January 23, 1984 12:00 PM

The pearl gray Cadillac courses through that flat section of East Texas that divides the culture capital of Austin from the capitalist culture of Houston. The fog is thick enough to julienne with a Cuisinart. The driver is approximating the speed limit closely enough to make a roadside state trooper yawn in boredom. In the front seat Nicola Zaccaria, silver-haired, courtly, in a double-breasted blazer and brass buttons, is drumming his fingers nervously. In the rear Marilyn Horne, black-haired, heavyset, in a long black dress with a Blackglama mink-to-die-for folded neatly at her feet, is unperturbed. At about this time she should be in Houston, 100 miles away, lighting the official city Christmas tree and preparing to give a concert at the Houston opera house. Instead, with the airports closed, she and Zaccaria, the former La Scala basso who is her companion, have hired a car. The concert is just 48 hours away and here is Jackie—as her friends call her—calmly trying to persuade the driver to find an air-conditioner setting somewhere between icebox and steam bath. Although Zaccaria grows increasingly tense as the minutes crawl by, the diva is philosophical. “In this business,” she explains, “you get to the point where you can field almost any emergency that’s thrown your way—onstage or off.”

Fogged in, late, tired and too hot. Such is the life of “the greatest singer in the world,” as Italy’s respected Rossini Foundation called her in a citation two years ago. People who don’t go to the opera know her through television shows such as The Odd Couple, The Tonight Show and last month’s Marilyn Horne’s Great American Song-book on PBS. Her new autobiography has generated comment—and controversy—in the music world for its candid appraisals of well-known musicians. And with this week’s premiere of Rinaldo, three days after she turns 50, Marilyn Horne will do what no other singer has done: bring the work of George Frederick Handel to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

For most of a generation critics have placed Horne in the first rank of mezzo-sopranos—singers in that middle vocal range between contralto and pure soprano. But the wider public recognition achieved by such singers as Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti has come more slowly to her; she is still occasionally confused with Lena Horne. “She used to joke that she wanted to call her book The Other Horne, The Other Jackie and The Other Marilyn,” says Jane Scovell, co-author of Marilyn Horne: My Life.

Indeed, Horne’s path to the top has been almost a paradigm of the Horatio Alger slow rise from obscurity. She was born in Bradford, Pa., where her father was the city assessor and a church soloist with a deep love for music. As Horne tells it, her father decided in 1945 to move his family to California, in large part so that Marilyn could get vocal training. Her musical education flourished. At 12, she was singing with the Roger Wagner Chorale. She later won a scholarship to USC, studied with the legendary Lotte Lehmann and became a favorite of Igor Stravinsky. “People forget what Southern California was like after World War II,” she says. “There were so many refugees from Hitler all over the arts scene in the Los Angeles area. I used to have dinner with Stravinsky, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley—it was a heady experience for a young girl.” Sadly, her father languished in Long Beach, moving unhappily from job to job. “He was really a small-town man,” she says sadly.

Marilyn’s career began to prosper while she was still a teenager; she sang in Hollywood movie choruses, made low-budget pop records and, at 20, in what would remain her biggest role for years, dubbed the singing voice for Dorothy Dandridge in the film version of Carmen Jones. But when her teachers urged her to launch her operatic career overseas, her parents found themselves in rare dissent about the career they had so carefully nurtured: Horne’s mother encouraged her, but her father pleaded with her not to go. In July 1956 he died suddenly, at 49, of leukemia. Three weeks later a despondent Marilyn sailed for Europe.

In some ways the private life of the diva has had as many tragic convolutions as a Rossini opera. The man in her life today is the Greek-born Zaccaria, 60, for whom she fell “head over heels” while they were appearing together in a production of Mignon in Dallas 10 years ago. Zaccaria, famous for recordings with Maria Callas in the ’50s and ’60s, is now retired. He accompanies Horne on most of her trips; he is never far from her side, photographing her, taping her, worrying about details—and, although his English is really quite passable, talking to her mainly in Italian. “I learned fluent Italian from him,” Horne says, smiling. “Now I even dream in Italian.” In her book Horne admits that her 18-year-old daughter, Angela, dislikes Zaccaria. Despite that, and despite a melodramatic confrontation three years ago in which Zaccaria’s estranged wife trailed Horne to a Venice street corner and implored—unsuccessfully—that the diva give her back her husband, the relationship has endured.

But the figure of another man broods over Horne’s life: her ex-husband, the conductor Henry Lewis. When Horne gave her American Song-book concert at Lincoln Center, Zaccaria was in Greece. It was Lewis, 51, and their daughter, Angela, who waited backstage with champagne to toast the diva. They speak of each other with a plangent affection. “She’s a very, very important person in my life,” he says. “There’s a niche for her within my heart.” Horne echoes him: “There’s a deep friendship and a very deep love that will always be there.” Lewis now lives in California, while Horne has apartments in New York and Venice. They still speak frequently; both are intensely devoted to Angela, a Northwestern freshman transferring this month to Yale and considering a career as a singer. “She has the voice,” Marilyn says. “The question is whether she has all the other stuff—the drive and the stick-to-itiveness. We’ll have to wait and see about that, but she certainly has support from Mom and Dad.”

That Lewis and Horne are still so close may have something to do with the circumstances of their marriage. Lewis is black—and in 1960, when Martin Luther King Jr. had spent more time in jail cells than in the Oval Office, the marriage of a white woman and a black man could still offend much of the American public. Choral director Roger Wagner told Horne that she would be “finished” in the U.S. if she went through with the wedding. The singer’s mother begged her, “Be his mistress, for God’s sake, not his wife.” Marilyn’s sister, Gloria, attended the small ceremony; both her brothers took their mother’s lead in disapproving. Says Horne, “We didn’t want to buck society, but we decided we could handle it.”

