A Singer for the Ages

By Jonathan Tichler

In 1983, to mark the Met’s centenary, The New York Times’s chief music critic chose a singer in each vocal category as the greatest in the company’s history. For mezzo-soprano, he chose Marilyn Horne, the only singer on the list still active at that time. “She has the technique, musicianship, vocal range, and accuracy of intonation that would have made her a star in any age. She can handle coloratura demands with the neatness and dispatch of the great ones of the past, she knows how to spin a lovely legato line, she has style and flair,” he wrote.

Two decades later, in 2002, Opera News declared, “Marilyn Horne—whose face and song have been in the light—in so many places, in so many styles, through so many media, for so many years—may be the most influential singer in American history.”

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Horne’s triumphant Met debut came in 1970 as Adalgisa (pictured above) in a new production of Bellini’s Norma, opposite soprano Joan Sutherland in the title role. Her extraordinary vocal range and stylistic versatility is reflected in the roles that followed in that decade: She opened the 1972–73 season in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen in a new production (pictured at top of page). In 1973, she starred as Isabella in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (pictured below), again in a new production, but also the first time the work had been heard at the Met in more than 50 years. In 1976, she branched out into Verdi, singing Amneris in a new production of Aida. Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, absent from the company since 1928, returned in a new production in 1977 with Horne as Fidès. She closed out the decade as Princess Eboli in a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo.

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Highlights of later performances include Rosina in a new production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1982, the title role of Handel’s Rinaldo in its Met premiere in 1984 (pictured below), Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide in a new production in 1990 (the work’s first performances at the Met in nearly a century), and Samira in the world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991.

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Horne’s farewell role at the Met was Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff in 1996, streamed this week. Characteristically plain-spoken, she later summed up her career on stage this way: “I’ve sung everything–from soup to nuts, I’ve sung it. If I have a legacy, it’s that I did sing so much variety and that it can be done.”

But her enormous role in the cultural life of the United States has continued to this day. Recipient of a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor, she launched the Marilyn Horne Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to the art of the vocal recital in the United States, in 1994, and it continues to this day as part of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall.


Jonathan Tichler is the Met’s Photo Editor.