Mezzo-Soprano  Marilyn  Horne
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Marilyn Horne is one of a select few classical artists who has enjoyed extraordinary accolades and gratitude from both the public and the professional establishment.  She has sung all over the world, made numerous recordings, and is recognized a being stellar by both the congnoscenti and the general public.

She was careful throughout her career to do what she was able, yet she expanded her range of roles to include numerous unknown old works as well as a few select new items.

Chicago was fortunate to have experienced many sides of her repertoire.  She first appeared at Lyric Opera in 1961 in The Harvest by Vittorio Giannini, returning in 1969-71 for three Rossini works
The Barber of Seville, L'italiana in Algeri, and Semiramide which opened the 1971 season with Joan Sutherland.  In May of 1984 she gave a concert, a recital, and Handels Rinaldo (in concert), and returned in 1988-89 for full stagings of Falstaff and Tancredi.  One final recital took place in February of 1992.  For the 50th Anniversary Season of the company in 2004, Horne was among a small group of Jubilarianshonorees who significantly helped to build the company and its reputation.

It was in mid-November of 1988 that this conversation took place.  As we were getting set up to record the conversation, our chit-chat got into the subject of health and body rhythms, and we just continued from there . . . . .

Marilyn Horne:  ...and it’s pressing on the brain and causes this severe headache.  I always got one whopper that lasted all day, either the first or second day.  [Laughs] 

Bruce Duffie:    Could you predict when it was coming so that you could take helpful measures?

MH:    Oh, yeah.  The first or second day it would come, but no matter what you do to get rid of the water, there is some residue that you can’t get rid of.  They say that it’s pressing on the brain, but it also water logs your vocal cords.

BD:    Would you then make sure that you didn’t have to sing those days?

horne MH:    I always knew that the day before it was going to be like moving a ten-ton truck.  I always knew that, but then you have got to be real regular to predict when it would be.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are there any ways that you can overcome things like this, or compensate for days that you’re not feeling quite up to snuff so that you don’t feel that you’re cheating the public?

MH:    I don’t ever try to cheat the public.  I really don’t.  Unfortunately, because our instrument is in the body, there are lots of days that we don’t feel really in top shape.  Lots of days... especially women.

BD:    Are there special routines that you go through?

MH:    Not necessarily, but I know what it takes to get myself ready to perform.  I might warm up a little more carefully.  I try to keep my stress to a minimum on the day of performance anyway, but there’s that something that happens when you walk out and you go into performing gear, so you leave all that stuff behind you.  Obviously, the biggest enemy we’ve got are colds, so that has to be dealt with according to where the cold is.

BD:    Do you feel like you’re an athlete, always in training for this?

MH:    Absolutely: half artist, half athlete.  A singer at best is half and half.

BD:    When you go out on stage, are you portraying a character, or do you actually become that character?

MH:    Or the character becomes me!

BD:    That’s one I hadn’t thought of!

MH:    [Laughs]  I do know that when I walk out on stage I am that character, whether it has become me or I have become the character.  I probably take the character into myself, and then the character comes out again with whatever I am.  But when I am on stage as Quickly or Tancredi or whatever, I don’t think I’m Marilyn Horne making a character.  I really feel I am that character.

BD:    Then do extraneous things bother you, such as the prompter or the conductor?

MH:    Anything can bother you.  Also if you’re concentrating extremely intensely, you won’t even hear many major things.  At outdoor performances I ’ve had people say, “My God!  What about that plane that nearly landed on stage?”  I said, “What plane?”  [Both laugh]  So it all depends on exactly what it is.

BD:    You blot everything out and you have complete concentration on that role?

MH:    Right, but especially in recital circumstances where everything is being brought down to minimalist circumstances, one cough can obliterate an entire phrase.  That really can get you down, and if there are lots of coughs, you sometimes just think, “Uh!  Why am I trying?  If they’re going to cough, they’re not going to hear any subtlety that I’m doing.”  People don’t know they’re coughing a lot of the time, and I know people have to cough.  I have to cough sometimes at performances, too, but I do everything that I can to keep from coughing; I practically choke to death.

BD:    At Orchestra Hall now they have on each level these big boxes of lozenges in specially-made non-noisy paper.

MH:    Wonderful!  I saw that the other night.  That’s great.

BD:    How do you balance your career between opera and concert and recitals and such?

MH:    It varies according to what’s on the docket that year.  It can be a heavier emphasis on operas.  The operas usually come first in the decisions because they’re planned further in advance.  Operas are being planned up to four years in advance in my case right now, and I don’t really want it any further than that. That’s about as far as I want to go right now!

BD:    Are you glad to know that on a given Thursday three years from now you’re going to be singing a certain part in a particular house?

