Henry Lewis & Marilyn Horne: They're Playing Our Aria

The late Igor Stravinsky once waspishly said of her in exasperation, “The Lord knows all, but Jackie knows everything better.” And soprano Jackie’s conductor-suitor Henry was the sort of temperamental virtuoso who, once, when dissatisfied, tore a leg off a piano. Even their best friends foresaw personal unhappiness (a further complication was that Henry was black) and professional suicide. Jackie herself conceded that “what usually happens in a case like ours is that one gives up his or her career to manage the other. It’s usually ‘mismanage,’ and it’s usually a disaster.”

But the couple married anyway in 1960, and none of those dire forebodings came to pass. The bride, called Jackie by associates, is known to the world as mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, at 40 perhaps the greatest singing technician on the opera and concert stage today. Her husband, Henry Lewis, six years ago became the first black music director of a national orchestra—the New Jersey Symphony—and in 1972, the first to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.

When the Met premiered the current season, Lewis had the distinction of conducting two nights in opening week, one with a prima donna (in Rossini’s L’Italians in Algeri) that the New York Times critic declared “stupendous.” It was, of course, his wife Marilyn. The same reviewer faulted Lewis for “indulgent conducting.” Henry is, unlike his wife, not quite yet at the pinnacle of his profession. But already at 42, he has established an international reputation as a singers’ conductor. “He’s fantastically sensitive to voices,” says tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe. “His advice has helped my career immeasurably.” And the kudo that counts comes from Marilyn: “Most men can’t teach their wives to drive a car—Henry’s taught me how to sing.”

Music brought the two artists together, but, characteristically, they disagree on exactly how they first met at the University of Southern California. Marilyn came to Long Beach at age 11 from Bradford, Pa. where her father was a city assessor and a semipro tenor who began teaching her music at age 5. As a teenager Jackie was in the Roger Wagner Chorale, in church duets with her sister Gloria and while at USC on a music scholarship dubbed movie sound tracks (she was Dorothy Dandridge’s voice in Carmen Jones). Henry also was a scholarship student, already playing the double bass with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at 16—the youngest member and first black ever in the orchestra. Lewis’s father, a real estate and auto salesman, was meanwhile trying to divert his son into football. “He thought being black all I could play was jazz,” Henry recalls, “and I would wind up on dope. I fought him for years. Now I understand him.”

As for meeting each other, Horne recalls an encounter on the library steps. “I thought he was so good looking, but he didn’t pay any attention to me.” Henry remembers an L.A. Guild Opera audition. “I heard this low low note…without turning around I asked, ‘Who’s the tenor?’ ” They dated casually for six months, and broke up “at least five or six times.” Then Jackie flunked opera workshop. She refused to sing Carmen (at 18, she insisted, it would ruin her voice) and took off for Europe to refine her art. Henry had already been drafted and was stationed in Stuttgart as conductor of the Seventh Army Symphony. “I looked him up. I don’t know why, actually,” she says, “but it worked.”

Her breakthrough came in 1964 with the San Francisco Opera, when Henry cajoled his then five-months-pregnant wife to team up with Joan Sutherland in Rossini’s Semiramide. The pandemonium over their duets made operatic history. Henry meantime was rapidly, and some say ruthlessly, transforming his New Jersey orchestra from a semi-professional pick-up group into a first-rate ensemble with a 130-concert season and a $1.3 million budget. But one violinist dismissed by Lewis says, “Henry is the most critical man I ever met—but also the most charming.” “I think the problem is that Henry thinks he’s better than the orchestra,” says one critic, “and maybe he is.”

Lewis admits he “hid behind Marilyn’s skirts” for his first years on the podium. “But no more. At first there wasn’t anything to be music director of. Now there is.” In part, he refers to Marilyn. “I know she takes things from me I wouldn’t dare do to another singer. But then she gets more too,” says Henry. Marilyn accedes: “I guess it’s all a bit Svengali-ish—I’m more independent of him now but when I have a problem I still come back to Svengali.”

Ironically, perhaps the only problem the Lewises have never had is racial. Marilyn is oblivious, far more concerned with juggling roles as mother, wife and diva. Henry worries about their daughter but says, “There’s never been any racial aspect to our marriage, but I have no illusions about society: I know we’re privileged because we’re artists.” Although she can command $6,000 to $9,000 per performance, Marilyn refuses to be away from her daughter Angela, 9, more than 10 nights at a time. “I would never give up the people I love for an almighty career,” she says.

Home is an elegant, 15-room Tudor in Orange, N.J. Their hobbies include swimming and tennis, and Marilyn does needlepoint to relax pre-performance. They have a housekeeper, but Marilyn prefers to do the cooking. And their friends are not Met trustee types but good old Los Angeles boys like Jim Nabors. “I guess it sounds hokey,” says Marilyn, “but Henry and I are realizing our dreams. Fourteen years ago, we were these brash little kids from L.A. and today, we’re performing at the Met.”

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