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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Marilyn Horne: One Of The Greatest Mezzos Of All Time

One of the pleasures of writing about singers such as Marilyn Horne is that one enjoys the freedom to make great claims.  I am not as a rule given to hyperbole, because in the fine arts, and entertainment generally, the proofs are lacking.  Having said that, I don’t think there can be much question about saying that Marilyn Horne is one of the greatest mezzo sopranos of all time.

Horne was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in California. She was musically gifted, and was involved in music, in one way or another, from her pre-teen years onward. She studied voice with William Vennard at the University of Southern California’s School of Music and attended master classes given by Lotte Lehmann. Horne is very American, as is her background. As a young woman she did all sorts of musical things, including film dubbing and background singing for TV sitcoms. She covered pop songs, and did minor character acting on TV.  Her big break came when she was discovered by Igor Stravinsky.  European appearances soon followed, starting in the mid-1950’s.  The 1960’s saw her return to the U.S., in San Francisco in Wozzeck. She soon teamed up with Joan Sutherland, and together they did an extensive series of bel canto opera seria concerts that attracted much attention.  It was back to Europe in 1964, with her Covent Garden debut as Marie in Wozzeck.  Then came La Scala, in Stavinsky’s Oedipus Rex, in 1969.  The Met debut was in 1970, in Norma, followed several years later by Le Prophète and Carmen.

From that time on, Horne became very famous, and sang extensively in all major venues, and to universal acclaim.  There was always a heavy emphasis in her repertoire on bel canto and opera seria works, which formed such a major part of her early concert work with Sutherland.  There is, additionally, an entire repertoire of modern and modern American music which we have not the time or space to mention here. There is no need to belabor a biography so easily consulted.  Let us move, therefore,  to the singer and her artistry.

One of the truly outstanding features of Horne’s singing is her absolute mastery of technique, manifested primarily in  the great flexibility of her voice  All those years dedicated to the bel canto repertoire would not have been possible without the perfect control and support required to sing this music.  Her technique can be seen at work in this aria, the coloratura classic “Bel Raggio Lusinghier,” from Rossini’s Semiramide:

And this from a mezzo-soprano!  The extreme flexibility of the voice is evident, as are the registers and the range.  One cannot say that this is simply a soprano with some low notes.  Not the case!  This is a legitimate mezzo, with a firm control over vocal quality, flexibility and extension.  This is why she sings so well, on the very thinnest edges of the cords, never leaning on the thicker vocal cords, thereby avoiding the “huskiness” so apparent in the lower registers of many singers. She can control volume, crescendo/decrescendo, and fioratura.

All this does not mean that she could not or would not sing the bigger dramatic roles characteristic of Verdi or Puccini.  Listen to her “Stride La Vampa:”

How about that!  It’s a perfect example of what I am talking about.  Did you notice all the trills at the beginning of the aria? Flexibility.  The first leap into the upper register?  Darkness, volume, and crescendo.  The same could be said for the end of the aria.  Verdi all the way, but absolutely no vocal strain, pushing, or “woof” in the voice.  Pure, clean, immaculate singing.  This is the great Horne secret.  She is an absolute exemplar of perfect singing technique.  Any young woman who wants to sing mezzo could do no better than start by listening to Marilyn Horne—not to imitate, but to watch perfect technique in action.

Finally, the dramatic and lower voice, which is very exciting.  Here is “Ô Prêtres de Baal,” from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete:” [The aria is long, but even listening to a few minutes of the beginning will make the point!]

What more can one say!  I will end as I began:  “One of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of all time.”




Hildegerd said...

She is a favorite and seems like a total sweetheart as well.

corax said...

yes. that is it. your title and concluding sentence say it all for me. i got to hear her do norma with sutherland -- and another opera too which i can't remember now -- and what i remember principally about both events was the thought: PERFECTION.

Anonymous said...

One can only continue the chain: one of the greatest mezzos of all time. Surely the greatest New World mezzo-soprano, and certainly the equal of all the great Old World mezzos, such as Stignani. And for a mezzo-soprano to be spoken of as such with Stignani, is a very great one indeed.


Franck Le Brun

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Hildegard, Corax, and Franck Le Brun! Those are fine comments, and each takes us directly to the core of the matter: a great mezzo, with perfect technique, who inspires thoughts of perfection! What a testament to an amazing, amazing singer! Thank you again!

Verdiwagnerite said...

That was excellent - as usual, Edmund.
Absolute vocal fireworks in the Semiramide & the "Stride la vampa" was very much in control - great trills!
I've heard her interviewed a few times and she sounds like a very serious musician.
A truly great voice.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Kate. Great comment! Very serious musician indeed, and one of the great voices of the 20th century!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments. I heard her sing years ago and was amazed by the range and flexibility of her voice.”