MH:    Yes and no, because you see that you’ve got three years of plans, and it looks like three years!  Wow, to know what I’m going to be doing exactly then.  Of course most people know what they’re going to be doing
— they’re going to be in their jobs.  But what happens, it’s fascinating because you see something for five years down the way and suddenly it’s behind you.  It’s over.  It happens so quickly.  [Snaps fingers, laughs]

BD:    Do you ever feel you’re a slave to the voice, always having to meet these engagements?

MH:    Oh, sure.  Yeah.  Slave to the voice, slave to the music, slave to myself, slave to my profession, my art.  But isn’t everyone slave to something, pretty much?

BD:    If they’re happy, they are.

MH:    [Laughs]  Yeah.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is opera art or is opera entertainment?

MH:    Both.

BD:    Then where’s the balance?

horne MH:    We are entertainers, absolutely; you can’t forget that.  If I went on and obliterated the audience, then I wouldn’t be projecting anything out there because we are on stage to communicate.  We are communicators, so therefore, in that sense, we are entertainers and whether it’s tragic or happy, it is still entertainment.  So it’s both.

BD:    Let me ask the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

MH:    [Laughs]  He [Strauss] didn’t do too well answering that either!  [Both laugh]  With great composers, the music will always guide you exactly where you’re going and what the sentiment is and everything.  But a great composer, on the other hand, usually has wedded the words so carefully to the music that maybe the words are guiding you, too.  When I am learning something, I usually start from the music and see where it takes me with my instincts — obviously, reading what the composer set down and reading markings and all that kind of thing
and just see where my instincts take me.  Then I go back and start to really go through all the words carefully, and do what I would call the wood-shedding, and put it all together.

BD:    You bring up the word ‘great.’  Is it right that we always hear mostly, or even exclusively, just the great works of art?

MH:    Not really.  I don’t think so.  I do a lot of things that wouldn’t be considered the greatest works of art, but they have become good things, like “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” or “Beautiful Dreamer,” or “God Bless America.”  It’s not Verdi and it’s not Mozart, but it still becomes something wonderful.  I’ve picked some trite things in my day, too, you know!  [Laughs]

BD:    You’ve done a lot of resurrecting of operas that haven’t been done in a long time.  Is it special for you to know that you are, in a way, like a re-pioneer?

MH:    Oh, sure.  What’s fascinating about it is that if it is something that the public hasn’t heard or doesn’t exist a record, then you really have a chance to make a big statement because there are no pre-conceived conceptions as to what it should sound like.  That’s a lot of fun, it really is.  I come from the school before all of these inventions were around, so when I learn music, I sit down at the old-fashioned piano with my accompanist and learn the music.  I don’t plug into tapes and things like that.  Where I might start to plug into a tape is after I get to know a piece well enough that I can tape myself.  I will then put that down on tape and put it into my ears to save my voice when learning something, if it’s just drudge work, memory work.

BD:    When you are presented with this whole, huge array of possibilities, how do you decide which ones you will say, “Yeah, I’ll sing them,” and which others you’ll say, “Well, maybe later,” and which others you’ll say, “Never!”

MH:    That takes a long process of getting to know yourself and your instrument, and your plusses and your minuses and your limitations; then also knowing that at this particular time and place I think I can test myself to my limits, where I can push a little bit.  I don’t mean push my voice, but I can push my limits; I can try to extend myself a little bit.  So it has definitely varied over the years.  There have been plans of things that I wanted to do and put off for a few years, or put off for quite a while and there have been things that I wanted to do immediately.  So it all depends with a singer, especially since this athlete thing comes into it.  It really means that the time’s limited, and that we aren’t going to be always at the zenith of powers.  It’s going to take us a while to get there and we’re going to have a time there, and then there’s the time of going down. 
One friend of mine puts it as a thirty-year career or forty-year career.  I look at it for me like a forty-year career, pretty much; ten years going up, twenty years, if you’re lucky, on top, and ten going down, and hopefully, not staggering down.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are there still some roles that you are looking forward to singing?

MH:    Not too many, no.

BD:    You’ve been very lucky to have sung the ones you want!

MH:    Yes.  I’ve been really lucky to have sung the roles that I wanted.  Also because I have had such a mix of concert repertory
recitals, symphonic works and oratoriosI have not been one of these operatic performers that says, “Now I’ve done my thousandth performance of something, or my five hundredth.”  My performances don’t extend like that.  I’ve sung a lot of operas — a lot of operas!  I haven’t even counted.  I have no idea how many at this point, so most of the operas that I’m doing I don’t have a chance to get really sick of them... except at one point I was really tired of Carmen.   I had sung a lot of Carmen’s at the Met, on tour, in Japan, all places like that. 

BD:    So you tell your agent, “No more”?

MH:    Yeah, I had to stay out of Carmen for awhile.  As a matter of fact I’m working on Carmen right now for the Met, and it feels great to go back to such an old friend like that.  I haven’t sung Carmen in about five or six years, and it just feels really good to know a role that well and find new things in it.  It feels good.

BD:    Is that what makes an opera great, that you always find new things in it?

