Great opera singers have always enjoyed appearing in a popular repertory. Golden Age heroes like Caruso and Gigli touched hearts and purse strings with their renditions of Italian folk songs both real and spurious. Ezio Pinza sang his way to fame on Broadway in South Pacific, a fame that had eluded him at the Metropolitan Opera House just a few blocks away. Helen Traubel supplemented her career as Brünnhilde and Isolde with another one performing light material in nightclubs. And in our own time the woods are full of tenor songbirds like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Peter Hofmann doing crossover material ranging from folk songs and middle-of-the-road pop to soft rock.

Of late the pickings haven’t seemed so good for prima donnas. Even the career of Leontyne Price, with its obvious crossover potential, has seemed irrevocably bound to a serious operatic and song repertory. But now there’s a new diva’s hat in the pop market. In December, around the time of the release of her “with-the-help-of” autobiography,[1] mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne appeared on nationwide television in a two-hour program of American songs. The concert was transmitted live from Avery Fisher Hall and featured the accompanying services of conductor Leonard Slatkin, the New York Choral Artists, and members of the American Symphony Orchestra. Presented by PBS in prime time under the “Live From Lincoln Center” seal of approval, the program was supported by, among others, Exxon, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The material Miss Horne sang was plainly meant to appeal to a broad audience. There were twenty-four songs in all, divided into five categories: folk songs, Stephen Foster, folk songs in Aaron Copland orchestrations, hymns and spirituals, and patriotic songs. Except for the Copland-orchestrated tunes, all the material was arranged specially for the occasion.

The concert began with the folk-song group. The opening piece, hardly everyone’s idea of folk music, was “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” George M. Cohan’s pastiche of famous tunes, ranging from “Auld Lang Syne” to “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Though the Cohan was suitably upbeat, the rest of the folk songs declined into gloomy nostalgia. “Shenandoah” (Miss Horne’s favorite song) was sung with choral backing. The result was not even corn-on-the-cob but rather creamed corn. “He’s Gone Away” was presented, à la Mahler, in the manner of a tragic art song.

Five Stephen Foster songs followed. Taught to Miss Horne by her mother, these songs are plainly close to Miss Horne’s heart. She began the group with “Beautiful Dreamer” and then sang, in order, “If You've Only Got a Mustache” (a novelty number with music by Foster and words by George Cooper), “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Camptown Races,” and finally “Gentle Annie.” Here the clue to Miss Horne’s approach came right at the beginning. “Beautiful Dreamer” doubtless expresses that side of the American national character which cherished gentle fantasies while it devoted almost all waking hours to the creation of a vital and often harsh reality. But “Beautiful Dreamer” is not a regret; it is an evocation of what might be. Though the song is written in 9/8 time—nine eighth notes to the bar, with three major stresses—and marked Moderato, Miss Horne sang it Lento, with a heavy stress on each note. The effect was bathetic, and was made only more marked by Miss Horne’s repeated distortion of the simple opening triplet rhythm.

Especially after the self-induced and self-indulgent tragedy of “Beautiful Dreamer,” “If You've Only Got a Mustache” seemed remarkably trite. “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” again produced a treacly mood. Sung to harp accompaniment, the song sounded repetitious and even artificial. Here a comparison with an earlier Horne performance was instructive. On an earlier “Live From Lincoln Center” program in 1979, shared with Joan Sutherland and the New York Philharmonic (conducted by Miss Sutherland’s husband, Richard Bonynge), Miss Horne sang the song with the assistance of the Philharmonic’s principal harpist, Myor Rosen. Mr. Rosen wrote his own arrangement (as did the American Symphony’s harpist, Susan Jolles, on the present program) in collaboration with the soloist. His version was imaginative and beautifully played; throughout he seemed to be urging Miss Horne not to dally but instead to let the music flow naturally. Despite Miss Horne’s obvious commitment to this material, it would appear that she has not yet learned that simple music must be performed simply.

Miss Horne’s third group was made up of five pieces—“Simple Gifts,” “At the River,” “I bought me a cat,” “Long Time Ago,” and “Ching-a-ring Chaw”—drawn from the two sets of old American songs that Aaron Copland orchestrated in 1950 and 1952. Here at least the music was not clothed, as it was elsewhere in the program, in Broadway finery. Copland’s acerbic, yet haunting, orchestral palette, combined with gentle intimations of syncopation, seemed doubly welcome after all the glue. But, alas, Copland was all too respectful in these pieces of the origins of the melodies he chose. Whereas these modest reworkings might have provided a charming fillip in a concert of contemporary vocal music, in Miss Horne’s concert, sandwiched as they were between sweet and sweeter, both the songs and their performer seemed overcome with nostalgia.

The intermission, as is the case on all too many “Live from . . .” events, was devoted to advancing the cause of sainthood for the performer or performers of the evening. On this occasion, the formula was well in place. In paraphrase, the conversation ran something along the lines of: “Miss Horne, everyone has said you’re the greatest of your kind our century has seen, if not of all time; how do you explain your greatness, and how can you bear the burden of it all?” And her answer: “My greatness has always seemed perfectly natural, and it has been the mission of my life to preserve this gift intact. In spite of all that I am as an artist, I remain a real, down-to-earth person nonetheless.”

