From shadows to spotlight: Acclaimed soprano Marni Nixon, 76, writes her memoir
This is the woman who faced down Igor Stravinsky, who called Leonard Bernstein's bluff, who toured with Liberace and Victor Borge, and donned...
Seattle Times music critic
This is the woman who faced down Igor Stravinsky, who called Leonard Bernstein's bluff, who toured with Liberace and Victor Borge, and donned a nun's habit for the film version of "The Sound of Music."
Marni Nixon, a pint-sized redhead of 76, also rose to fame as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr (in the movie "The King and I"), Natalie Wood ("West Side Story") and Audrey Hepburn ("My Fair Lady"). She even dubbed a bit for Marilyn Monroe in the famous song, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes").
Marni Nixon will appear at these times and locations:
• 6:30 p.m. today, discussion and book signing at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-366-3316 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
• 1-3 p.m. Saturday, at "Disney: The Music and the Magic" opening day, Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; activities and events are free with admission to EMP, $14.95-$19.95, children 6 and younger free (206-770-2702 or www.emplive.org).
• 7:30 p.m. Monday, performance and book signing, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave.; $5 (206-652-4255 or www.townhallseattle.org).
Now the woman Time magazine once dubbed "the ghostess with the mostest" has penned an autobiography, "I Could Have Sung All Night" (with a ghost of her own, writer Stephen Cole). And she's back in Seattle, her home for a decade (1971-81), to do a little promoting — and a little entertaining.
Famous for the clarity of her high soprano and the charm of her stage personality, Nixon is still going strong at an age when most singers have mothballed their diva gowns. She has carved out a substantial career in concert work, opera, film and Broadway; she has gone on the road with such shows as "Follies" and "Cabaret," and appeared in James Joyce's "The Dead" Off Broadway.
Nixon regularly performs her one-woman show, a compilation of humorous narration, film and audio clips, and live singing (with a pianist), both in New York and on tour. Right now she's been on the road for a month, spending a week in her birthplace and former stomping grounds, Los Angeles, after appearing at a weeklong Bernstein retrospective at Harvard. There have been lots of book signings, master classes and interviews in print, radio and television. Nixon doesn't seem in the least tired of all this.
When we sit down for an interview, she cheerfully admits that the autobiography was more work than she initially imagined. It took her about three years of "hard, intensive work" to come up with "I Could Have Sung All Night," an entertaining account of her life with all its triumphs, catastrophes and humorous incidents (plenty in that last category). We watch the little 5-year-old pick up a violin and soon win a bit part in a movie; we see her mother pawning her diamond engagement ring to pay for voice lessons, and those voice lessons paying off in future concert bookings. The young singer with the perfect pitch soon became a hot commodity in Hollywood.
Nixon takes her readers behind the scenes to the set of "The King and I" to see just how she worked with the star, Deborah Kerr. Nixon had to come up with exactly the right diction, and that more elusive quality of "personality" in her singing voice, to be the musical counterpart to Kerr's on-stage interpretation. The behind-the-scenes action in the dubbing process makes it clear how exacting, and exciting, this "ghosting" job really was.
Nixon also writes about the more difficult moments, especially her two troubled former marriages (to composer Ernest Gold, the father of Nixon's four children, and later to Dr. Fritz Fenster), and her two bouts with breast cancer. Nixon is utterly blunt about her tough times, the difficulties in her personal and professional lives — like starring with Christopher Walken in "The Dead" while losing her hair through chemotherapy. While it's a tough and honest memoir, "I Could Have Sung All Night" is upbeat and funny, and it shows that there's a lot more to Nixon than what she's most famous for.
"Most people still know me from the dubbing," says Nixon of her "ghosting" on the movie soundtracks. "But I have been working hard to revitalize the recital, to do classical things, especially the American art song."
It was her classical chops that brought her to the attention of Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer most famous for "The Firebird" and "The Rite of Spring." In her book, Nixon recounts how she rehearsed at Stravinsky's house for performances of "Les Noces," "Nightingale" and the opera "Mavra," and once ran afoul of Stravinsky's powerful assistant and interpreter, Robert Craft. Affronted when she told off Craft, Stravinsky "fixed me with an evil Russian glare that would have brought the czar to his knees" — but Nixon held her ground and Stravinsky subsided.
Another encounter, this time with Leonard Bernstein, occurred when Nixon was performing Cantaloube's "Songs of the Auvergne" in one of Bernstein's famous Young People's Concerts. The cue-card system that held Nixon's painstaking English translation of the songs was malfunctioning, so Bernstein said he would recite all the translations for the audience.
"Like hell you will," Nixon responded, stepping out of her character, "sweet little Marni Nixon," as she describes herself in the book.
Bernstein was startled, but when Nixon subsequently did her own translations without the cue cards, he was impressed enough to shake her hands and declare, "Friend."
Now, Nixon laughs: "He was recognizing a fellow chutzpah artist!" Bernstein admired her so much that when his "West Side Story" was recorded with her anonymous voice on the soundtrack, and the producers denied her any royalties for an album that went on to sell more than 3 million copies, the composer donated a quarter of a percent of his own royalty to her.
"I might be invisible, but the checks were solid as a rock," Nixon observes in her book.
Now happily married to retired musician Al Block for the past 25 years, Nixon is content with her surroundings in newly remodeled apartments near New York's Lincoln Center. She ascribes her vocal longevity to plenty of rest, but also plenty of work in varied repertoire to keep flexible.
Asked how her voice has changed over time, Nixon says, "My voice has always been bright, but when you get older, there's a settling in the middle register that gives a richer quality. I choose music carefully, and I don't sing things that won't work.
"I still have nice high notes," she continues, "but I would never do the Queen of the Night [a famously high-flying role in Mozart's 'The Magic Flute']. I turned down that role at the New York City Opera" earlier in her career. "Maybe it was a mistake, but I didn't want to be known just for vocal pyrotechnics."
Nixon says she still misses Seattle: "The air, the people, the changing skies and the mountains so close. Seattle really left a mark on me."
Nixon left her mark on Seattle, too. Thousands of Northwest kids remember her quadruple-Emmy-winning performances in the Seattle children's TV show "Boomerang," which debuted in 1975 and ran for 169 weekly episodes, plus specials (with reruns for 25 subsequent years). Longtime Seattle Opera fans remember Nixon's roles in "La Traviata," "La Perichole" and several other productions, and many students (including international opera star Cyndia Sieden) profited from her instruction.
Any advice for singers?
"Treat yourself like an athlete. Your instrument is in your body, but you activate it with your mind. Keep coaching, keep flexible, keep in good physical shape.
"As you make all of life's small choices, keep focused on your goals. Think about the long run — because that's life. We're all in it for the long run."
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