MH:    Sure, yeah.  I’m sure that happens in any art form.  I hear actors say that all the time that they find new things.  But we’re not machines, so sometimes it’s easier than others.  [Laughs]  Sometimes, all your cylinders are just perking along and you’re getting the most out of an evening, and some evenings it’s hard.

BD:    But you still make the supreme effort and put everything you can into it?

MH:    Absolutely, yeah.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve sung such a wide range of things including the verismo operas, Marie in Wozzeck, the bel canto works and the Handel.  Is it uniquely your voice that can accommodate all of these different styles?

horne MH:    In the sense that you’ve just said that I’ve sung those things, I think yes.  The word ‘unique’ means unique, and I can’t imagine that another voice couldn’t be able to do it.

BD:    Are a lot of other voices are capable of doing it?

MH:    I’m not truly sure because you have to take into consideration a lot of other things.  There is my background, what my mental powers are, why was I able to sing Marie in Wozzeck for the first time at the age of twenty-six.  That is awfully young to encompass that role and have it be my first big calling card into the big world of opera.  I don’t know if that comes because I had the voice for it or because I had all kinds of other things that went into it.  Somebody said to me just last night, as a matter of fact, “I don’t know how it is that you grew up in California.  You’re the only singer I know in our business who comes from California who really works hard, really hard.  I don’t know anybody else.”

BD:    [With a slight nudge]  Maybe you’re not really from California; it’s a figment of your imagination!

MH:    Well you know, I originally came from Bradford, Pennsylvania.  [Both laugh]  I was there long enough!

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about differences between repertoires, the French and the verismo.

MH:    I’ve done not too much verismo... if you want to count Aïda, certainly I guess you can, and you have to.  I’ve done a few other things, but verismo has been the lightest of my repertory, except in my young days when I did the Mimi’s and the Musetta’s and Minnie and things like that.  I did a lot more then.

BD:    You eliminated them by choice?

MH:    No, I haven’t really eliminated them, but I don’t think that I’m by nature a verismo singer, vocally.  My instrument, I don’t think, is one of those instruments that usually are the best in verismo opera.  Those are the big, Italian instruments that just have sound that doesn’t quit.  Mine is a good sized voice, and it carries at all times.  You will always hear me, but you will not feel like my sound is enveloping you in huge, big climaxes, with major orchestras underneath. 

BD:    How is that different from some of the big French title-roles like Mignon or Navarraise?

MH:    Navarraise is certainly verismo, I would say.  Mignon is much more classical, leaning towards the bel canto period.  There are set arias, set duets, recits; it’s the old form, and presages CarmenCarmen is also one of those pivotal operas that’s right in between the old forms of the bel canto period and into the verismo, so you tread a fine line, I always feel, in Carmen.

BD:    But does not a long evening like Mignon or Carmen take as much out of the voice as one of the big, heavy verismo roles?

MH:    It depends on your voice.  It might.  Singing Gioconda or something like that may take more out of me than singing Carmen or Mignon, because my voice is more adapted to the music, whereas maybe in Gioconda I will be just bashing myself to the fullest.  On the other hand, the parts aren’t so long; Carmen and Mignon are really long parts.  Many people have asked me to sing Santuzza many times, and I came very close to recording it, even.  I finally pulled back and I said, “No, this is not me!  I’m not that singer.”

BD:    You really wouldn’t even want to do it just in the studio?

MH:    My voice is a little... I hate to use the word ‘classical’ but that’s what I feel.  I have a little more of a classical approach to singing than a verismo approach.  No matter what happens with me, when I sing my voice always comes out modulated.  There is a classicism about the way I sing.

BD:    Is that what you were given, or is that what you made?

MH:    I think there’s a lot of given in there, but a lot of made.  [Both laugh]

BD:    It’s nice to find a singer that is smart enough to take what she’s given and make something special of it, and not try to make something that it can’t do in a beautiful way.

MH:    Well, I’ve done things that people would say, “This is not for her,” but I’ve never done myself harm.  We’re talking mostly about opera now.  The other repertory is up for grabs.  If you can sing it, fine, and in recitals you can sing things in any keys you want to, so that’s a whole other story.  But if I’ve made a foray into a repertory that seems to be pushing my limits, I’ve not stayed there too long.  I’ve reflected on this recently.  The last six months of my life I’ve been in quite a reflective period, and possibly, had I said, “Now, I’m going into the heavier repertory,” I might have really carved my niche in the Verdi and possibly Wagner and verismo, but I always had one foot back in bel canto.  I never wanted to take that foot out because I know that’s what I really do best.  I know that in that area, I’m going to be able to put my cards on the table and there won’t be too many people that can beat me at that game.

BD:    Is there a contest between singers?

MH:    No.  There’s an unwritten contest.  It’s there.  We’re pulling for each other most of the time, but there’s that little contest, and that’s what makes performances good.

