When the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne comes on the line from her home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it’s only polite to offer belated best wishes for her Jan. 16 birthday, which, after all, is the reason for the call.
Ninety years old – that’s a pretty cool number to reach, you say.
“It definitely is,” Horne replies. “I can’t say that I like it a lot, but I have no choice.”
Mention your own age, 62, and she stops you mid-sentence.
“Oh, please,” she says. “Oh, to be 62 again.”
Horne, one of the true legends in opera over the seven decades since she made her professional debut in composer Bedřich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” at the Shrine Auditorium in 1954, has sung on the biggest stages in the world, iconic opera houses familiar even to the casual fan: La Scala, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera among them.
She’s also the rare classical singer who crossed into pop culture with performances on TV shows such as “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” and a delightful episode “The Odd Couple” where, after Felix recruits her to sing in his production of “Carmen,” the shy young woman unleashes a big voice and an even bigger crush on her newspaper colleague Oscar.
Horne sang at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. She’s won five Grammys – from most promising new classical recording artist in 1964 to a lifetime achievement award in 2021. Accolades also include the Kennedy Center Honors and a National Medal of Arts.
Oh, and Opera News once wrote that Horne is “the greatest singer in the world,” so there’s that, too.
But before all the acclaim, Horne was an 11-year-old girl who’d just moved with her family to Long Beach in the mid-1940s. She’d sung all her life to that point as a girl in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where in 2017, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford opened the Marilyn Horne Museum and Exhibit Center.
But it’s here in Southern California that she continued her training, singing in the choirs at Long Beach Polytechnic High School and at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, as well as the prestigious Roger Wagner Chorale and later at the University of Southern California as a music major.
Horne also sang in Hollywood, with her big break coming at 20 when she was picked to be the singing voice of Dorothy Dandridge’s title character in “Carmen Jones,” a reimagining of Bizet’s “Carmen.”
While at USC, Horne met fellow student Henry Lewis, who at 16 joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a bassist and became the first African American instrumentalist to play for a major orchestra. They remained friends through the ’50s and in 1960 married, a decision that many of Horne’s friends and family opposed.
In her 1983 autobiography, “Marilyn Horne: My Life,” she describes how her mother, who refused to attend her daughter’s wedding, spoke to her about the decision to marry.
“‘What do you have to marry him for?’” Horne recalls her mother telling her. “‘Why can’t you just live with him? Be his mistress, for God’s sake, not his wife!’” Horne, her husband, and her mother reconciled shortly after the wedding.
On the phone, Horne was both fun and feisty, protesting at times that these events were so long ago she couldn’t remember details and occasionally calling out her interviewer when asked a question she felt she’d already answered (and probably had).
“Just ask the questions,” Horne had said after birthday wishes were delivered. And so we did.
Q: You started singing at a very young age. What about it appealed to you?
A: It wasn’t a question of appealing to me. It was a gift. I got it. I opened my mouth and sang.
Q: I read that you sang at a rally for FDR when you were 4. Do you remember that?
A: I think I do. But c’mon, you know?
Q: What kind of opportunities did you have to sing as a child?
A: I did it all the time, especially with my sister (Gloria). We sang every summer every week at the citizens’ band concerts. We were singing all the time.
Q: What kinds of songs?
A: It was kind of a mixed repertory. One that stands out to me is … what’s the day they give out poppies? I think it’s Memorial Day. Anyway, we used to sing ‘My Buddy.’ Do you know that song?
Q: Yeah, I do. So tell me about moving to Long Beach. It’s been written before that your family moved here so you’d have more opportunities to sing and study music.
A: I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I certainly got more opportunities because of the move. But I wouldn’t say that was why they moved.
Q: What were those opportunities once you were here?
A: I want you to guess because that’s a dumb question. The opportunities were the Rotary Club, the Exchange Club. All that kind of stuff. Churches, holidays, band concerts. If those are considered opportunities.
Q: I think they are. Were you already interested in opera when you moved here?
A: Well, first of all, I was only 12, and nobody should be interested in opera at 12. It’s too much for your voice.
Q: Do you remember the first time you performed in an opera?
A: Oh, yeah, that was a lot later. I do. 1954. And it was an L.A. group [the Los Angeles Guild Opera] and we performed at the Shrine Auditorium. The opera was ‘The Bartered Bride’ by Smetana. Which is, by the way, a fabulous opera. Nobody hardly does it anymore.
Q: What was it like to be onstage in an opera? In terms of the anticipation beforehand, and the feeling afterward?
A: Oh, do you think I remember? Good lord, it was 1954.
Q: OK, but I’m guessing it was a thrill.
A: I think it’s hard work, dear. And it remains that for your whole life until you stop. It takes a lot of your time, and concentration, tremendous concentration.
Q: Around that time it’s been written that you met Igor Stravinsky and that led to your invitation to go sing in Europe?
A: That’s absolutely false. My invitation to sing with him was in Los Angeles, and it was for – it was called The Monday Evening Concerts.
Q: What kind of performance was it you did with him here?
A: Some songs with Stravinsky. I coached them with Stravinsky and became really, I hate to use the word ‘good friend,’ but became well acquainted with the whole Stravinsky clan. And remained there.
Q: So what did bring you to Europe for the first time, to sing in Venice?
A: I was invited because Stravinsky had a protege named Robert Craft with a C, and I sang a lot with him in Los Angeles at the Monday Evening Concerts. We knew each other very well and he was conducting half a concert in Venice. The other half was Stravinsky conducting one of his new pieces.
Q: What was it like for you going from Southern California to Venice?
