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A Mezzo With Gusto

Marilyn Horne keeps her zest for Rossini and bel canto style

GOOD old Rossini is going to get a big celebration," chortles Marilyn Horne, the finest Rossini singer of the recorded era, and very possibly of all time. "Not the equivalent of Mozart's," she continues. "He doesn't deserve the equivalent of Mozart's either!"

Nevertheless, on this bicentennial occasion, Miss Horne and Rossini are evident everywhere: An album of Rossini songs has just been released by BMG; on Feb. 29, Rossini's birthday, she offered a free Rossini concert in Alice Tully Hall here, followed by a gala Rossini concert; tonight a repeat of that concert will be telecast live on PBS.

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"He's certainly getting mountains more respect for his bicentennial than one would have ever dreamed 30 years ago," Horne says in an interview.

As for the Rossini telecast, she quips m sort of mother of the event." How does she feel about that?

"Well, it is a double-edged sword! Most of my life, I was the youngest in the cast and now suddenly I'm the oldest, usually. That's good on the one hand, in that I'm still here; on the other hand, it means that I'm not too far from going" - at which point she gives a whoop of laughter.

We have come to identify Horne so completely with the bel canto Rossini/Handel repertoire, it is easy to forget what a wide range of repertoire she has presented on stage - from Handel to Wagner to Alban Berg.

"I think that what happens in a singer's career, depending on how you run it and what you like to sing in opera ... you're going to be pigeonholed." Pigeonholing is something she has always sought to avoid.

During Horne's early years, she sang soprano roles like Marie in Berg's "Wozzeck" and Nedda in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." There were Wagner outings in concert. Even after her decision to stick to the mezzo bel canto repertoire, there were memorable asides: She was the Met's Carmen in the new production conducted by Leonard Bernstein (the recording of which was just reissued on DG), and Amneris (Verdi's da"), Eboli (Verdi's "Don Carlo"), and Dalila (Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila") are other roles she ha s sung extensively.

The bel canto label, however, has generally stuck. "This whole bel canto thing was so explosive at the time. People were just hungry to hear all that music that had been gathering dust on the shelves, it just took a momentum all its own, and then, quite frankly, I got involved in a repertory that I never thought of singing...."

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She has always had the requisite flexibility in her voice, thanks to her father, who insisted that, in her words, "you're no kind of singer unless you can sing coloratura. And also I liked it. It was a challenge, so I always sang lots of Bach and Handel when I was young. When I talk young, I was young. I started doing all this in public when I was four!"

She does not think she suffered from singing at such an early age. Nevertheless, she would tell parents to wait until children are at least 15 before finding them a voice teacher. "Had I not studied so young, it would have been evident probably at the age of about 16 or so that I was probably a mezzo. But because I sang so young, I had all those high notes and maintained them for so many years that I just didn't use the lower part of my voice when it came in."

As for why she concentrated on the bel canto repertoire, she admits she realized she had something she could do better than anybody else. That realization came when she first sang Arsace in Rossini's "Semiramide."

"It created a tremendous hoopla and success," she explains. "Even then I still was 'futzing' around with soprano. I think it's in a way the mezzo's dilemma."

Young singers constantly ask her for advice, and she usually encourages them to cross the Atlantic to learn what it takes to be an opera singer. "I still believe that American singers should have the European experience. The theaters over there are maybe not what they were, the provincial theaters. I think the standard has probably fallen a bit, but I really still feel that American singers need to be immersed in those languages [French, German, Italian], because those three languages are what they are g oing to be singing their whole career.

"The thing Idon't understand is how the people can make careers without speaking the languages. But we do have some very startling examples [of that]."

I ask her what the single greatest change in opera has been during her career. "Television!" she exclaims.

Does she see it as a boon or detriment?

"It's both. It's a boon for the obvious reasons that a couple of million people can watch at one time, that people who could never get to an opera house see it.... And yet, the tradeoff is that we begin to worry more about television than we do just about regular performances," Horne says.

"Opera, basically, is a larger-than-life art form, and I think it should be viewed from afar. Things that fit into the big proscenium and look wonderful don't necessarily look wonderful on television, especially when they're doing close-ups."

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