BD:    Is it nice to know that there are several of roles where you are the best in the world?

MH:    Yeah.  That’s real good!  [Both laugh]  That’s very nice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there a secret to singing the coloratura in Handel?

MH:    It’s not quite the same as the Rossini coloratura; if anything, it’s a little stricter.  Rubato is not around too much in Handel.  I do a lot of research on Handel.  With the things that I sing, I have to do a lot of research, but I’d like to ask a Handel scholar if he even wrote
rubato as a marking.  I’m not even sure he ever did; I don’t even know if I’ve seen it in a score, whereas in Rossini coloratura, yes.  Rubato is going to come in, and it stylistically has much more of a give and takealthough solidly based on classical stylebut it’s going to have a lot more flexibility.  Whereas in the Handel, those beats are going to come down and you better get every sixteenth on each beat.

BD:    Like Lully with that huge staff which went THUMP, THUMP, THUMP on the floor.. as long as he stayed away from his foot!

horne MH:    [Laughs]  Exactly, poor guy.  It was very funny
I did that to myself last year.  I was rehearsing L’Italiana in Dallas and I had the umbrella.  We were having a good time, and where I sing “No, no, no” and I slammed down the umbrella and stabbed my foot. 

BD:    Oh dear!

MH:    I was wearing jogging shoes and it went right through the material.  I yelled, and I thought of Lully right after that!  [Both laugh]  But I didn’t get gangrene and die.

BD:    Thank Heavens!  Now when we’re bringing some of these works that are three hundred and more years old to the stage, do they still speak to the audiences who have lived through wars and pollution and everything else?

MH:    I think the beauty of the art will speak, absolutely.  There’s no doubt in my mind.  Not too long ago I was singing “Ombra mai fu” of Handel, and when the orchestra started to rehearse it I just thought to myself, “This is still some of the most gorgeous stuff that was ever written!”  I felt the exact same way when doing Orfeo last winter.  It was actually Orphée, since I did the French version in Paris.  Every time we came to the Elysian Fields I’d feel this is still the most beautiful stuff there is.  Such civilized music!  There is such beauty and graciousness.  I think it will always speak, I really do.  We’re talking just about the music, of course.  Now people seem to be getting a lot out of the super titles.  They’re able to really follow the sense of the story, too, and people are 99% in favor of them.  I’m sort of on the fence about them.  I think they’re great for Baroque opera because the plots are so convoluted, and in Baroque opera, suddenly in a recitative they’ll refer to some character who was in another part of the story that’s not in this opera!  So I think Baroque opera, definitely, and I guess Wagner seems to be successful with titles.  When they did the Ring in San Francisco a couple of years ago, they did one cycle with titles and people said it was a revelation.  Nothing’s moving too fast on the stage anyway in The Ring!   [Laughs]

BD:    It’s like Wagner himself was showing, “Here’s what I’m going to say,” and then you could listen to it.  It’s like seeing the prompter, and then the music would tell you what is behind those words.

MH:    Yeah.  Where it bothers me is an opera like Falstaff.  I know that the audience is getting more out of it because of those titles; believe me, Falstaff is a tough opera.  It took me a long time to really warm up to it and really know what was in that score.  I’ve seen lots of Falstaff’s in my lifetime and heard it a lot, but I didn’t really know what’s in that score until I started sing Quickly.  I hate to think that I’m doing something on the stage with my eyes, or some kind of a facial movement, or a body language movement, and somebody has looked up at that time, in that split second, and they’re going to miss it.  So, it’s a trade-off.  It really is a trade-off.

BD:    Be optimistic...  If they look up just before and they see your gesture, they know why you’re moving your eyes.

MH:    The thing that’s fascinating now though, in comedies, is we’re never quite sure now that we’re getting the laughs, or the titles are getting the laughs.

BD:    A number of singers have said the laughs come twice
— once when they read it and again when they hear it.

MH:    Yeah.

BD:    Is that disturbing on stage?

MH:    Very.  Very.  In fact, I remember here in Chicago there was a laugh in Orlando.  June Anderson and I were singing; it was a recitative, and we realized after a couple of performances that the laugh was coming before she finished the line.  She had to either hurry it up or slow it down, one or the other.  I don’t remember what it was, but we had to time it so that it would come with the laugh.  [Both laugh]  Another dimension!  [See my Interview with June Anderson.]

BD:    Is that something where the singer should adjust to the exigencies, or should the people running the titles adjust to the singers?

MH:     I think probably the titles should adjust to the singers.  But recitative is a very free form, so it could change.  I suppose utopia would be that they could get it up there really fast, according to what the singer is doing.  Recitative singing makes it really tricky.  But on the other hand, this is a new dimension to our art form, and we aren’t all quite used to it yet.  In that case we didn’t realize that the laugh was mistimed until we’d been into a few performances.  So we adjusted.  It was easier for us to adjust than to get them to adjust. [Laughs]

BD:    Maybe we’ll come up with a new profession, the Maestro of Titles.

