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Marilyn Horne: Stravinsky and me

As Music Academy of the West readies the composer's 'The Rake's Progress,' the singer, who heads the academy's vocal program, reminisces about the composer.

July 28, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.
Marilyn Horne at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. (Patrick T. Fallon, Los Angeles…)

SANTA BARBARA — On Oct. 11, 1954, a 20-year-old soprano, a recent graduate of USC, performed in the premiere of a new version of Igor Stravinsky's "Four Russian Peasant Songs" at the new and unusual music series Monday Evening Concerts, then held in an auditorium in West Hollywood Park. An all-American, a tomboy with the nickname Jackie, she would be singing Russian for the first time in her life, and the 74-year-old Russian composer, who had relocated to West Hollywood, coached her in the language at his home above Sunset Boulevard. He was so delighted with her that before long she was practically part of the Stravinsky family.

Seventeen days after that premiere, "Carmen Jones" opened in Hollywood. This was Otto Preminger's film version of the Broadway musical, which updated Bizet's "Carmen" to World War II, included new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and starred Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen and Harry Belafonte as Joe (Don José) in the all-black cast. The white operatic soprano who brilliantly dubbed for Dandridge sounds for all the world like Dandridge. She was the same 20-year-old recent USC grad nicknamed Jackie. Her film credit was Marilynn Horne.

She is, of course, the Marilyn Horne, who became a great Carmen in her own right and an operatic legend.

Now 78, Horne, who looks robust and far younger despite a near-deadly bout with cancer, heads the vocal program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Each summer the academy stages an opera and this year Horne has chosen Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," which was written in Los Angeles and had its premiere in Venice, Italy, three years before Horne met the composer.

The performances Aug. 3 and 5 at the Granada Theatre are the Santa Barbara premiere of the opera, which has experienced a curious neglect in Southern California. It was a good time to talk to Horne about those early days and how Stravinsky and Hollywood of the '50s helped shaped a uniquely important and influential American opera career.

After Horne's fateful first meeting with Stravinsky, conductor Robert Craft, Stravinsky's inseparable associate, frequently invited her to sing old and new music at the Monday Evening Concerts and the Ojai Festival. They became fast friends. Stravinsky's Russian maid took a liking to Horne (which impressed the old man), as did Stravinsky's wife, Vera, whom Horne refers to as "the dearest person, a great lady."

Before long, Horne was a regular at the Stravinsky dinner table along with the literary likes of writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. Composer Nicolas Nabokov was another. Horne calls him Nicky and has an amusing story about fighting him off the time he got her alone in a gondola late one night in Venice.

So what was it like being around the dinner table of the world's most celebrated composer at the time?

"You know, when you're young, that young, I was so stupid that I actually joined in the conversation. I knew this was the great man and maybe the greatest composer of the 20th century. But I wasn't afraid to be with him.

"That's what amazes me. I didn't just sit there mute."

Horne says the talk was usually about literature, music and current events, which Stravinsky followed closely. Conversation was mostly in English, although Stravinsky usually spoke Russian or French around the house.

His doctor was often present as well. "He was a bit of a hypochondriac," Horne explains. "There was no question about it.

"One night at dinner when he coughed, he popped a pill immediately. I didn't word it too badly, I just said, 'Maestro, have you always been interested in things medical?'

"He took a deep breath, 'I adooore medicine.'" Horne happens to be an excellent mimic (which helped her get the "Carmen Jones" gig), and her breathy, Russian-accented Stravinsky would be worth preserving for posterity.

Stravinsky valued Horne as much for singing early music as he did for singing his music. At the time, Stravinsky was fascinated by the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, and thanks to the pioneering efforts of Craft and Stravinsky's friend, violinist Sol Babitz, Los Angeles became a progenitor of what later turned into the international early music revival.

Horne's contribution was as a member of the Gesualdo Madrigalists, which Craft had formed to explore the radical, weird music of the late 16th, early 17th century Italian composer who murdered his wife for infidelity. Stravinsky and Huxley were obsessed with Gesualdo. Huxley even toured California with the madrigalists, giving tantalizing talks about Gesualdo, whom he described as a "composer-flagellator."

The Gesualdo pieces were typically rehearsed in Stravinsky's home, and on the occasion when a bass line would be missing from the manuscript, Horne says that Stravinsky would go into his study and write one. They would sing from a manuscript with the ink still wet.

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