One comment of Miss Horne’s deserves quotation as an illustration of just how fully she filled the wide-eyed role chosen for her. About her autobiography she trilled, “I think the reason the book is having such a success is because it’s honest.” At least she then had the grace to admit, amidst hearty laughter (opera singers are, after all, allowed to change their minds), that she certainly didn’t “reveal everything.” Ah candor! Ah discretion!

After intermission, the program returned to song. The opening group consisted of hymns and spirituals. The hymn “In the Garden” and the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” were both feelingly, and even relatively naturally, sung. Unfortunately, the egregious and ubiquitous chorus, harmonizing away as if every hum was a glorious tear, awakened all too many memories of the way Hollywood used to pay its dues to the upright and toiling masses of yesteryear. Of Miss Horne’s rendition of “Bless This House” I cannot write without my fingers sliding off the typewriter keys. The fourth work of this group, “I just come from the fountain,” seemed to me quite the best thing Miss Horne did all evening. Tellingly, she sang this short melody alone, without accompaniment. Shorn of all the saccharin and molasses supplied by her arrangers and publicists, she sang beautifully. That was, however, that. “The Lord’s Prayer,” closing the group, was once again stupefyingly sentimental.

The final group of the concert was composed of patriotic songs, a category wide enough to include “When Johnny Comes Marching Horne,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” and “God Bless America.” Of all these, it was the anti-war song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” that evidently touched the hearts of the audience. The stirring “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was sung in a tempo more appropriate to a dead march than to the triumphant theme song of abolitionism one had always thought it to be. The close, with chorus and orchestra clamoring away, suggested nothing so much as the massed finale of Act I of Verdi’s Aida. The final song, “God Bless America,” suffered from Miss Horne’s evident need to consult her music diligently, doubtless because of complications in her part attributable to the snazzy and grandiose arrangement.

So the musical verdict on Marilyn Horne’s concert, despite her undoubtedly great voice, must be negative. Her own sentimentality, the bad taste of the orchestral and choral treatment, the diva-as-girl-next-door packaging—all these taken together pose some basic questions about the whole television event. What was the artistic purpose served? What was the public purpose? Finally, why was this program on public television at all?

It is difficult to believe that there was a strong artistic justification for a program of this repertory sung in this way. Marilyn Horne does not bring to this material any special folk insight. Though she has sung many of these songs on and off since she was young, she does not give any evidence—as did the popular singer of the 1940s, Kate Smith—of having merged her artistic persona with the music. Instead she gave the impression famous opera stars always give when engaged in singing down to their material and their audience, of condescension masked by vulgarity.

In the absence of an artistic justification, the question of public purpose seems simple to formulate. Did this program in some sense serve to bind the nation together? Of course, many of Miss Horne’s songs come from deep sources in our national psyche; of course, American popular culture has served in the past as an integrating and assimilating force. But this desirable goal can be served only when the artistic expression being so used is authentic. The prima donna concertizing de haut en bas is, however, now a sure guarantee not of authenticity but of its opposite.

Then there is the whole question of doing this program on public television. Marilyn Horne is famous; she is properly highly paid for her services; she is a commercial commodity. She plainly made every attempt to choose marketable repertory and to do it in a marketable way. The result ought to have been a natural for commercial television. In the past the major TV networks have always been interested in presenting serious music and serious musical performers in a popular format. The Bell Telephone Hour and Leonard Bernstein’s appearances on Omnibus are examples of successful attempts to make good music pay. But now such efforts are rare. NBC displayed more talent at balleyhoo than commitment to culture in its two “Live from Studio 8H” programs with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. CBS seems to have just about given up its televising of Philharmonic Children’s Concerts.

Why is commercial television so unwilling to make an investment in anything even remotely connected with “serious” music? The obvious answer is the famous “bottom line,” the corporate pressure to show profit come what may. But more is involved in the networks' lack of responsibility for culture. There is now no pressure on commercial broadcasting to cater to any but the widest audience—because of the very existence of public television. It is PBS’s task now to do all that fancy stuff, even if the stuff is no more fancy than “Marilyn Horne’s Great American Songbook.” This attitude, it must be said, fits all too well into PBS’s grand design: transforming what started as educational television into a de facto fourth commercial (even though nonprofit) network.

The irony of the Marilyn Horne program is that matters artistic just might have turned out rather better had the festivities been a commercial rather than a nonprofit venture. Doubtless two hours of prime air-time would have been too expensive for this kind of program. Restricting everything to one hour would have forced a welcome sharpening of focus in the repertory performed, and provided less chance for the listener to be aware of how much the same all the different pieces were in music and in performance. Perhaps even the performances themselves could have been better. Under time pressure, Miss Horne might well have decided to take many of the songs at a faster tempo, thereby nipping her incipient sentimental instincts in the bud. But above all, had “Marilyn Horne’s Great American Songbook” been on commercial television where it belonged, it would have been judged as entertainment, not as art. Freed from the burden of serving a higher cause, it might even have been accorded some of the success it reached for but failed to garner under its high-minded PBS sponsorship.

 

  1. Marilyn Horne: My Life by Marilyn Horne, with Jane Scovell. Atheneum, 258 pages, $16.95. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 6 , on page 85
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