MH:    Oh, I’m sure!  Absolutely.

BD:    Is opera getting too complicated today?  It used to be you’d just stand and sing in front of a drop, and that was it.

MH:    I hadn’t thought of it as getting more complicated; I just thought of it getting better.  That, of course, has to be qualified in a major way because the voices are definitely not getting better.

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  Are they getting worse???

MH:    We definitely have a decline in voices.  There is no doubt about that.  There are always great voices around, but I think that the scarcity we have now is in the really big Verdi voices and verismo voices, and Wagner and things like that.  Whereas we have now a lot of people that can sing Rossini and can sing Handel, so things are shifting.  We were discussing last night that there probably is not a great Tosca in the world today.

BD:    And yet Tosca is done on every stage every season!

horne MH:    But it’s starting to pull back.  Butterfly has really moved out of the mainstream of the repertory, whereas Semiramide has moved in.  It’s not done everywhere, but you see Semiramide being done every season in Europe or in the United States.  That is a miracle.  Tancredi is in; William Tell is back in.  There are lots of fascinating things like Julius Caesar and other Handel operas.  We now have the generations of singers that have come after Sutherland and myself, after people who have done this repertory.  [See photo at right, and also my Interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.]  The kids have gone to school and they’ve liked what they heard from us.  They start to copy it, and they start to say, “That’s what I want to do.”  That’s how it’s gotten started.  I remember a friend of mine had just come from judging a contest, and he said there were ten mezzo sopranos and seven of them sang
Iris hence away with few variations.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is that pleasing or frightening?

MH:    Oh, that’s pleasing, of course.  I heard a young singer yesterday, and she sang “Addio miei sospiri” from Orfeo.  I know nobody has sung that except moi!  [Both laugh]  Then she sang “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” and the way she sang it I could tell that she has been plugged into my records, because she sang the first words in a much more classic way than I grew up listening to it.

BD:    Are the voices helping to dictate the tastes and the demands of the public, then, for these operas?

MH:    Sure.  I think so.  If you have got the voices that can do the things, then the operas will be put on.  Absolutely.

BD:    Are there any new composers or new operas that are on these levels?

MH:    Even as we speak, there’s a new opera opening in Dallas, The Aspern Papers, of Argento.  [See my Interview with Dominick Argento.]  I was speaking the other night to Frederica von Stade, and she said she really likes it.  She says it’s going very well, and that’s always great to hear.  The Met is about to do an opera in 1991 of John Corigliano.  [See my Interviews with John Corigliano.]  I probably will be involved in that, but I haven’t made the final decision yet.

BD:    How will you decide if you will or will not?

MH:    I wanted to study the music a little bit more, and just to make sure that I can do my best with it.  But he wrote it for me, so...  [Laughs]

BD:    He’s a big favorite here, being the composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony.

MH:    Oh, yeah.  What a nice man, too.

BD:    Is it exciting creating a role for the first time?

MH:    Oh, yeah.  And nerve wracking because you do have some input into creating a role.  You can say to a composer, “This would feel better if it were in this range, or that note, or what do you think about that?”  So that’s really wonderful, but you’ve got to make sure that you’re not making too many mistakes about things like this, because we don’t have the luxury today that they had in the time of Rossini.  There is so much money that goes into a new opera that it is really almost a tragedy if it fails.  So you’ve got to be very, very careful.

BD:    How is it different reviving an opera that hasn’t been done for two hundred years, and creating a new part?

MH:    I would say the difference would be if you know the style of the composer really well.  When I first started into the bel canto repertoire, I had already sung Cenerentola in English when I was quite young
twenty-twoand I had sung the Barber and I had sung a lot of various arias over the years.  But when I really first started into reviving a bel canto role, the frustration was enormous because I didn’t know that style.  When I started learning these things, my really strong language was German, so I also didn’t have the command of the language that I have now, or have had for the last fifteen or twenty years.  But let’s say if I approach a new Rossini role now, which I do a lot, there’s almost nothing that he’s going to throw me that I am not familiar with.  I haven’t seen it exactly before, but it’s such a close relation of something I’ve seen before and I know what to do with it.

BD:    You’ve seen much of his whole output, and you know where it fits in.

MH:    Of course.  And then take Mahler.  Supposing somebody would come up with a Mahler piece that had been lost somewhere and they found it in a shed in Vienna.  If they ask me to sing it and it’s a world premiere, I would still have such a familiarity with the style because I’ve sung so much Mahler that I can’t imagine that he would throw me too many curves.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to write an opera today?

MH:    Oh, boy.  That’s a really tough question.  First of all, composers today are writing in such diverse styles!  You have people who are still writing serial music, and you have somebody like Philip Glass who’s gotten into the rhythmic pattern kind of music.  Then you have people who are still leaning towards the verismo kind, so it’s very tricky.  I don’t think I would advise anybody!  I haven’t got a word to say on this
— for a change.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Okay.  Do you have some advice for young singers?

