Artist Profile: Marilyn Horne, Once Known As ‘The Greatest Rossini Singer in the World’By Sofie Vilcins
Bel Canto mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne is one of the great champions of Rossini’s operas.
She was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania on January 16, 1934. She moved to California in her childhood, and went on to study at the University of Southern California, as well as with Lotte Lehmann. In her own words, “I grew up in Hollywood.”
Horne was a background singer for sitcoms, but found her first big break at age 20, when she dubbed the songs for the title character of “Carmen Jones,” Hammerstein’s adaptation of the opera by Bizet. Her first opera engagement came later that same year, singing in Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” for Los Angeles Guild Opera. Capturing the attention of Igor Stravinsky, Horne was invited to perform at the 1956 Venice Biennale, before then going on to spend three years with the opera company in Gelsenkirchen.
In 1961, Horne performed in concert with Joan Sutherland, a pairing that was to prove the first of many. Sutherland was also in the cast for Horne’s Met Debut in 1970, with Horne as Adalgisa and Sutherland as the title role in Bellini’s “Norma.” This long-awaited debut was preceded by performances in San Francisco, Milan, London and Boston, in repertoire ranging from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. In 1984, Horne performed in “Rinaldo,” the first opera by Handel to be performed at the Met. Both Horne and Luciano Pavarotti traveled to London to perform with Sutherland as she made her Covent Garden farewell in a performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” on New Year’s Eve in 1990.
On her 60th birthday, Horne launched The Marilyn Horne Foundation, which aims to nurture young opera talent. Horne retired from the concert stage in 1999,and during retirement she has been director the voice program at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. She donated her personal archives to the University of Pittsburgh, where the Marilyn Horne Museum was opened to the public in 2017.
Horne specialized in Bel Canto and Coloratura roles in operas by Handel, Rossini and Bellini, particularly “Trouser roles.” This earned her the nickname “General Horne,” given the martial nature of characters such as Rinaldo, Orlando and Arsace (“Semiramide”). This ability to sing trouser roles which had originally been written for castrati meant Horne was known for resurrected rarely-heard operas, which partly led to her being awarded the first Golden Plaque of the Rossini Foundation in 1982, naming her “the greatest Rossini singer in the world.”
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Watch and Listen
Here she sings in Norma with her frequent co-star Joan Sutherland
Here she sings the title role in Handel’s Rodelinda, conducted by her husband Henry Lewis