J.D. Hobbes

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. Always nice to hear from you! Yes, indeed, range and flexibility; right at the core of this amazing singer's vocal genius!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I totally agree with your description of her as “the greatest mezzo” – she is amazing. In my opinion this is what opera is about; listeners must forget about singers’ efforts, vocal schools and techniques, and just to enjoy the great music and singing. One can listen to the most brilliant singers over and over again, as though they perform not opera but pop-music; opera is considered by many people a difficult genre mainly because of bad voices, as it seems to me. Unfortunately, truly brilliant singers are rare.
I imagine why Stravinsky loved her voice – her timbre is very soft and dramatic at the same time, which is perfect for his music.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Natalie. Brilliant comment! You make a great point when you observe that one can listen to the truly great singers over and over again, and that opera often seems difficult because of bad singing. So true! The natural reaction to listening to someone straining and groaning their way through an aria would be to say, "boy, that must hard, listen to all the trouble they're having!" And people don't stop to think that if they were better singers, it wouldn't sound so difficult! Such a good point. Thank you!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Edmund, I certainly can agree with you that Horne was one of the greatest mezzos of all time. Till this day, she remains the best mezzo in terms of ability to navigate the difficult coloratura register. No other mezzo could make as big a success in Rossini's, Bellini's and Donizetti's mezzo roles. Her performances in Semiramide, Lucrezia Borgia and so forth have contributed greatly to the bel canto revival.

You're right. Fides in Le Prophete and Arsace in Semiramide were 2 of her greatest roles. I particularly enjoyed the way she sang Rossini's cabalettas. She could steal the show with the amazingly invigorating way she delivered the range of high notes as she went higher and higher up the register. Time and again, even during her later years, this ability never escaped her. I honestly feel that the way she sang Malcolm's arias from La Donna del Lago during the late 70s or early 80s was as good as the way she sang Arsace's numbers from Semiramide with Sutherland during her prime.

Horne's a unique artist. She was technically proficient and had a dark voice but it's a pity she wasn't able to bring over her success in the bel canto mezzo repertoire into the standard mezzo repertoire. She sang beautifully in Trovatore and Gioconda but my heart doesn't feel the same way it does when I hear Simionato, Cossotto and other great mezzos sing the roles of Azucena and Laura. She's well able to capture Azucena's delirium but she isn't really able to portray Azucena's motherly qualities. Yes, she did try to but the sound she makes simply doesn't make me think this way. Her Laura was competent. Not surprisingly, during her later years, she returned to the bel canto repertoire which made her a star..The nature of her voice had acted as a double-edged sword. It's so dark that she truly convinces in the breeches roles but makes her performances in the standard mezzo roles suffer..

I can't agree with Natalie..It's the different vocal schools that makes singers from different countries sing the same musical numbers differently. It makes Lemeshev very different from Thill even if several of their numbers they sang were the same. I don't think it's the bad voices that make people unable to appreciate opera. It's rather because people aren't able to tell that they're good. Listening to the great performances till the mid 70s, almost everybody I've heard on record was good. The best were truly brilliant but the rest weren't very far off.. As they say, even the second stringers like Mario Sereni, Gianni Raimondi, Ezio Flagello etc. would be first billing singers today. Bad voices only turned up in my time..=(

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Darren! How very nice to hear from you again. Your comment is as masterful as usual, and I can only express my admiration for your analysis! You certainly are on top of the subject matter! Again, nice to hear from you, and many thanks!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Sorry, Edmund, I inserted the name of the wrong tenor inside the comment I last made. Gianni Raimondi, though not as well known as luminaries like Bergonzi, del Monaco and di Stefano today, was actually a first rank tenor. He was the resident tenor at La Scala from the 50s to the 70s. One example of a second class tenor is the lesser known Mirto Picchi. He was Callas' Pollione in one of her early Normas, that performance had Sutherland as Clotilde (a comprimario soprano role).

Stephen said...

One of the points made by Darren coincides with something I have wondered about with some of the more current singers, especially sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Some of their voices sound less focused and more strident than I recall of singers from a generation or two previously. For example, I acquired a DVD of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” believing a production by the Wiener Philharmoniker had to be good quality and hoping for voices the quality of Marilyn Horne. I am not exaggerating: every soprano warbled, screeched, and screamed. Throughout the entire first act, I doubt that any one of them found a note, let alone sing it beautifully. A month later, gritting my teeth, I tried for the second act but could not bring myself to endure it.

I spoke with an opera director and some singers, and they seem to think that, too often, voices coaches today take voices that are merely average and force them into techniques designed to make them heard in large opera halls, rather than to sing well. There are some popular and fairly good sopranos now, but my favorites do come from an earlier era. During one discussion regarding excellent technique and golden tones of singers such as Gundula Janowitz, the director lamented, “There has been no one like her since.”

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Stephen, for an exceptionally good comment. I abslutely agree. You hit the nail squarely on the head. And Darren, You have seen and clarified the same idea,which you expounded upon very well. There is so much to be said on this subject. It really is extremely important. Thank you both!