MH:    Oh, I’ve always got advice for young singers, but I still feel that a singer should learn to sing first.  The technical demands of singing should be mastered before one gets out and starts to try to perform.  That’s, of course, never expedient.  Even in my own case I had my voice really well in hand, but I was constantly learning as I went.  Our profession is a constant learning situation anyway, so I guess we just get used to it.  But the technical demands are what I’m talking about
to get the technique down so that when you get out on the stage you’re not fumbling to find out where your B-flat is.  You don’t have time when you’re on the stage to think about technical things.  Other things are taking your concentration.  That technique should be so ingrained in what you’re doing that it comes out like rote.  It should absolutely come out exactly the way you planned to make it come out.  You put it in to come out a certain way.  Also, I still feel that an American singer should have the experience of singing and living in Europe because the repertoire is still based on those three languages over there.  You just never, ever will feel the same singing a piece as you feel when you really can speak the language.  I recently was looking at Boris Godunov again.  I sang it many years ago in English, and I was looking at it in Russian.  I just started to tremble because I do not know Russian, and it all had to be done with a transliteration.  Although, by the time I got finished I thought “Gee, that feels good.”  [Laughs]  But you know, it’s a whole ‘nother feeling, and it’s a much harder learning process if you don’t know the language.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you sing differently from house to house, depending on the size of the theater?

MH:    I try not to.  We try not to, but we all have an opinion about houses
which houses are easier to sing in, which houses are hard to sing in.  There are times when maybe a certain type of music might throw you off.  A baroque opera, for instance, in a very big house can be very tricky.

BD:    And yet you still agree to do these performances.

horne MH:    Not always.  I turned down doing a Handel opera at the Met because I just can’t do that role in that house.  The role is too low, and it’s just too big a house.  Those whoppers were done in theaters that seat a thousand people or less!

BD:    Some of them even used grand banquet halls rather than theaters.

MH:    Absolutely.  Absolutely.

BD:    Do you sing differently in performance than you do for microphone?

MH:    Occasionally you do.  You know the microphone’s going to capture it, so you might sing a lot lighter in a certain case.  I don’t usually sing too much differently for a microphone, but occasionally.  We all know that mics still record smaller voices better than they record big voices.  That’s a known fact.

BD:    Even if you stay away from them?

MH:    Yes, even if you stay away.  Certain voices just are right for the microphones and certain voices just are not.  Some people’s voices just don’t take to microphones like other people’s.  You need to see the totality of their performances in order to really get the measure of the artist.  Just hearing the voice is not enough.

BD:    Do you feel that your voice works well on microphone?

MH:    I think it’s okay on mics, but I have to tell you that my whole lifelong experience as a recording artist has been that when people hear me live, they always come back and say, “You’re so much better live than on records.”  I’ve never had anybody say to me, “You sound better on records.”  Maybe they wouldn’t tell me that...  [Laughs]

BD:    Is that something that pleases you?

MH:    Oh, it pleases me, obviously.  I’m a live singer.  Ninety-nine per cent of my work is live work, and so that pleases me. 
[Note: At this juncture I needed to turn over the cassette, and though she knew this was a significant interview, she asked about the details of its use.]

BD:    [Responding]  It’ll be used in two major places.  First, of course, on WNIB when we play some of your recordings.  I also work for the company that puts the music on various airlines.  We’re going to do a special program on United where we will play some music and use bits of the interview in between.

MH:    So this is not for the magazine part, it’s for the hearing portion.

BD:    Yes.

MH:    Oh, good!

BD:    If you ever fly United, I’m the voice of the Classical Collections track.  [Note: Sadly, less than a year later the company, Music in the Air, folded due to the severe, debilitating illness of its founder, John Doremus.  The contracts for in-flight entertainment went to a different company.  However, as noted in the credits at the bottom of this page, this interview was used several times on WNIB, and also on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago before its current transcription here.]

MH:    That
s how I fly all the time!  [Laughs]

BD:    I’ve been doing the programs for about a year now.

MH:    Are you enjoying it?

horne BD:    Oh, it
’s lots of fun.  I’m able to design my own programs and put the music up there.  In each one of the programs for United I make sure that there’s a piece by an American composer.  I don’t use the term American since that’s another carrier, but I will say it’s a work by so-and-so from Toledo, or by the well-known New York composer.  They let me get away with that.

MH:    That’s very good!

BD:    I don’t put something that is too harsh.  I’m very discreet about what I put up there, but I always make sure there’s something by an American composer.  There’s one little hook in that program, too.  The United package is also on Air Force One, so if Ronnie stays awake, he hears me! [Laughs]

MH:    Pretty soon it’s going to be George.  [Both laugh]  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them both, and they’re both lovely people to meet.  They really are.  I was completely disarmed by Mr. and Mrs. Bush when I met them. They’re just charming, lovely people.  I’ve known the Reagans — not intimately — for a long time from my California days, and they are lovely people also.

