It took nerve, but boosters of the Madison Project, among them actor Dustin Hoffman, did it: sang "Happy Birthday to You" to world-class diva Marilyn Horne.
The opera star who some say is the greatest mezzo-soprano in history won't turn 70 until Jan. 16, but she agreed to an early celebration to help raise funds for the project, a 500-seat performing arts venue to be built at Madison Campus, a satellite location of Santa Monica College.
"We definitely need something like this in the greater city," Horne said as she mingled with fans during the Nov. 13 luncheon at Melisse in Santa Monica. "I'm thrilled that it looks like maybe my foundation will be a big part of it -- this is exactly the size of hall we need to present young singers in recital."
She no longer performs the heavy stuff, she confessed, singing only "light music" in concert with pals such as Barbara Cook. "Other than that, I'm very much taken up with teaching," she said. (She directs the voice program at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara.) Will Horne perform at the new venue? "We'll see."
The contemporary project designed by architect Renzo Zecchetto, due to break ground next fall, will offer an alternative for Westsiders who don't want to hassle the traffic on freeways leading to downtown. "I go to the L.A. Phil and the opera, and it's wonderful, but with the traffic what it is, it will also be wonderful to have something within reach," said Santa Monica College President Piedad F. Robertson.
During lunch -- cold tomato soup with tomato sherbet and a choice of beef filet or halibut -- Hoffman explained his involvement with the project. "I was a bad student who barely got out of high school and couldn't get into a university. So I went to Santa Monica College -- that was the place that was supposed to give you the grades to get into the university," he told the crowd. He did poorly there as well, and a friend suggested he take acting. "He said I'd get three credits and nobody flunks acting, it's like gym," he joked.
After Robertson learned that Hoffman had attended the school, she invited him to chair the campaign to raise the $7.5 million needed to complete the $15-million project. It has been an exciting effort, he said. "There's no substitution for live theater."
Once the venue is built, the challenge for performers of classical music will be "getting a behind in every seat -- and I'm cleaning that up for you," Horne quipped. "It's really difficult to get audiences for classical music today. It's a combination of the economy and 9/11, and also, people have so much to do now, so many other activities. Some just want to sit at home" in front of their TVs and computers. But Horne would say to them, "There's nothing like getting out and experiencing the real thing."