A vocal stunt double of sorts

Marni Nixon’s career launched as an invisible star, singing for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. She has graced the stages of opera houses and concert halls worldwide and even won four Emmy Awards for Best Actress hosting Boomerang, a children’s show on local Seattle television. Nixon may be one of the most famous voices in Hollywood history. Xpress caught up with her via e-mail before her Sunday show, a benefit for Asheville Lyric Opera.

Xpress: What’s your secret to keeping flexible enough vocally and physically to continue to tour and perform live?
Nixon: I have become a very good teacher for all voices and styles, because I've tried to identify and imitate lots of singers. Because I have an analytical bent I then try to imagine singing like that person and go from there. I use that for myself then.

I keep on performing because I'm probably stupid enough to think that if I can still do it … why not? Then I learn new things about how, what and when to present the "right" things for my voice, taking all the particulars of the moment. The actual touring, physically, is a hard thing because of varying things like humidity levels, hard and soft beds, availability of protein-filled meals at the right times, time-zone changes, fresh air as opposed to A/C, etc.

Some singers fall into the trap of being labeled as either Opera or Musical Theatre. Is there a difference in how you prepare the music that allows you to cross gracefully between the two worlds?
This has been a very strong focus in my career and life, to not be "labeled" and yet be top in each particular field of expertise, not just a "jack of all trades," as they say; to know the differences in the requirements of different types of music and how to realistically try to fulfill them. I just had the experience as a child actress in the movies and on stage, and then in very classical, esoteric music, having done premieres with, of and by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Boulez, etc. I think my voice was light and flexible so I could do certain things that many more dramatic larger voices could not have done.

In your career you’ve had the chance to work with great composers. Do you have a favorite artist with whom you’ve worked?
Many current colleagues become my favorites after a while, or during the time of contact. Carl Ebert from the Städtische Oper in East Berlin was my mentor operatically for many years. I performed with Ebert directing in many big operatic roles and in Mozart (my favorite) Operas with him at USC and on West Coast tours. The big experiences become bigger in retrospect, and the importance of them sometimes only settles in your very being after you've not been in contact any more. One is too busy "doing" the experience at the time to reflect on how they become important to your growth process later on. Conductors such as Bernstein, acting colleagues Tommy Tune, Liberace and Victor Borge because of their very beings and disciplines and assumptions — I had to skip along with them to survive with them onstage. I loved those times and learned from so much.

Who are some of the singers you have learned from or inspire you the most?
I used to love Jeannette MacDonald as a kid, Deanna Durbin in the films, then Lily Pons, and then went from there to bigger operatic voices like Birgit Nilsson, and Puccini singers like Renata Tebaldi, the greats.

What are some of the highlights of your repertoire that you plan to share with the audience for your Asheville performance August 29?
I have asked Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway fame to write me some special things. I love some standards, Kern, Gershwin, Sondheim, etc. and a special song by my friend Milton Schafer (Broadway’s Drat! the Cat!, and special songs for Danny Kaye). I will sing "Thank You for Being a Friend,” (theme song of the Golden Girls) which is one of my very own son’s songs (Andrew Gold), and some other favorite material. The hard thing in a show like this is that one has to pare down to fit the time element.

Though Time once dubbed you “the ghostess with the mostest,” you have spent a fair amount of time on the stage. What do you find special about the live experience and hope the audience will take home with them afterwards?
Performing is communicating and sending your vibes to a receptive ear. There is no living without communicating. The more I perform, the more I know that it may be one of the highest forms of education there is. It completes me to try to find ways from my very own self to get to everyone's souls and spirits in some way. Maybe there's nothing more worthwhile that that.

— Wendi Loomis can be reached at wendi@jazzandpoetry.com.

who: Marni Nixon
what: “The Voice of Hollywood” cabaret show and benefit for the Asheville Lyric Opera
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Sunday, Aug. 29 (3 p.m. $35/$40/$50. Purchase tickets at 257-4530. www.ashevillelyric.org or 236-0670)

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