BD:    I hope they keep running the country in a solid way.  That’s all we ask.

MH:    Right.

BD:    Should music be political at all?

MH:    It can’t help but be.  You can’t get away from it.  We artists are always attuned to what’s going on in politics, and we all have an opinion.  If an artist says to me, “I don’t vote and I’m not political,” I’ll look at them like they’re some kind of freak.  [Both laugh]

BD:    You’ve done more than just sing operas and recitals.  You’ve been on the Tonight Show and other similar programs.  Does your appearance help to bring the Tonight Show audience into the opera house or the concert hall?

MH:    I think it does.  I had one great experience with just exactly that.  I did the Tonight Show and Johnny Carson announced, “Marilyn Horne will begin her recital tour on such and such a date in St. Paul, Minnesota.”  When I got to St. Paul, they said the next day the concert sold out.  So there we have the necessary evil of TV.

BD:    Will those people then come back to more concerts?

MH:    That depends, I think, on how well I do.  If I do well and hit some home runs, they’ll come back.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Are you out there always selling the product?

MH:    Sure, in one way or another.  Absolutely.  The product may be the piece that I’m singing.  The product is also me, but I’m out there.  It’s that communication thing I was talking about.  I know that there are places that what you want is to get the emotion to the audience, so it’s got to be exaggerated.  That’s when you can use the word
sell.  Sell, baby, sell, and that’s what it is.

BD:    Is opera for everyone?

MH:    Doesn’t seem to be.  [Both laugh]  It could be, but it doesn’t seem to be.  Although what’s going on in opera in this country is extraordinary now, compared to what it was when I started.  There’s opera everywhere.

BD:    But is all of it of sufficient quality?

MH:    I don’t have the figures.  I think it is.  Just take the old German system of the big state operas, and then the municipal operas of the next category, and then down to the provincial operas.  Over the years these opera houses have been running, the performances in the provincial opera house have always been at least of a certain level to meet the people that are coming to that performance.  They’re not going to be necessarily the state opera level, but on given nights, they may be a lot better than the state opera level.  So I think, yes, they are of sufficient quality, absolutely, to get to the public.

BD:    Do you think that television has helped a lot?

MH:    I don’t know.  I guess it must have.  Somebody has to have been flipping the dial and hit PBS and said, “Gee, what’s that?” and been sucked in more or less.  On the other hand, we also have to realize that it has done real bad things for singing.  A lot of people who are successful on TV cannot be successful in the opera house.  Also, people expect the voices to sound as big in the hall as they do on TV, and they’re not, so that can be a big disappointment.  Nothing is really a Utopia. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is singing fun?

horne MH:    A lot of the time it is; a lot of the time it’s real hard drudgery.  I’m having a great time doing Falstaff right now, so it’s really fun, but I’ll be soon doing some things that are a lot more taxing vocally, like Tancredi.  You can have moments when you’re having a lot of fun, but there are moments when you’re really being nailed to the wall.  [Both laugh]

BD:    But it’s worth it, isn’t it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Lella Cuberli, and Bernadette Manca di Nissa.]

MH:    [Hesitates]  I think so.  [Laughs]

BD:    Boy, was that hesitant!  [Both laugh]

MH:    The part that’s worth it is that we who sing, or for anybody who makes their life in music, it is really, really a privilege.  No matter what I’m doing, my job, my work is with music.  Also, in my end of the profession we don’t have to deal very often with somebody that is not a master.  When you think of the absolute crud that actors have to do on television...  They’re not dealing with Shakespeare and Schiller and Tennessee Williams all the time; we are, and that is really a fortunate thing.  Also as singers, when you think of the repertory we’ve got, compared to being a cellist or French horn player, the repertory we’ve got is unending!  It’s frustrating in a way to know that you’ll never even scratch the surface of it in your lifetime!

BD:    There’s often been the comparison that the composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries were grinding out operas and operas and operas and operas, none of which are done any more today, so it was like the television of that time.

MH:    Absolutely it was.  It was their entertainment.  And remember that to re-hear something, they couldn’t go put on a record or a CD or a tape.  They had to go to another performance to re-hear that opera.  If they wanted to hear the music, the most they could do would be either to sing it or play it on an instrument.  But to re-hear it with all the forces going, they had to go to another performance.  And when you say the composers ground them out, it’s because they were done for that season and they generally were not repeated the next season.

BD:    Should any of those be dug up and done again?

MH:    That’s what I’m doing!

BD:    But you’re only digging up the better ones.

MH:    Yeah, but how long were those dormant?  When you think that finally, in our getting back these wonderful pieces, there’s got to be some really good stuff down there.

BD:    I guess I’m just asking how far should we excavate.

