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Horne Aplenty

Opera great Marilyn Horne talks about singing for Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones and about her brushes with American musical theater. logo
Marilyn Horne in performance
Marilyn Horne's name doesn't immediately leap to mind in connection with the American musical theater repertoire. For half a century, this great mezzo soprano -- who is generally considered to have one of the most beautiful singing voices in history -- has been far too busy scoring triumphs in a multitude of operatic roles to have had time for Nettie Fowler in Carousel, the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and other parts in musicals that would have suited her very well indeed.

But, as detailed below, Horne has made more forays into musical theater than you may be aware of. Most famously, she provided the singing voice of Dorothy Dandridge in director Otto Preminger's 1954 film version of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's 1943 Broadway musical based on the immortal opera Carmen. Though she hadn't yet made her operatic debut when she recorded the film's soundtrack, Horne later became a world-famous Carmen in various productions of the original Georges Bizet work, most notably in a controversial 1972 Metropolitan Opera production that was conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

On Tuesday, February 3, a new print of Carmen Jones will be shown at Film Forum in Manhattan, and Horne -- who is known as "Jackie" to her intimates -- will be present to speak after the screening. When I recently phoned the wonderfully down-to-earth diva at a pre-appointed time to talk about the film, I got her answering machine; it turned out that it was a new machine and she didn't know how to use it with call waiting, but she rang me back a few minutes later.


THEATERMANIA: Thanks for calling back, Ms. Horne. We're a theater website so, as much as I would love to talk with you for hours about your opera career, I thought we should focus on Carmen Jones. I've read that you were only 20 when you recorded the soundtrack.

MARILYN HORNE: That's right. I'd been singing since I was very young. I started singing in public at age two and, all through my growing-up years, I was constantly singing in churches, for rotary clubs, and all that. When I was 20, I was at U.S.C. By then, I had already done scads of recordings for background music of Hollywood films. I started doing that when I was about 12 -- singing in the chorus or having a solo line or two.

TM: Did you interact much with Dorothy Dandridge on Carmen Jones?

HORNE: Oh, yeah -- a lot! First of all, I wanted to get the inflection of her voice. I'm a pretty good mimic, so that was very helpful. Obviously, she couldn't sing in the keys where the music was written, so she would sing it for me in a key that was comfortable for her. I remember that we were kind of getting to know each other -- "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you" -- and we were doing the Habañera. There's a line in it that goes, "One man treats me like I was mud." We got to that word and she sang "mud" in a certain way. She asked me, "Do you know what I mean?" And I said, "Do you mean 'shit?'" We became pretty good friends after that!

TM: That's a great story. I have Carmen Jones on DVD; it really is an excellent job of dubbing.

HORNE: I have to tell you, I sort of took all of that for granted. But in hindsight, 50 years later, I realize that it was a very big deal for someone who was only 20 years old. That was a kind of a signal year for me, 1954: I made my debut in opera that year.

TM: Someone told me they recently heard you demonstrate that you can still produce that lighter, more soprano-ish sound that you used for the movie.

HORNE: Oh, sure. Absolutely! I always like to point out that in the quintet, "Whizzin' away along the track," it's me singing the high D-flat at the end. You know, one of the tragic stories about Carmen Jones is about the man who dubbed for Harry Belafonte.

TM: LeVern Hutcherson?

HORNE: Yes. He was probably in his 50s at the time; I'm guessing, I could be wrong. He had a real Italian spinto voice, a heavy lyric tenor. But he spent his entire life pushing his voice down to sing the role of Porgy because he was black and that was the only job he could get. It was a true American tragedy. There are lots of stories like that, black singers who never had a shot. But he was wonderful.

TM: I've noticed that your name is spelled "Marilynn" in the credits at the beginning of the movie.

HORNE: Well...I was just coming out of my teenage years and I had decided to add another "n" to my name. Then, when I went to Germany, my agent over there said, "Would you please go back to one 'n'? It's confusing enough for the Germans!" So I went back to my birth spelling. By the way, you should know that my getting credit on screen was strictly Otto Preminger's decision; I had no contract, I had no agent, I had no nothing. I just sang! That was his decision.

TM: So, you had a good experience with him?

HORNE: Yes, I did. I don't remember him saying an awful lot to me; he'd sit there when I was recording and he would maybe make just a comment or two, but basically it was Dorothy and me and [musical director] Herschel Gilbert who were working together so much. Herschel died recently. I had not seen him since Carmen Jones but, a couple of years ago, I was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award and they had a special luncheon for me in Los Angeles. He was there and it was so wonderful to see him again.

