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Opera Great Marilyn Horne Is the Voice of Experience

April 15, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the larger-than-life opera world, where temperamental divas reign, Marilyn Horne is an anomaly. Considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in history, Horne, 67, has forged a reputation as a hard-working team player.

Although many perceive opera stars' lives as glamorous, Horne dispels that myth. To be the best, she said, one must submit to "unremitting toil."

"This is a very grueling profession," she said. "You need a tremendous dose of self-belief, determination, persistence and business acumen."

Early on, Horne realized that, even with a remarkable voice, she'd have to train hard.

Her father, Bentz Horne, a city assessor who sang semiprofessionally, was her first teacher. He instilled in her a love of singing, explaining to her that, to cultivate her voice, she had to master proper breathing and singing techniques. She began formal lessons at age 5.

Her first rejection soon followed. An elementary school teacher told her she couldn't join the girls' glee club because she sang too loudly. The feisty young singer shrugged it off, thinking that she was too good for the club. She was right; by 12 she was singing with the Roger Wagner Chorale, a Los Angeles group known for its radio, concert and television appearances and its motion picture soundtracks and more than 80 recordings.

Horne eventually earned a scholarship to USC, where she trained with Bill Vennard. Headstrong, she clashed with Vennard over her training. She longed to sound like her opera heroines, Renata Tebaldi (a soprano) and Ebe Stignani (a mezzo). But Vennard refused to help her do this; he believed she should develop her own voice.

Angry, Horne left to work with other instructors. But the decision nearly derailed her budding career--she badly strained her voice when she adopted new singing techniques. Horne says the experience taught her to admit mistakes and trust knowledgeable mentors.

"It was a small crisis that showed me that I couldn't rely on my natural talent," she said. "I went back to my teacher with my tail between my legs."

In 1953, Horne dropped out of USC to focus full time on singing and to earn money through gigs. She attended the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara to study with German soprano Lotte Lehmann.

For income, she mastered non-operatic vocal work and appeared at the Hollywood Bowl; sang at weddings, funerals and parties; recorded pop tunes (and imitated Peggy Lee and Louis Armstrong); and participated in movie choruses.

She gained acclaim when she dubbed the singing voice of Dorothy Dandridge for the film "Carmen Jones."

But Horne remained dedicated to opera. She moved to Europe, convinced she'd have more performing opportunities there. The gambit paid off.

"If I had stayed here, what could I have sung? Small, tiny roles," Horne said. "This way, I got to sing leading roles, so I was a big fish in a small pond."

Her transition into the European opera proved difficult, however.

During one audition, a German agent tried to dismiss her before she sang a note. "You're too fat," he said. Instead of leaving the room, 22-year-old Horne stood her ground. Pointing a finger at him, she ordered, "Warten und horen!" ("Wait and listen!") and launched into her aria.

She auditioned for the Gelsenkirchen Opera in Germany, where she performed for three years.

The work proved grueling, the hours long, and the demands placed upon her challenging, for she was expected to master soprano and mezzo roles. Nonetheless, she persisted, aware that she was amassing an impressive repertoire and education.

"I made the decision, 'I want this,' " she said. "This is my dream. Nothing is going to stop me from having it. I was that determined."

Over the years, Horne honed several skills that would contribute to her operatic success. She developed powerful concentration to stay focused on her performance, no matter what occurred around her. She rolled over career obstacles with the motto "One step backward, two steps forward."

She believed that luck coupled with preparedness could lead to big breaks. In 1960, when a singer couldn't perform the role of Marie in the San Francisco Opera's presentation of "Wozzeck," Horne stepped in. She wowed audiences and critics alike in her debut with a major American opera company.

She became known as a team player, unpretentious and hard-working. She endured challenges that might have provoked tirades in hotter-tempered opera personalities, such as when, during her 1969 debut at La Scala as Jocasta in Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex," she was forced to perform in a silly-looking, tight-fitting purple plastic egg costume that restricted her hearing and movement.

She also taught herself how to tolerate difficult co-workers and, through self-discipline, not to get involved in their personal dramas.

"The colleagues who get so much press for their tantrums and antics, it's not me," she said. "It's part of my . . . upbringing. You're on time, you know the notes."

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