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Marilyn Horne: Stravinsky and me

originally posted by the Los Angeles Times, 7-28-2012

SANTA BARBARA — On Oct. 11, 1954, a 20-year-old soprano, a recent graduate of USC, performed in the premiere of a new version of Igor Stravinsky’s “Four Russian Peasant Songs” at the new and unusual music series Monday Evening Concerts, then held in an auditorium in West Hollywood Park. An all-American, a tomboy with the nickname Jackie, she would be singing Russian for the first time in her life, and the 74-year-old Russian composer, who had relocated to West Hollywood, coached her in the language at his home above Sunset Boulevard. He was so delighted with her that before long she was practically part of the Stravinsky family.

Seventeen days after that premiere, “Carmen Jones” opened in Hollywood. This was Otto Preminger’s film version of the Broadway musical, which updated Bizet’s “Carmen” to World War II, included new lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and starred Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen and Harry Belafonte as Joe (Don José) in the all-black cast. The white operatic soprano who brilliantly dubbed for Dandridge sounds for all the world like Dandridge. She was the same 20-year-old recent USC grad nicknamed Jackie. Her film credit was Marilynn Horne.

She is, of course, the Marilyn Horne, who became a great Carmen in her own right and an operatic legend.

Now 78, Horne, who looks robust and far younger despite a near-deadly bout with cancer, heads the vocal program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Each summer the academy stages an opera and this year Horne has chosen Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” which was written in Los Angeles and had its premiere in Venice, Italy, three years before Horne met the composer.

The performances Aug. 3 and 5 at the Granada Theatre are the Santa Barbara premiere of the opera, which has experienced a curious neglect in Southern California. It was a good time to talk to Horne about those early days and how Stravinsky and Hollywood of the ’50s helped shaped a uniquely important and influential American opera career.

After Horne’s fateful first meeting with Stravinsky, conductor Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s inseparable associate, frequently invited her to sing old and new music at the Monday Evening Concerts and the Ojai Festival. They became fast friends. Stravinsky’s Russian maid took a liking to Horne (which impressed the old man), as did Stravinsky’s wife, Vera, whom Horne refers to as “the dearest person, a great lady.”

Before long, Horne was a regular at the Stravinsky dinner table along with the literary likes of writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. Composer Nicolas Nabokov was another. Horne calls him Nicky and has an amusing story about fighting him off the time he got her alone in a gondola late one night in Venice.

So what was it like being around the dinner table of the world’s most celebrated composer at the time?

“You know, when you’re young, that young, I was so stupid that I actually joined in the conversation. I knew this was the great man and maybe the greatest composer of the 20th century. But I wasn’t afraid to be with him.

“That’s what amazes me. I didn’t just sit there mute.”

Horne says the talk was usually about literature, music and current events, which Stravinsky followed closely. Conversation was mostly in English, although Stravinsky usually spoke Russian or French around the house.

His doctor was often present as well. “He was a bit of a hypochondriac,” Horne explains. “There was no question about it.

“One night at dinner when he coughed, he popped a pill immediately. I didn’t word it too badly, I just said, ‘Maestro, have you always been interested in things medical?’

“He took a deep breath, ‘I adooore medicine.’” Horne happens to be an excellent mimic (which helped her get the “Carmen Jones” gig), and her breathy, Russian-accented Stravinsky would be worth preserving for posterity.

Stravinsky valued Horne as much for singing early music as he did for singing his music. At the time, Stravinsky was fascinated by the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, and thanks to the pioneering efforts of Craft and Stravinsky’s friend, violinist Sol Babitz, Los Angeles became a progenitor of what later turned into the international early music revival.

Horne’s contribution was as a member of the Gesualdo Madrigalists, which Craft had formed to explore the radical, weird music of the late 16th, early 17th century Italian composer who murdered his wife for infidelity. Stravinsky and Huxley were obsessed with Gesualdo. Huxley even toured California with the madrigalists, giving tantalizing talks about Gesualdo, whom he described as a “composer-flagellator.”

The Gesualdo pieces were typically rehearsed in Stravinsky’s home, and on the occasion when a bass line would be missing from the manuscript, Horne says that Stravinsky would go into his study and write one. They would sing from a manuscript with the ink still wet.

