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October 18, 2004
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Her voice has been compared to Horowitz's piano and Heifetz's violin, as well as to the most powerful forces in nature. Without question one of the great artists of our century, Marilyn Horne has conquered virtually every major opera house in every corner of the repertory, bringing to all of them a vibrant sensitivity, beauty, and sheer magnetism that remain unsurpassed in our time. She has been called simply "the greatest singer in the world" by Opera News. "She is surely the most American of all operatic singers," exulted The New York Times, "and in the best sense: a can-do technical command of the voice, ready intelligence, Protestant work ethic in excelsis, firm grounding in the popular culture, melting-pot versatility."
Horne's vocal and dramatic range has been staggering, from Handel and Rossini to Berg and Bernstein. She has inspired an impressive body of new work, ranging from Igor Stravinsky to William Bolcom, and she especially has been instrumental in nourishing and popularizing new American music, to which Horne brings the same energy and commitment she lavishes on opera's most demanding roles. Her vocal technique stands as a model to the new generation of singers, particularly in the impeccable breath support which allows Horne to spin phrases as smooth as the finest silk. Her unique timbre has a hint of metal at the center, a ringing and sweet soprano top, and a stentorian low contralto that booms as no other anywhere.
By her own account, she was at the piano singing songs just before her second birthday. By the time she was four, little Jackie Horne sang at an F.D.R. rally. Her political commitment, incidentally, would continue: She has sung at the White House for presidents of both parties, and one of her proudest achievements was to sing at President Bill Clinton's Inaugural in Washington, D.C. Whether singing "Danny Boy" or Bruennhilde's Immolation Scene, as Handel's Rinaldo, Gluck's Orfeo, or Verdi's Mistress Quickly, the result has been unforgettable to anyone fortune enough to have witnessed Horne's incomparable artistry.
Horne's family moved to Los Angeles when she was 11, and six years later she began vocal studies at the University of Southern California and took part in the legendary Lotte Lehmann's master classes. She first came into the public spotlight as the dubbed voice of Dorothy Dandridge in the motion picture Carmen Jones in 1954, the same year she made her debut in Los Angeles as Hata in The Bartered Bride. Horne came to Stravinsky's attention at this time, and the composer invited her to participate in the 1956 Venice Festival. She remained in Europe for three more seasons, singing music from three centuries as a member of the Gelsenkirchen Opera. An invitation to come home to the United States led to Horne's San Francisco Opera debut as Marie in Berg's Wozzeck, the role of her Covent Garden debut in 1964. Most important of all was her association with the other giant of the bel canto repertory, Dame Joan Sutherland. Horne first worked with the Australian soprano in a concert version of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda in Carnegie Hall in 1961, and the dynamic pairing led to several landmarks in what was to become known as the modern bel canto revolution. New standards in vocal excellence were set by Sutherland and Horne in Rossini's Semiramide in Boston in 1965, and again in Bellini's Norma in Covent Garden in 1967--a historic partnership that led to Horne's Metropolitan Opera debut as Adalgisa to Sutherland's Norma in 1970.
Horne made it her business to rediscover the forgotten treasures of opera's golden age, earning particular acclaim in Italy as the supreme interpreter of Rossini. Her triumph at La Scala with The Siege of Corinth in 1969 marked the beginning of Horne's reign as the undisputed mistress of bel canto as well as one of the most versatile singers in history. Among her other great roles are Handel's Rinaldo, Rossini's Isabella and Rosina, Verdi's Amneris and Princess Eboli, Meyerbeer's Fides and Bizet's Carmen. Increasingly, Horne is devoting more and more time to teaching, to encouraging young singers along the path of vocal splendor. The remarkable Indian summer of this lovely career may yet be the most influential.