TM: Carmen Jones got a lot of attention a few years ago with the Halle Berry TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

HORNE: Absolutely. I did, of course, watch that. I got a kick out of the line where she said, "Can you imagine, they're getting a famous opera singer to dub for me?" I hooted, because I hadn't made my debut in opera yet! But I thought Halle Berry was terrific. You had to have somebody as beautiful as Dorothy to do that movie.

TM: Now, your other major film dubbing experience -- which I didn't even know about until a few years ago -- was singing "Love, Look Away" for Reiko Sato in Flower Drum Song.

HORNE: Yes. I knew [musical supervisors] Al Newman and Ken Darby very well because I had worked in Hollywood in the chorus for all those years. I think they both came to Wozzeck, which was my return to the United States after four years in Europe: I got my big break with the San Francisco Opera in a new production of Wozzeck, which had never been heard on the West Coast. Of course, all of the composers in Hollywood were just dying to hear and see that opera on stage, and I'm very happy and humble to say that I had an enormous success. Not too long after that, I heard from Al asking me to dub that song -- or maybe it was Ken that I spoke to. Anyway, I got paid more for that 19 bars than I did for all of Carmen Jones!

TM: Another example of your flirtation with American musical theater was the Man of La Mancha recording you made with Jim Nabors, Jack Gilford, Madeline Kahn, and Richard Tucker -- which, I believe, has been out of print for years. You were so deeply involved with opera from a young age; had you ever considered a career in musicals instead?

HORNE: I never really did a musical onstage. The closest I came to that was when I did The Merry Widow in high school, but that's hardly the kind of musical we're talking about. I've always been able to sing the songs; it's in my blood, I grew up with them. So I would occasionally do something here and there, but the main problem was that I felt I really couldn't mix the two. The kind of operas that I sang demanded such technical prowess; I had to keep my voice in balance and I didn't want to go off the track. But late in my career, when I thought "This is coming to an end," I decided that I would do more musical theater singing.

TM: Like the West Side Story recording that Bernstein conducted, with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras?

HORNE: Yes. I was scheduled to record Anita but Lennie changed the dates at least three or four times -- and the last time he changed them, I just could not do it. Some time later, I got a call from Lennie saying, "Jackie! Jessye [Norman] has just canceled out of singing 'Somewhere' on the recording. Do you think you can sing it?" I said, "Oh God, I don't know! I've gotta see where the tessitura lies. Let me call you back!" I didn't even have a score of West Side Story, but my daughter did, so I ran into her room and got her copy. I looked at it, called him back, and said, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can do it." So I went in and sang it to an orchestral track that had already been laid down. I met Lennie at the old RCA studio -- the one on 44th Street that's now an IRS office -- and I did two or three takes with him conducting me. I remember that, right afterwards, I left the studio and got onto a plane to Berlin. It was New Year's Eve.

TM: I should also ask you about The King and I...

HORNE: Well, that was the same thing as Carmen Jones: a gig to make some money. In those days, we were getting $80 a day or something like that, and the job lasted several weeks.

TM: Wait a minute -- I was talking about John Mauceri's studio recording of The King and I with Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley.

HORNE: Oh. I'm talking about the movie!

TM: What did you do on that?

"The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet
as seen in the film version of The King and I
HORNE: I sang in the Uncle Tom's Cabin ballet [she sings:] "Small house -- of Uncle -- Tho-MAS." I was one of the sopranos. I think we worked five or six weeks on it. We would sit around a lot, waiting for Jerome Robbins to run the ballet at the end of the day.

TM: I'm surprised to hear that. You'd think they would have pre-recorded the music.

HORNE: No. Whatever his deal was, we were there to sing it every day. I'm not kidding! We sat there for five weeks, sang through it once or twice a day just to keep it tuned up -- and then, when it came time for the shooting, we were on golden hours. Everybody was on overtime!

TM: You have so many great stories. I'm sure there are lots more in the updated edition of your biography. It's coming out very soon, isn't that right?

HORNE: Yes, on February 1. It's titled The Song Continues and it has 68 pages of pictures. The original book was called My Life. That was for my 50th birthday and this is for my 70th.

TM: Well, thanks so much for the interview. I look forward to seeing you at Film Forum.

HORNE: Great. And come to Carnegie Hall on February 1, 2:00 in the afternoon. It's the gala for my foundation and we've got some incredible singers!


[For information on the Carmen Jones screening at filmforum, visit the website]

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