A: Have you ever been to Venice? Venice is very, very beautiful, so that was the first impression, getting a view of what Venice was like. And that was exciting.
Q: Did you come home after Venice or stay in Europe?
A: Oh, I stayed. I stayed for several years, coaching and learning. Very involved with the whole scene of preparing to be a singer, an opera singer, and then auditioning.
Q: What was the first opera you got once you moved to Europe?
A: I’m trying to remember. I think it was a French opera, ‘Tales of Hoffmann.’
Q: When you returned to the United States in 1960, you came back to perform “Wozzeck” at the San Francisco Opera. How did you get that role?
A: I had just done it in Germany and had an incredible critique from the critic in Berlin, and that made people sit up and pay attention.
Q: So the San Francisco people had seen that and thought of you for their ‘Wozzeck’?
A: I certainly made sure that they saw it.
Q: What was it like to come home from Europe with a bit of a name and perform a big part in San Francisco?
A: It all depends on how you sing. Whether it’s really good or not. So San Francisco is the same as Germany. Do you know what I mean? I had to sing well both places.
Q: Did you return to Europe after that or stay in the United States?
A: I came back to get married, so I stayed. [A year later, 1961, Lewis became the first Black musician to conduct a major orchestra, also at the LA Phil. Horne and Lewis had one child, daughter Angela, and divorced in 1979.]
Q: You and Henry married in 1960 at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in some places [The Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia only struck down these laws in 1967]. What were the challenges and rewards you experienced?
A: Society’s racial problems didn’t really impact our marriage; it wasn’t an issue in our circle, public or private. The challenges were trying to maintain two big careers in the marriage at the same time – and being married to a conductor. The rewards were having two big careers in the marriage at the same time – and being married to a conductor. [laughs].
Q: In 1970, you made your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I wondered —
A: — why did it take so long?
Q: I guess. Because you did great things throughout the ’60s, playing at opera houses all around the world, the Royal Opera House and La Scala, for instance.
A: Remember, remember, it is what you were singing. I wasn’t exactly a star then, you know. I was singing small roles or something like that. Not a walk-on, but a small role.
Q: What opera was your debut at the Met?
A: ‘Norma.’ I was performing it with my dear friend, Joan Sutherland in several places. And she was going to do it at the Met for the first time, and she asked for me, I think. But by then I was getting well enough known that I think they probably wanted to hire me.
Q: You and Dame Joan Sutherland are often mentioned together. How did you meet and become friends?
A: I was asked to audition for her New York debut [in February 1961] They were much more interested in what she was doing than what I was doing, but I auditioned and I was hired.
Q: Where was her debut?
A: Carnegie Hall. Wait a minute, it was not. It was The Town Hall. And because there was such a demand for tickets, they moved it to Carnegie Hall. and we did two more performances. I now know a story that came back to me years later, that Joan’s husband called another friend who was head of classical music for London Records. And he said, ‘You’ve got to come over here, there’s a girl that sounds like Rosa Ponselle.’ You know who that is?
Q: Mmm, maybe?
A: One of the greatest singers of all time, my dear. Anyway, I was hired to sing for her debut and got very, very nice acclaim for what I did. I was the seconda donna, and it went fine.
Q: To a layperson like me, making a debut at the Met would seem like a pinnacle moment for an opera singer. But are there other moments that sort of equal that?
A: Of course, there are. How about making a debut at La Scala?
Q: Your debut there, was it an opera or a recital?
A: I want to say an opera. Because I did a couple of operas there. I think it was ‘The Siege of Corinth’ of Rossini. [Her La Scala debut was actually Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” in 1969, several months before ‘The Siege of Corinth.’] You don’t know what the hell that is, do you?
Q: I know Rossini [laughs]. But I don’t know that particular opera.
A: It’s not well known, but it’s a great opera.
Q: You often appeared in TV shows. Was that useful to you by introducing you to fans outside of opera? Going on the Johnny Carson show and that kind of thing?
A: What do you think?
Q: Well, I think, yes. But I’m asking you.
A: You’re right. [laughs]
Q: There’s a clip online of you on ‘The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman and you give Oscar a big kiss.
A: I don’t remember. I’ve probably got a video of it. If it’s not at my house, I have a museum in Pennsylvania and it’s in the museum.
Q: Were those things enjoyable? They could not have been as hard as doing a full opera.
A: Nothing is enjoyable as far as, ‘Oh, whoopie!’ It’s hard work. It takes a lot of rehearsal, and a lot of time, and you’re tired most of the time..
Q: At some point, you started to teach much more, especially at the Academy of Music in the West in Santa Barbara, where you studied as a girl.
A: That was much later. I already was not singing very much, performing. [Horne retired from the stage in 1999, though she continued to perform intermittently thereafter.] I was beginning to make the transition.
Q: How does an opera singer know when it is time?
A: You better find and ask somebody who knows. Somebody who knows you, knows your voice. And whom you can believe that person’s information that they’re giving you. That’s somebody who really will level with you and tell you the truth. That’s important.
Q: Was it difficult to realize that maybe you were coming to the end of your singing career?
A: You know, I don’t remember. I’m sure it was, but I managed somehow.
Q: When you look back at your career, are there operas that you consider your signature roles? I think you did a lot of ‘Carmen,’ for instance.
A: That certainly is one of them.
Q: What would be another?
A: ‘The Italian Girl of Algiers’ of Rossini. I did that a lot. I made my Covent Garden debut doing that. And ‘Norma,’ certainly.
Q: Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you talking with me.
A: My pleasure. Thank you for calling me. We may not meet in this life. Maybe in another one.