Mezzo-soprano, cancer survivor and general role model celebrates in style with gala tribute in New York.

Reneé Fleming, Piotr Beczała and veteran Broadway actor Barbara Cook were among the singing stars paying tribute to legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne on the occasion of her 80th birthday last week.

Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade hosted the glittering evening at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, documenting Horne’s career from her California upbringing, through her sudden fame as the voice of Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones in 1954, and so on to become one of the best loved singers of the 20th century. Her career included, for many years, an acclaimed vocal partnership with Dame Joan Sutherland as the two singers played crucial roles in the bel canto revival.

Horne, who during her speech said that maybe she would skip an 85th-birthday bash, still has an active schedule with The Marilyn Horne Foundation which was started 20 years ago to support young singers, some of whom were present to pay their respects. She also runs the voice program at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West.

Responding to the thunderous ovation, Horne referenced her fight ten years ago against pancreatic cancer. “When you look at that number looming before you,” she said, “you wonder, ‘How did I get here?’ In my case, I almost didn’t.” In fact it took an extensive program of surgery, an experimental cancer vaccine and a great deal of determination for Horne to fight and ultimately conquer the disease.

Among the evening’s vocal highlights were Reneé Fleming who sang Träume from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder before joining Polish tenor Piotr Beczała in Lippen schweigen from The Merry Widow – a duet that saw the pair throw in some spontaneous twirls. Young American baritone Lester Lynch sang Copland’s Simple Gifts and Zion’s Walls as well as an aria from Un Ballo in Maschera. Other artists included countertenor David Daniels singing Gluck as well as contributions from mezzo-soprano Jaime Barton and coloratura soprano Brenda Rae. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard had the nerve-racking task of singing one of Horne’s own party pieces – the final aria from Rossini’s La Cenerentola.

To end the program, irrepressible Broadway baby Barbara Cook, now 86 and, as she quipped, already planning her 90th-birthday concert, sang a poignant rendition of Here’s to Life.