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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Marilyn Horne: Masterclass with an Opera Diva

Among the pleasures of Rome are the world-class musicians and artists it attracts, often in unusual venues.  We were treated this past year to a masterclass by Marilyn Horne, the celebrated American opera singer.

World-renown opera singer Marilyn Horne encouraging a 35 year-old tenor  - at her masterclass in Rome - to get on with his career before it's too late.
Thanks to a note by Joie Davidow (, we discovered one could purchase a 20 Euro ticket to hear and watch Horne at the American University of Rome.  Not only had we never heard Horne, we had never set foot in AUR.  

The nondescript walls of the American University of  Rome;
one can see why we didn't know it was there.
AUR is tucked in, behind high walls, on the Gianicolo, near the American Academy.  We had walked by those walls many times, and didn't even know AUR was there.  Stepping inside, we realized it's an island of a US campus on the Gianicolo.  Usually eschewing all things American, we would - perhaps more so in the past - be aghast that students are so ensconced.  But this island of calm seemed totally appropriate, as AUR no doubt takes its in locus parentis seriously.  And we were warmly greeted by Timothy Martin, AUR professor and its Summer Vocal Institute Director, who seemed happy to see a couple of opera novices clamoring for the tickets.  
AUR's inviting, very California-looking patio.

At 80, Horne remains an imposing presence. She put four international singers through their paces, and I mean through their paces.  We thought she was very hard on them:  "Do you think THAT's what's going on in this piece?" "You are singing in so many different voices; which one do you want?" To a 35 year-old:  "You don't have a lot of time left; you better get on with your career."  And she ended by saying her classes the next day would be private, and then "I can really say what I think."
Horne, seated right, putting a soprano through her rigorous class.  The
masterclass was held in the American Academy in Rome's Villa Aurelia.

Horne knew every line and note the students sang.  She let them sing a piece all the way through, and then started to pick it apart note by note, syllable by syllable.  What sounded good to us didn't necessarily sound good to her.

One of her main lines of criticism was singing like one thinks an opera singer should sound - too far back in the throat. She coached the students to sing more in the front of the mouth. After a tenor tried it for a few bars, she said, "What do you think?" And he said, "I like it, but I'm not sure I can do it for the whole piece!"  I should point out, Horne did all of this with grace and a sense of humor.

Horne with AUR professor Timothy Martin - both were born in
Pennsylvania - who knew it was a hotbed of opera singers?
When we left this fascinating two-hour session, we wanted to run immediately to the nearest opera house (and one of us did). Since then we've seen a couple operas in Los Angeles, with its excellent opera company, feeling much more knowledgeable about opera - and enjoying it more -  thanks to Marilyn Horne.
Horne in 1961 with her husband, conductor
 Henry Lewis.  They lived in Echo Park, Los
Angeles, California

More information on AUR, Horne, the masterclass at this link.

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