NORMAN — Celebrated mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne has been a visiting professor at OU for more than a decade. She lets her opera friends know there is more to the university than championship football teams.
“I have learned a tremendous amount about Oklahoma by coming to OU,” Horne said. “There’s a wealth of culture here and when I mention the University to people outside the state, all they know about is football.”
Retired now from the performance stage, Marilyn Horne is widely recognized as being among the world’s finest opera singers. Her career achievements were recognized in 1992 when she received the National Medal of Arts.
“When I reveal that there’s a fabulous musical theater program at OU they look at me and say ‘You’re kidding?’” Horne said. “The voice department and orchestra are magnificent and the music school is just fabulous.”
The bright-eyed and ebullient mezzo soprano has been a visiting
professor here since 1998. Her association with the university came about through a friendship with then Democratic Oklahoma Senator David L. Boren and his wife Molly Shi Boren.
“We met many years ago in Guthrie,” Horne said. “Then I invited them to a concert I was doing in Washington, D.C., for the Public Broadcasting Service called ‘In Performance at the White House.’”
After Boren became OU’s president he asked Horne to perform at the opening ceremonies for the new Catlett Music Center in 1998.
“I sang a recital and the next day taught a master class,” she said. “And it was soon after that President Boren invited me to be a visiting professor.”
Horne likes teaching at OU and she works hard during those days here each year. Her visits are far from being ceremonial appearances. Evening master classes are free and open to the public but she also maintains a tight schedule with students during regular classroom hours.
Eavesdropping on one late afternoon session in the Pittman Recital Hall, found Horne commenting on a student’s skills in no uncertain terms. This young opera singer was getting his tuition dollar’s worth in terms of blunt albeit invaluable constructive criticism.
During Horne’s evening master class in March she stopped a student mid-aria to demonstrate how it should be properly sung.
The difference in timbre, control and vocal majesty brought to mind the comparison of a solid 4-door sedan and a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.
Horne’s instruction is in such a pleasantly matter of fact and caring way that most students probably never take offense. They’re receiving a caliber of instruction that most in their field won’t ever experience.
“I want these sessions to be friendly,” Horne said. “But I’m told that I’m very direct about what I say.”
You may trust that sugar-coating is involved.
“I like the quality of the students that I get to work with at OU,” Horne said. “It would be very distressing if they weren’t of a high level. I don’t think I could hack it if they were not.”
During an exciting career in opera and popular music, she hadn’t ever considered teaching but it’s readily apparent now the diva is a natural pedagogue. Horne had always been a student of singing technique, concentrating on refining her own skills. Currently she also teaches at Oberlin College, Manhattan School of Music and her main position at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she’s the chairperson.
“OU students have some very fine voices and I think it’s getting better all the time,” Horne said. “I’m told we have a wonderful group of people coming in this fall.”
She cited the importance of scholarship money.
“You have to have money to get students in here,” Horne said. “Our director of the school, Larry Mallett, has been very focused on that. Most talented students don’t have any money. When state legislatures don’t properly fund their public universities, its disastrous.”
Horne considers herself a California girl. She graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School and the University of Southern California. Horne has performed on television and in the movies but it’s work in the high-brow world of opera that has given her the most satisfaction.
“The only time I felt connected to the whole universe was when singing in recital,” she said. “I love Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, but my heart is with Beethoven, Rossini and Verdi. They’re much harder to master than pop music and it gives you so much more satisfaction.” Horne is excited about the state of modern opera composition. “There are more new operas being written today than in the 1950s and ’60s,” she said. “For a time composers were writing complicated and hard to sing ‘serial music’ for each other rather than for the entertainment of an audience.”
Horne termed contemporary opera as being in a “sing-able” period and the only question is if these pieces will endure the test of time.
The “Marilyn Horne Song Celebration” presented at Carnegie Hall in January for “The Song Continues” series and her master classes at OU and other institutions will keep the grand opera tradition vibrant for decades to come.
“We’ve made a mark and it’s very gratifying,” Horne said.