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Photographed in the library of the Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, California by John Gilhooley
© John Gilhooley 2008
Like most opera fans who were anywhere near a television set on October 22, 1983, I spent the day glued to the telecast of the marathon gala celebrating the centennial of the Metropolitan Opera. For me, the high point of that eight-and-a-half-hour extravaganza - an event that gathered a veritable Murderers' Row of opera stars - was the performance of "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" by Marilyn Horne. Horne's spot on the bill was toward the end of the evening, when a number of retired Met singers were seated onstage as (non-performing) honored guests. Looking and sounding like about seven million dollars, Horne launched into a magisterially phrased account of Dalila's seduction aria, watched by the eagle eyes of such veteran Met prima donnas as Zinka Milanov, Bidú Sayão and Eleanor Steber. On an occasion that would have ratcheted up the nerve factor into the stratosphere for most any other singer, Horne was cooler than cool, delivering her usual blue-chip singing, her phrasing weighted with that uncanny sense of rhythm that made everything she sang sound freshly invented, the product of her own imagination and intelligence. (Has any other Dalila slipped into the second verse with such ruthless cunning?) But what I'll always remember best is what Horne did when her turn at bat was over. She turned her back to the auditorium (and to the cameras) and walked briskly upstage, where she gave a spontaneous bear hug to Risë Stevens, one of the Met's most beloved interpreters of Dalila in the 1940s and '50s - an era when Horne was only dreaming of her own day to sing on the world's most important stages. That moment of connection to a great colleague of the past was a gesture typical of Horne's all-American impulsiveness, her storied generosity to her colleagues - and of her matchless showmanship.

When Marilyn Horne first caught the ear of the international opera world in the early 1960s, audiences were completely dazzled by the singular quality of her timbre - an unmistakable, ear-catching amalgam of light and dark that one listener called "the sound of amber" - and by her heroic confidence as a musician. Nobody else sang with her firm, clean purpose; no other singer had her palpable self-confidence, whatever the technical challenge. No matter how fast her music, she never seemed rushed; no matter how leisurely the tempo, she never sounded sluggish or slow. She had the capacity to be thrilling at any speed. Horne could tear into Isabella's entrance aria in L'Italiana in Algeri with the brazen daring of a great athlete - her crisp, pointed repetition of "Sì, sì, sì, sì" hit the Family Circle at the Met with the sureness of arrows - or caress the voluptuous melody of Stephen Foster's "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" with amazing economy of breath.

No critic dared compare her to another singer of her generation, or even to a singer of the same century; to find artists of Marilyn Horne's stature and accomplishments, one had to look to the prima donnas of the nineteenth century who were beloved by the composers of the Romantic era. The reputations of those ladies, of course, were and are the stuff of legend: no matter how vivid the written accounts of those long-ago performances, the sound of that particular golden age is lost to us forever - or at least it was until the artistry of Marilyn Horne brought it back. Horne's natural gifts and her prodigious capacity for hard work were important components in her success in the bel canto repertoire, but an enormous measure of her impact as a singer was her uncanny, unstoppable commitment to the composer's intention. Marilyn Horne imbued every note and phrase with complete, unapologetic integrity. Many said that Horne sang Rossini's music as if it had been written for her; it would be closer to the truth to say that Horne sang Rossini's music as if he were listening - and loving it.

It's a mistake to talk about Marilyn Horne in terms of the past: she exists passionately in the present, with a voracious appetite for new challenges, new music and new friends. Her curiosity is unquenchable, her discipline undiminished, her zest for life still formidable. No other singer can talk about the current state of American music education - or the current state of American politics - with the conviction that Marilyn Horne brings to the table. Her career is now devoted to passing on what she knows about singing to a new generation of artists. Those lucky enough to work with her in master classes at the Music Academy of the West or Carnegie Hall may not be gifted with her talent - that happens only once in a century - but they will have the abiding inspiration of her example for the rest of their lives. I can wish her students no greater blessing than that.


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