20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Opera Legend Marilyn Horne

Classic Arts Features   20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS WITH: Opera Legend Marilyn Horne
A special installment from Marilyn Horne, one of the great figures of American opera, beloved by the public and critics alike. On Oct. 31, the Metropolitan Opera Guild paid tribute to Horne with a gala luncheon at New York's Waldorf Astoria.


While giving definitive performances of some of the most important characters in the mezzo-soprano repertory, Horne also revived interest in many neglected Baroque and bel canto works, including now-revered masterpieces by Handel, Bellini, and Rossini.

Her appearances on such popular television shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Odd Couple (where she played Jackie – her enduring nickname – the secretary, who secretly pined to be an opera diva) were for many Americans their first exposure to opera. She is also one of the world’s most impassioned advocates for the art-song recital, which she promotes through her Marilyn Horne Foundation, as well as with extensive teaching and mentoring.

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

The Bach St. Matthew Passion; Rigoletto; And all of Beethoven, Mozart, and Rossini.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

La Forza del Destino, with Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli; La Fanciulla del West, again, Tebaldi and Del Monaco, particularly his “Or son sei mesi”; an Ebe Stignani aria recording from Cetra; Anton Bruckner 8th Symphony, conducted by Edward Van Beinam

3. Favorite non-classical musicians

Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

Music that speaks to me on a personal level can make me cry. One day, I was driving in North Carolina, and on the radio heard a recording of the first movement of the Schubert “Unfinished Symphony” that was so incredibly gorgeous so that I just stared to cry in the car. Music that speaks of nature, with or without words, occasionally religious pieces, make me cry, even though I’m not a religious person. The “Hallalujah Chorus,” the Brahms Requiem, particularly the soprano solo. Once I was in London and went to the last act of Meistersinger in a dress rehearsal, and I wept for the entire last hour of the opera.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

I think that Rossini is still underappreciated in an awful lot of the world. They don’t really know the depth of his compositions. For a long time only Italy respected the genius that he was. Now it’s better, but I think that people still don’t give him his due. Maybe they can’t get past the jokes.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

The Beatles. Sorry, but you can’t compare the Beatles to Mozart.

7. Live music performance (s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

A concert of Harry Belefonte and Lena Horne in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard. Also Lena Horne in her one-woman show on Broadway. Joan Sutherland’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Los Angeles, 1961, in the Shrine Auditorium, with the San Francisco Opera. Not a note was out of place. Henry Lewis turned to me and said, “We’ll tell our grandchildren about this one.” A performance of the Brahms Requiem with Robert Shaw conducting.

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

Chicago, The Help

9. A few films you consider classics:

All About Eve, Meet Me in St. Louis, Kiss Me, Kate, Casablanca.

10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

Biography is my favorite genre, and the first two that come to mind are both by David McCullough: his book about Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, and his book on Harry Truman. Also Gone With the Wind, and other books of my youth.

11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

That I’m still standing (or sitting at the moment). Also, that I made the transition from performer to teacher and activist for young singers with absolutely no sweat. I had given a little thought as to what I’d be doing after I stopped singing, because I think it catches a lot of people up short. I just slid right into it.

12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

[no response]

13. Three things you can’t live without:

How about four: My family, television, books, music. Not necessarily in that order.

14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

I read. Go out to dinner with a friend. Interact with people. I’m a people person.

15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

I’m a huge sports fan: football, tennis, baseball. That takes up a lot of time. I DVR games, and spend a lot of time telling people not to tell me the results.

16. “My favorite cities are…”

New York (the city where you can do so much; it’s the most incredible place, especially if you’re into the arts. There’s no place like it.) Venice, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, and then the countryside of Italy and France, I love the water, I like when I can be near the ocean.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

[no response]

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”


19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

A castrato (any of the great ones); I’d love to hear what they sounded like. There are so many others I’d love to meet. Mozart. There are a few other dead composers I wish I could meet, so I could tell them to rewrite this bar or that!

20. “I never understood why…”

I’m going to change this one slightly, if you don’t mind, and answer it this way: I’ve never understood how someone like Edison can invent 300 things. I don’t know where that comes from. Or how composers come up with melodies. Or how Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were able to think up all those things.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: Is there anything else you’d like me to ask you about as this interview comes to a close?

A: Any questions of depth will do – about philosophy, my thoughts on life, religion, politics, music.

Past installments of 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS:

Tenor Stephen Costello

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann

Soprano Christine Brewer

Soprano Kate Royal

Baritone Paulo Szot

Baritone Nathan Gunn

Bass-Baritone John Relyea

Pianist Yuja Wang

Pianist Kirill Gerstein

Organist Cameron Carpenter

Choreographer Peter Martins

Soprano Diana Damrau

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein

Pianist David Fray

Violinist Sarah Chang

Pianist Ingrid Fliter

Mezzo-Soprano Joyce DiDonato

Pianist Yefim “Fima” Bronfman

Soprano Sandrine Piau

Soprano Natalie Dessay

Harpsichordist and Conductor Christophe Rousset

Guitarist Xuefei Yang

Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti

Soprano Nicole Cabell

Pianist Jonathan Biss

Tenor Ian Bostridge

Soprano Danielle de Niese

New-Music Sextet eighth blackbird

Composer and Violinist Mark O'Connor

Composer Jake Heggie

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon

Pianist David Greilsammer


Albert Imperato, a music promoter who co-founded 21C Media Group in January 2000, writes frequently about the arts for various publications and blogs. 

His new series, 20 (PLUS) QUESTIONS, is his take on (and nod to) Vanity Fair's "Proust Questionnaire." Email him at aimperato@21cmediagroup.com.

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