MH:    I think we should go all the way.  I really do.  We’ve got the musicologists that are really working hard to get these pieces out.  I think absolutely, we should uncover everything we can.  How else are we going to know what they sound like, if we don’t do them?  We have no idea.

BD:    Thank you for bringing them back.

MH:    It’s really been a pleasure and privilege.

BD:    Thank you for being a singer and an artist.

MH:    I’m not sure I had anything to do with being a singer.  I was somehow chosen to be a singer, but that I remained a singer and have decided to make my life as a singer, that has to have been pretty much my choice... and I don’t need any thanks for that.  I get enough of that.  I get enough really great gratification.

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

MH:    Oh, I love being here.

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me.  This has been fascinating.

MH:    Oh, it’s really been a wonderful interview.  Thank you for your good questions!

[Note:  Ms. Horne
’s companion at this time in her life was the distinguished bass Nicola Zaccaria.  He was with her on this trip to Chicago, so I inquired if he would be interested in sitting down with me for an interview.  It was arranged for the following day, and can be read here.]

Marilyn Horne was born on January 16, 1934, to Berneice and Bentz Horne in Bradford, Pennsylvania. The Horne household was always filled with music; Horne’s father was a semi-professional singer and her mother sang and played piano. From an early age, Horne and her sister Gloria performed for their family. Horne’s father began coaching Marilyn when he realized her perfect pitch and two and half octave range. She began formal vocal study at age five, and made her performing debut at a Bradford political rally for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, singing “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”

When Horne was eleven, she and her family moved across the country to Long Beach, California. At the age of thirteen Horne began singing with the Los Angeles Concert Youth Choir, under the direction of Robert Wagner. The Youth Choir, later re-named the Roger Wagner Chorale, provided Horne with lasting friendships and career-boosting contacts. During her time with the Chorale, Horne met and befriended Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter. This connection provided Horne with the opportunity to sing in Herbert Stothart’s musical version of Roosevelt’s inaugural address, The Only Thing We Have to Fear. While still in high school, Horne began singing backup roles for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films such as Joan of Arc. Horne graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic and started studying music with William Vennard at the University of Southern California. During her time at USC, Horne had the chance to sing in a master class taught by the renowned Lotte Lehmann. Horne also met her future husband, Henry Lewis, while in college. Though they divorced in 1974, Horne and Lewis had a daughter together, Angela, in 1965.

In 1954, at the age of twenty, Horne made her operatic debut with the Los Angeles Guild Opera in The Bartered Bride. That summer, Horne dubbed the singing voice of Carmen in the film Carmen Jones. In 1964, Horne made her debut at London’s Covent Garden. The next year, during the Ojai Festival, a classical music festival in Ojai, California, Horne was approached by Lotte Lehmann, who invited Horne to participate in performances at the Vienna Opera House. Horne was next asked to sing at the Gelsenkirchen Municipal Opera in Germany, where she remained for three years. After returning to the United States, Horne performed as Marie in Wozzeck and then as Mimi in La Bohème. The Metropolitan Opera, which has recently named Horne its first official legend, first hosted her onstage in Bellini’s Norma in 1970.

Horne has received numerous other awards and remains one of the best singers ever to grace the stage. She has been in over 1,300 performances and, in 1999, achieved her personal goal of singing in every state. Among Horne’s notable awards is the Rossini Medaglia d’Oro, the first award given to her by the Rossini Foundation. She has also received the Commander of the Order of Arts, the Fidelio Gold Medal from the International Association of Arts Directors, and the Yale University Sanford Medal. Horne has honored by the Kennedy Center and has received four Grammy Awards: two for Best Classical Performance, one for Best Opera Recording, and one for Lifetime Achievement. Horne performed at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and has been honored by Presidents Clinton and George Bush, Sr.

In 1994, Horne began the Marilyn Horne Foundation, one of the leading non-profit vocal arts organizations in the country. The Foundation, launched on Horne’s sixtieth birthday, seeks to encourage, support, and preserve the vocal recital. For the last six years, Horne has showcased the foundation’s work with a festival at Carnegie Hall entitled “The Song Continues.” According the Peter G. Davis of the New York Times, “Over the last 15 years the foundation has presented more than 100 young singers in recitals and educational programs across the country, reaching an audience of more than 100,000.”

Horne’s last classical performance occurred in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2000, but she continues to participate in programs that share her interest in American folk and popular music. In 2005, Horne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but in January 2008 she went into remission. She credits music as a critical factor in her recovery: “For me, at least, nothing helped surviving chemotherapy quite as effectively as dozing off with an iPod playing nonstop in my ear.” She currently serves as the voice program director of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, a position she has held for over a decade.

This biography was written by George Cunningham, Summer 2007; revised by Sarah DeSantis and Lindley Homol, Fall 2009.

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at her apartment on November 15, 1988.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB twice in 1989, and again in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1999.  A small section was also used on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of their 50th Anniversary Season which saluted several Jubilarians who were significant in the history of the company.  The full interview was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.