Back in the 1970s, Marilyn Horne holed up in a Milan hotel room until a famous conductor allowed her to sing Rossini at La Scala the way she felt the composer intended. That kind of gutsy determination is typical for the opera star throughout her professional career that has spanned more than four decades. Today, the mezzo-soprano is devoted to helping young singers find their voices and build careers.
Horne turned 80 Thursday, and to mark the occasion opera luminaries Renée Fleming, Samuel Ramey, David Daniels and many others converged on Carnegie Hall. They sang everything from Beethoven and Broadway, to Mahler and Montsalvatge, in a diverse program that paid homage to the exceptionally wide repertoire Horne sang on the opera stage and in recital.
"From soup to nuts, I've sung it," Horne told WQXR recently.
Horne came by her vocal gifts slowly. She was already 16 years into a professional career before she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970 alongside Joan Sutherland and Carlo Bergonzi. Horne sang as a child for television and in choirs around the Los Angeles area.
In 1954, she made a breakthrough when she dubbed the singing voice of Dorothy Dandridge in the film Carmen Jones. Horne's "galley years" were spent in Germany, singing in a small opera house in Gelsenkirchen, as a soprano. Although she felt just as comfortable singing in a lower register, it was partly through meeting soprano Joan Sutherland that Horne cemented her switch to mezzo roles. The bel canto repertoire she and Sutherland helped revive made stars of them both. Horne's unusually agile, rich and impeccably enunciated voice, which easily maneuvered the florid runs in Rossini and Handel, was suddenly in demand everywhere.
"It tells you something when the audience goes nuts," Horne said, recalling her first performance in Rossini's Semiramide. "The audience really screamed after my entrance aria, 'Ah, quell giorno.'" In 1984 Horne starred in Rinaldo, the very first Handel opera staged at the Met.
Another bold move for the times, was Horne's interracial marriage. In 1960 she married African-American conductor Henry Lewis, with whom she collaborated, including performances with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra while he was music director. In 1970, after she sang Rossini with Lewis and the NJSO at Carnegie Hall, The New York Times reported: "There was an animal yell from the audience, then pandemonium, followed by a rising ovation. For almost five minutes, nothing could proceed."
Horne was also media-savvy. For many years, along with Beverly Sills, she was the public face of opera in the U.S., with easygoing appearances on "The Tonight Show," "The Odd Couple" and "Sesame Street" that made her look like a natural.
Horne has said that her legacy lies in variety. Not only the broad range of music she sang — from Berg's Wozzeck, early on, to Rossini and American art songs — but in what she has accomplished since leaving the opera stage. Along with her own foundation, which has now been folded into Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, she directs the voice program at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif. and routinely travels to check on her pupils' success. Through it all, she's battled (and beaten) pancreatic cancer since 2005.
Horne has made over 100 recordings and given more than 1,300 recitals. She performed at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. She received the National Medal of the Arts, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and many other awards.
And on her 80th birthday, we can add one more. The hard-won honor of being a supreme singer — plainspoken about her art, with the tenacity to keep it strong.