Things to Learn from Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues

Marilyn Horne’s autobiography, published in 2004 with the help of Jane Scovell, serves not only to discuss her career and artistry, but also to enlighten young singers in their endeavors to become professional musicians.

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She begins her book telling how she played the mighty and powerful soldier Tancredi, who has been exiled in Rossini’s opera of the same name. In the end, Tancredi wins a victorious battle and is united with his lover Amenaide for a happy ending. Throughout her book, Horne evokes this very confidence as she fought for her career in music; never was there any doubt in her mind that she could make it, even if it took embarking overseas to Europe for opportunities. She eloquently described the fear factor of this whole process, crossing over the Atlantic to countries in which language barriers were prevalent, living conditions were questionable, and the uncertainty of success, even after traveling such great distances, loomed. (Nowadays, as she mentioned, singers are able to start their careers in the United States, whereas up until the mid to late twentieth century singers were obligated to venture over to Europe and beyond).

Cover of Marilyn Horne's 1989 recording of Rossini's Tancredi

Cover of Marilyn Horne’s 1989 recording of Rossini’s Tancredi

As the book is written chronologically, she also describes how she was able to overcome the loss of her parents, siblings, friends, and many others in order to get her job done on the stage; an almost impossible feat in light of such emotional events. This confidence factor that she carried throughout her career is something young singers should take to heart and remember over the course of their trials and errors.

However, just as Rossini revised the ending of Tancredi to have him mortally wounded in battle and learn then that his lover never betrayed him, Horne goes into great detail the pain and anguish the very life of a singer caused her. Even though opera singers largely have individual and self-motivated careers, they all have people in their lives who can be affected by the unattractive aspects of the career: traveling being a big factor. It is clearly shown through her warm reverence that family meant a lot to Marilyn Horne, even though she could not be around for every single life event. She and Henry Lewis loved each other dearly, yet due to the gruesome aspects of the life of a singer, as described by Horne, their marriage was not meant to succeed. There was no operatic betrayal involved, like that found in Tancredi, it was just a real-life, offstage tragedy.

On a lighter note, Horne’s humor made her book truly enjoyable. It is evident how funny she is simply based on what she did for her career. Even at the times when her weight became an issue, she managed to turn it on other people. When one German opera company hesitated in hiring her because of her weight, she stood back and sang a ringing “Ritorna vincitor” for the director, who later ended up hiring her. As weight has become a prevalent issue in recent years for singers due to the Met Live in HD series and more stress placed on productions and “vision”, carrying Horne’s passive and humorous attitude towards the matter is an idea to keep in mind. It is a shame that there was even a slight chance that Marilyn Horne’s weight would have spoken louder of her ability as an artist than her immense talent, corresponding to what happened earlier last year with Irish Marilyn Horne-esque mezzo soprano Tara Erraught at Glyndebourne.

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Marilyn Horne giving a master class at Carnegie Hall on January 13, 2014 (Pete Checchia/Carnegie Hall)

It was a delight reading about Marilyn Horne’s career as both a singer, and later the proponent of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, launched on January 16, 1994. The organization allows young artists to explore the world of recital-based singing, and to participate in master classes, a few of which are held at Carnegie Hall annually during the week of Horne’s birthday, held by guest artists and Ms. Horne herself. I have had the lucky opportunity over the last few years to attend her master classes, as well as adjunct ones taught by Christa Ludwig and Anne Sofie von Otter, in 2014 and 2015 respectively. She is sharp as a tack when it comes to dealing with singers’ proper breath support, of which she is a huge advocate, as well as diction, and having an idea of the background information. In her 2013 master class, I vividly remember her getting on a singer, whose art song was based on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for not having read the play. This proved to be a valuable lesson in song preparation for not only the poor singer but to every vocal student sitting in Carnegie Hall that night. Her tact and aptness in her preparation during her career showed brilliantly in her autobiography, just as they do in her master classes.

I would recommend this book to vocal students who are looking to pursue solo careers like she had. Many of the hardships she described relate to traveling and feeling far away from home, therefore, I think anyone pursuing a career that requires being separated from family and friends would appreciate her confessions of how tough that life can be. Her book was truly enlightening, just as she acts as a beacon of light for the next generation of classical vocalists.

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