11 January 2008

Marilyn Horne

Just before I fled New York for Paris, I went for dinner at La Mirabelle, one of my favorite restaurants, not only for the quality of their food (good plain home cookin’, if your home happens to be France), but also for the fact that owner Annick LeDouaron and the staff, almost entirely composed of native French ladies with whom I converse in French, have never at any point corrected my grammar or pronunciation. Moreover, Danielle Ruperti, my favorite waitress ever, is a gifted amateur painter, whose canvases decorate the walls (and you can, and should, buy one), and when the fancy strikes her, she cuts forth in song. With a vibrant contralto and laser-sharp diction, she sings a lot of Aznavour and Piaf, and sometimes a snippet of Trenet: this is exactly what I want to hear over my meal. I digest better.

On this particular evening, she came to the table where Feldstein and Mark Dennis and I were dining. “Over there,” she said, for our ears alone, “isn’t that the opera singer, Marilyn...?”

It was indeed Marilyn Horne.

As the evening wore on, I went up to her table. “This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a restaurant with you,” I said, “and for future reference, next time, what should I send to your table?”

She grinned. “Just yourself,” she said. “Pull up a chair.”

When I was growing up in Dallas and discovering opera, I heard Marilyn Horne more often than was fair. People in other towns didn’t get to hear her sing, in quick succession, Rosina, Azucena, Bellini’s Romeo, and Meyerbeer’s Fidès. And that’s not to mention the quick glimpse of her Carmen I got while watching television’s The Odd Couple, and the many performances I heard on radio. I was entirely convinced that all mezzos sounded like her, because she was very nearly the only mezzo I’d ever heard.

When I got to New York, it was Horne’s performance in Handel’s Rinaldo that inaugurated my Met-going career, and later at the Met, I heard her sing Quickly in Falstaff and Samira in Ghosts of Versailles; at Carnegie Hall I heard her Juno in Semele, perhaps the most perfect concert I ever attended. At Bill Clinton’s second inaugural, I heard her sing to the nation, as if every American could hear her voice from the steps of the Capitol.

Because her voice is so huge, I didn’t expect her to be so tiny. But there you have it. That immense, burnished sound and powerhouse personality dominated the world’s biggest stages, but they came out of a plump little Pennsylvania partridge, a blue-eyed butterball hardly bigger than a handful. The first time we met, after a master class at Lincoln Center, we were both standing: in performance she typically wore high heels (or boots) and feathered helmets, turbans, or headdresses, but off-duty, she wore flats and not so much as a hat. I towered over her, and it was all I could think of to talk about. I feel certain the topic didn’t interest her nearly as much as it did me.

Meeting her at Mirabelle, I had a chance to redeem myself.

She was dining that evening with Robert White, the tenor and Juilliard faculty member, who was equally gracious as I horned in (sorry) on their conversation. Though we talked a little about opera, Marilyn Horne is about as far from the grande-dame diva as anybody you ever met, and she is interested in almost everything. We talked about her grandchildren (at my insistence, she showed me pictures: they’re gorgeous) and about politics. She’s a passionate Democrat, the 2004 elections were days away, and she was worried. Rightly, as it turned out. Her assessments of the political scene were pungent, very funny, and probably unprintable.

I shared a little story with her. In 1988, a right-wing “watchdog organization” published Dan Rather’s office phone number on the front page of The New York Times with the caption, “Are you mad at Dan Rather? Call now!” Enough people were intrigued by this that they tried the number, and by mid-morning it became impossible to do any work. The phones didn’t stop ringing, and though most people were too startled to say much when they discovered they’d reached Dan’s office, there was always another call to answer. So we transferred all calls to my home phone, where I’d set up the answering machine to play Horne’s recording of “God Bless America.”

You wanna complain about Dan Rather? You’re gonna get a dose of real patriotism. She cackled with glee. She’d struck a blow for a free press, and until that night, she hadn’t even known it.

Within about three minutes, it was as if we were old friends. In a sense, we were: I’d grown up with her. If I found myself wallowing in awe for even a second, it wasn’t because I was sitting next to this celebrity, it was because her eyes are arrestingly beautiful, pale blue and brimming with life. Look too deeply into them, and you’ll forget whatever you wanted to say. I fished around the Internet for good pictures to illustrate this little essay, but I found not a single photo that conveyed a fraction of her charm.

I kept beckoning to Feldstein and Mark, but they retained a respectful distance at another table. “This is important to you,” Mark said, and I didn’t manage to explain to him that, if he joined us, he’d be able to talk football — another of Horne’s passions. If she’d known about Mark’s signature move (picking up opposing players by the scruff of the neck and tossing them aside as he charged down the field), she’d have moved to his table.

Meanwhile Danielle and the staff served the last diners and ushered them out the door. Soon enough, we closed down Mirabelle, and the evening came to an end. We exchanged a few e-mails after that, and she offered sage counsel and hearty encouragement for my move to Paris. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” she said, although we never managed to do that. It would be difficult to top our dinner at Mirabelle.

But I brought her recordings with me. At her best, which is most of the time, she manages to combine all that power with dazzling flexibility — while giving the impression of completely natural ease. It’s not only because she was the first singer I heard in dozens of roles that hers is the standard I apply.

Yet what I admire most about her may be what she’s done with the later phase of her career. She teaches constantly, at the Music Academy of the West (where she in her turn was Lotte Lehmann’s student) and in master classes all over the country, and her annual classes at Lincoln Center, timed to her birthday, are a New York institution. Through the Marilyn Horne Foundation, she has helped to teach and to launch dozens of young artists. And she’s johnny-on-the-spot to support charitable and arts organizations, not only with her name and money but with her presence: when Darren Woods invited her to the opening of his festival season at Fort Worth Opera, she was there.

All these things make her not merely influential but one of the most genuinely beloved artists in America. People are nuts about her.

She’s had health problems in recent years, but she keeps on trucking. And we will continue to hear her voice, through the voices of hundreds of young people, for years, perhaps for generations.

Her birthday is 16 January; she’ll be 74. Join me, please, in raising a glass to her.