Marilyn Horne, world-renowned opera singer and recitalist, celebrated her 79th birthday on Wednesday. To acknowledge her work, not only as one of the finest singers in the world but as a mentor for young artists, I give you one of my favorite performances of hers:
Sesame Street has always been a powerful advocate for utilizing music in teaching. “C is for Cookie,” a number that really drives its message home, maintains its cultural relevance today despite being first performed by Cookie Monster more than 40 years ago. Ms. Horne’s version appeared about 20 years after the original, and is an excellent re-imagining of a classic (with great attention to detail—note the cookies sewn into her Aida regalia and covering the pyramids).
Horne’s performance shows kids that even a musician of the highest caliber can 1) be silly and 2) also like cookies—that is, it portrays her as a person with something in common with a young, broad audience. This is something that members of the classical music community often have a difficult time accomplishing; Horne achieves it here in less than three minutes.
Fortunately, many professional classical musicians have embraced this strategy. Representatives of the opera world (which is not known for being particularly self-aware) have had a particularly strong presence on Sesame Street, with past episodes featuring Plácido Domingo (singing with his counterpart, Placido Flamingo), Samuel Ramey (extolling the virtues of the letter “L”), Denyce Graves (explaining operatic excess to Elmo), and Renée Fleming (counting to five, “Caro nome” style).
Sesame Street produced these segments not only to expose children to distinguished music-making, but to teach them about matters like counting, spelling, working together, and respecting one another. This final clip features Itzhak Perlman, one of the world’s great violin soloists, who was left permanently disabled after having polio as a child. To demonstrate ability and disability more gracefully than this would be, I think, impossible:
American children’s music, as described in the new article on Grove Music Online [subscription required], has typically been produced through a tug of war between entertainment and educational objectives. The songs on Sesame Street succeed in both, while also showing kids something about classical music itself: it’s not just for grownups. It’s a part of life that belongs to everyone. After all, who doesn’t appreciate that the moon sometimes looks like a “C”? (Though, of course, you can’t eat that, so…)