. The following year she joined the Municipal Opera of Gelsenkirchen—a city in West Germany’s Ruhr valley—where she sang such roles as Mimi in La Boheme, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, and Fulvia in Ezio. She went on to perform in Italy, Vienna, Southern California, and Alaska in a variety of formats, including operas, concerts, radio broadcasts, and music festivals.
More significant than Horne’s experience with various formats was her ability to sing a wide variety of roles. Her range extended from a low E to a high C—nearly two octaves—and she could alter her tone to sing soprano, mezzo-soprano, and mezzo-coloratura roles. Horne admitted to Vogue reporter David Daniel, “I could and would sing almost anything anyone asked me to. I was young, I figured, and I had nothing to lose.… I was going to make it no matter what.”
Born Marilyn Bemeice Horne, January 16, 1934; daughter of Bentz J. (a city assessor and semiprofessional tenor) and Berneice P. (Hokanson) Home; married Henry Lewis (an orchestra conductor), 1960 (divorced, 1976); children: Angela. Education: Attended University of Southern California; studied with William Vennard and soprano Lotte Lehmann. Religion: Episcopalian.
Opera and concert singer, c. 1941—. Performed at churches and USO centers, 1940s; made operatic debut with the Los Angeles Guild Opera, 1954; appeared at Venice Festival, 1956; performed major soprano and mezzo-soprano roles with the Municipal Opera of Gelsenkirchen, West Germany, 1957-60; sang mezzo-soprano role in Beatrice di Tenda, 1961; first performance as Arsace in Semiramide, 1964; debuted at London’s Covent Garden, 1964, Milan’s La Scala, 1969, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, 1970; sang the part of Semira in The Ghost of Versailles, 1991; performed at inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, 1993. Author, with Jane Scovell, of Marilyn Horne, My Life, Atheneum, 1983.
Home returned to the United States in 1960, making her debut that summer as Marie in Wozzeck with the San Francisco Opera Company. Soon thereafter, she performed several important roles, including Carmen for the San Francisco Opera Company in 1961, Lora in the premiere of Vittorio Giannini’s The Harvest at the Chicago Lyric Opera the same year, and Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma for the Vancouver Opera in 1962.
Though she was able to sing a wide range of roles, Home had discovered that she enjoyed singing the more ornate passages of Handel oratorios and Bach cantatas. Coloratura roles, with their difficult combinations of trills, rapid scales, arpeggios, and roulades challenged her already superb technical mastery and interpretive skills. Just such a role presented itself in 1961 when the mezzo-soprano who was to sing with Joan Sutherland in Beatrice di Tenda canceled three weeks before the opening. Home replaced her, singing the role of Agnese to great critical praise.
At that time, such bel canto operas as Beatrice di Tenda had been virtually forgotten. According to Philip Kennicott of Musical America, these baroque operas were “considered dramatically flimsy and vocally strenuous,” and “many of these works hadn’t been staged for nearly a century.” However, some singers, including Joan Sutherland, were renewing the operas’ popularity, and Home’s speed, flexibility, and vast range made her voice a natural for this genre. Although Horne sang several soprano roles over the next few years—including her 1970 Metropolitan Opera (Met) debut as Adalgisa in Norma —she soon began to specialize in mezzo-soprano, bel canto music.
In 1964 Horne first performed a bel canto role that she would sing many times during the next 30 years—Arsace, the commanding general of the Babylonian army in Gioacchino Rossini’s Semiramide. This initial performance in Los Angeles, with Joan Sutherland in the title role, was such a success they performed it that same year at Carnegie Hall. Described as an opera of “fiendish difficulty” by Vogue correspondent David Daniel, it was an immense success in New York City. Winthrop Sargeant reported in the New Yorker, “Marilyn Horne, a mezzo-soprano of brilliant agility, backed [Joan Sutherland] to the hilt in the transvestite part of Arsace… and the duet between the two at the end of the third act was as spectacular a display of trilling and cascading pyrotechnics as I have ever come across.”
With her choice of a soprano or mezzo career, some think it unusual that Horne chose the mostly supporting roles of a mezzo-soprano. However, as she explained to Kennicott in Musical America, “I think I get some pretty gutsy characters in these [bel canto] operas. Many of them are male roles, of course, but that also gives them a lot of dramatic thrust, accent, and power.” Kennicott attested to the success of her choice: “Through years of hearing her sing with different sopranos, audiences have marveled at Horne’s ability to blend, shade and color her voice, making it a confident, yet never self-serving accompaniment to everyone on stage.”
Horne began to eliminate certain roles from her repertoire as she entered her sixties, an age at which most opera singers have retired. She no longer performs in Verdi operas, except for Falstaff in which she plays Dame Quickly. However, she continues to sing the demanding bel canto roles of Rossini and to learn new roles. In 1991 Horne played Semira—a role written especially for her—in the premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles.
Horne’s appearance in Semiramide at the often conservative Met in 1990, surrounded by young American bel canto singers, indicated the enormous influence she has had in the revival of bel canto singing. Noted Rossini scholar Philip Gosset stressed to Musical America correspondent Philip Kennicott, “I don’t think the Rossini revival could possibly have taken place without [Horne’s] central position in it.” In recognition of her contributions to the revival of such operas, Horne received an invitation to perform at Avery Fisher Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center the day of Rossini’s 200th birthday, February 29, 1992.
Horne, considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of her time, not only led the revival of bel canto opera, but has entranced audiences in a myriad of roles. Musical America’s Kennicott described the reasons for her vast success: “She not only had a distinctive and beautiful voice, but also an incomparably even technique that allowed her to fly through the tortuous roulades and runs of Rossini as if her voice were a dark wooden flute, played with superhuman dexterity.”
(With Joan Sutherland and Richard Conrad) The Age of Bel Canto, London Records, 1964.
Presenting Marilyn Horne, London Records, 1965.
Souvenir of a Golden Era, London Records, 1966.
(With Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti) Requiem, London Records, 1968.
(With Sutherland) Semiramide, London Records, 1969.
Bach and Handel Arias, London Records, 1969.
Marilyn Horne Sings Carmen, London Records, 1970.
(With Elena Souliotis, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and John Alexander) Anna Bolena, London Records, 1970.
Marilyn Horne’s Greatest Hits, London Records, 1973.
Marilyn Horne, London Records, 1974.
(With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, RCA, 1976.
(With Sutherland and Pavarotti) II Trovatore, London Records, 1977.
Sheherazade, CBS, 1978.
Diva!, CBS, 1981.
Giovanna D’Arco and Songs, CBS, 1982.
In Concert at the Met, RCA, 1983.
Airs D’Operas, Erato, 1984.
Rarities From Her Repertoire, Standing Room Only 800 Series, 1992.
(With Sir Colin Davis) Falstaff, RCA Victor Red Seal, 1992.
(With Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake) Ermione, Legato Classics, 1992.
All Through the Night, RCA, 1992.
Beautiful Dreamer, London Records.
Horne, Marilyn, with Jane Scovell, Marilyn Horne, My Life, Atheneum, 1983.
The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to the World of Opera, edited by David Hamilton, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Modern Maturity, December 1991/January 1992.
Musical America, January/February 1992.
New Yorker, February 29, 1964.
Pulse!, November 1992.
Time, February 19, 1965.
Vanity Fair, February 1992.
Vogue, December 1990.
—Susan Windisch Brown