This also led to Craft and the madrigalists making some of the earliest Gesualdo recordings. Horne reveals that they were bankrolled by the film composer and new music champion David Raksin. Royalties were rolling for Raksin’s score to “Laura,” another Preminger film. “Dave too liked to be around the old man,” Horne notes.

Horne came along too late to have had anything to do with “The Rake’s Progress,” the neo-Classical opera Stravinsky wrote withW.H. Audenand Chester Kallman as librettists. And it never worked out that she would sing either its soprano role of Anne, when she was young, nor the mezzo role of Baba the Turk when she was more mature. But Horne did have important, glancing connections with the opera.

One mentor was Carl Ebert, a noted German émigré stage director who headed the opera program at USC. Stravinsky chose Ebert for the world-premiere production of “Rake” in Venice. Horne says she also had many conversations about “Rake” with Craft. And Vera told her stories about Auden, who stayed with the Stravinskys. Apparently the poet rarely bathed and never used soap.

It was not until a full decade after the opera’s premiere that Stravinsky’s opera was finally mounted in L.A., with a student production at USC. Its U.S. premiere had been at the Metropolitan Opera and, recognized as one of the most important operas of the 20th century, it was being regularly staged in Europe. But Los Angeles Times music critic Albert Goldberg called the opera “deadly dull.” Rather than USC presenting the work, he wrote, “it would have been just as well to let a sleeping dog lie undisturbed.”

Stravinsky sent an enraged letter to the editor, complaining of Goldberg’s “mole’s-eye view of music history.” The composer pointed out errors in Goldberg’s review and concluded by protesting not only what he said about the “Rake” but the critic’s “incompetence to write meaningfully about music of any kind.”

A touring production of “Rake” by San Francisco Opera was given the next season at the Shrine Auditorium as part of the worldwide celebration of Stravinsky’s 80th birthday. “Lord, what a bore!” Goldberg wrote.

Horne observed the bitterness between Stravinsky and Goldberg on several occasions and says it was known in Stravinsky’s circle as the Goldberg Variations. “After one lousy Goldberg review,” she recalls, “Stravinsky pulled a silver flask filled with Scotch from his pocket and handed it to me. ‘Drink this immediately,” he said. ‘This is the only way to survive.’”

With Craft, Horne found herself singing all kinds of improbable music. She appeared in one of the first modern performances of Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610.” Now considered a major work of the repertory, it was then all but unknown. Stravinsky attended all the rehearsals and performances.

She also continued to take whatever film gigs came along or even do pop covers. She often appeared in the venturesome concerts of the Los Angeles Festival at UCLA that film composer Franz Waxman underwrote. During a festival performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” she became a close friend of the ballerina and actress Vera Zorina. In addition, she began singing opera in the Shrine Auditorium with Los Angeles Guild Opera, where she appeared in Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride,” Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”

She took up with a Los Angeles Philharmonic bass player, Henry Lewis, after meeting him while singing at the Monday Evening Concerts, and they eventually married. Lewis became an assistant conductor of the L.A. Phil under Zubin Mehta and music director of the New Jersey Symphony, making him one of the first major black conductors. Horne met the young Pierre Boulez at the house of Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist and composer William Kraft. She became chums with Arnold Schoenberg’s widow, Gertrude. She worked with émigré conductors Fritz Zweig and Richard Lert.

Horne’s career took her in an entirely new direction when she moved to Vienna in 1956 to try to make it in opera. She switched from soprano to mezzo-soprano and concentrated on bel canto repertory. But she never lost touch with Stravinsky.

“I have a wonderful memory of Stravinsky, about 1967,” she says, beaming. “We were doing ‘Oedipus Rex’ in Canada, and a bunch of us were having a conversation. Somebody asked me, ‘Jackie, have you ever sung such and such?’ I said, ‘I’ve already forgotten that.’

“And then Stravinsky said, ‘Oh, the things that we forget. But Jackie, I will never forget the beauty of your voice.’

“That’s a nice memory, I’ll tell you. And it’s even sweeter today.”

And what about today? Horne has been one of the fortunate patients to survive pancreatic cancer. “I had another clean bill of health in early June,” she says. “It’s been five years now.”

She then knocks on wood. The rhythm is Stravinskian.

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