Horne claims, and friends agree, that the strains of interracial marriage were relatively light. Two weeks after the wedding, she says, her mother “declared a truce.” Throughout the 1960s Horne’s career took off. She performed leading roles with opera companies around the world, made her debut at La Scala in 1969 and went to the Metropolitan Opera in 1970. “I think Henry’s career was affected by the fact that my star rose quicker,” Horne says. “That should be the case with a singer; a conductor doesn’t really come into his own until he’s about 50.” Lewis, on his own merits, was named associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, later became conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and guest-conducted in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and London. But he often conducted Marilyn’s performances as well, and the ever-wagging tongues of the opera world had it that he was working only because he was her husband. “There was this perception among certain people,” Lewis explains. “Nobody said, ‘My God! He did Semiramide on two days’ notice,’ when I was called in at the last minute. They’d just say, ‘He conducted for his wife.’ ”

Lewis refuses to blame his wife’s success for the failure of their marriage; a thoughtful man who chooses his words with care, he gallantly ascribes it to emotional problems he was having. “A conductor leads a very separated life,” he says. “I was very insecure, and I used to put a curtain down and separate myself from everybody when I was working. I always had to prove to myself that I was up to the job. When I came home, I needed human contact. But a diva gets all the human contact she needs from her work, and Marilyn sometimes wanted just to relax when she came home.” The couple separated in 1974, divorced in 1979. Today Lewis is recovering from a low point in his career—”I can’t get arrested in this country right now,” he quips—with a series of prestigious European bookings at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera and the Hamburg Staatsoper. His public appearances with Horne are rare.

As for Marilyn, her success is the more remarkable because she has achieved it as a mezzo-soprano. Most mezzo parts are either “trouser roles”—many of which were originally written for castrati, the high-voiced, neutered male singers who were popular in the 18th century—or roles in which the mezzo is an adjunct to a soprano. “To be a mezzo is to be an Avis in a Hertz world,” Horne says with a chuckle. But Horne has tried harder, and succeeded, achieving greatness with a voice whose richness and technical perfection are matchless.

The good-humored Horne has many close friends in opera: Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti among them. But, as she makes bluntly clear in her book, she has had run-ins with other legends of the opera. She flays the Berlin Philharmonic’s Herbert von Karajan for allowing his booming orchestra to drown her out. “It was a tremendous disillusionment to work with him,” she says. “I should have just walked out.”

The Boston Opera’s Sarah Caldwell fares no better: Horne denounces her as chronically unprepared and reports that Caldwell once arrived at a rehearsal and opened her score with a resounding crack of its spine—a sure sign, says Horne, that Caldwell had never read it. Beverly Sills is thoroughly pounded in the book as well. Horne’s dislike of America’s other beloved native-born diva began years ago at La Scala, when, Horne claims, she heard from her dresser that Sills and her press agent were removing photographs of Horne from a press packet. “Sometimes you’ve got to pull out those prima-donna guns, and I did it,” Horne says. In the armor-plated costume of her role in The Siege of Corinth, Horne barged into Sills’s dressing room, confronted the singer and her press agent, and told the flack: “If the New York Times runs a picture and I’m not in it, I’ll find you and smack you right in the face, you son of a bitch!”

Such conduct is unusual for a woman who is normally one of the most cheerful of performers. Her patience is remarkable, given her schedule: a concert or an opera about every three days, 50 weeks a year, in cities across the globe. “Singing is like being a baseball pitcher,” she explains. “You can pitch every three or four days, but you’ve got to rest your arm. I have to take care of this little piece of gristle in my throat. I can sing one or two songs in between, but I can only do a recital or an opera every three or four days.”

Any week might find her at the Met or La Scala—or in Norman, Okla., Clearwater, Fla. or places in between. The traveling is arduous, but the rewards justify it—a top diva can make around $35,000 per night. And Horne usually finds time to give her fans more than just a concert.

At an autograph party in Austin she pays equal attention to a fur-clad lady buying a handful of copies of her book and an impoverished-looking student who brings one of her old albums for her signature. She even shrieks with delight when she meets a literature professor who works nights in a drag club impersonating great divas. “Everyone wants to kiss her,” moans her press agent, Lewis Ufland. “Do you know how easy it is to catch cold when everyone wants to kiss you?”

Indeed, there is a certain huggable quality to the zaftig 5’2″ diva. (Luciano Pavarotti, proudly brandishing his American slang, used a more sexually explicit word.) Horne reinforces her reputation for warmth at her recitals by commenting informally on the songs and by interspersing Rossini and Handel with favorites like Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair. “She’s so down-home,” gushed one Austin dignitary, after her recital at the University of Texas last month. “I love her.” Another local, clearly more expert in such matters, chimed in delphically: “Did you hear those glottal stops in her tessitura? They were perfection!”

So it is, in Austin and Houston, at all her concerts, whether in Sitka, Alaska or Carnegie Hall. “You have no idea how good it feels when people in out-of-the-way places come up to you and say, ‘We’re so happy you came. We usually only get people on the way down.’ ” She has brought Stephen Foster to La Scala and Rossini to Tulsa. At her concerts across the world audiences explode with applause, and bravas ring down from the cheap seats to the orchestra. And when that approbation comes, an observer need only see the diva, like Jeanie in the song, radiant in gladness with a day-dawn smile, to know that the blood feuds and the bittersweet love affairs have receded into darkness, and Marilyn Horne, for just that instant, is the happiest woman on earth.

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