Marni Nixon inspires students during once-in-a-lifetime weekend at Carleton

Singing legend Marni Nixon (right) works with Carleton student Sherin Bamji and with Joanne Moorehouse on piano.Photo: James Park

When you’re an aspiring singer, it doesn’t get much better than having the opportunity to work with legend Marni Nixon.

Most only dream about it — but for a group of students who gathered at Carleton over the Easter weekend — the dream became reality.

“It was an incredible experience,” says Vicky Brazeau, a second-year music student.

“I was able to participate in the master class … and have a private lesson with Marni Nixon. It was incredible to be directed by someone like that, someone who has so much experience and who has had such an incredible career.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Brazeau says she “loved it all” but found that her private lesson with Nixon was extremely helpful.

“She was able to pinpoint things to work on right away. I got so much out of it because it was one-on-one. These are things that will help me for years to come,” says Brazeau, who is focussing on the area of theatrical voice.

“Everyone was extremely excited. Everyone was just glad to have her there and the fact that we got to work with her was just amazing.”

It was all made possible by Music Prof. James Wright, who says he came up with the idea to invite Nixon to Carleton about a year ago when he was reading her biography, I Could Have Sung All Night. Wright says he tracked down her phone number in New York and gave her a call.

Marni Nixon - Photo: James Park

When she accepted his invitation, he got the support of Dean John Osborne and it all came together.

“She’s a unique figure in North American music theatre and the film musicals. She’s also a widely known and established classical voice and runs a studio in New York City,” says Wright.

“For the students to have contact with her and to get a few tips from her on their own work is great. Some of our students are obsessed with her.”

Nixon was in her late teens and early 20s when she did some of her most famous movie dubbing.

She was the singing voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn in the motion pictures (and soundtracks) of The King and I, An Affair to Remember, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

But Nixon’s career also includes a variety of other endeavours, including work as an important teacher of voice in her New York City studio and as a leading interpreter of 20th century vocal works by Boulez, Villa-Lobos, Ives, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Copland and others.

Nixon said she hoped she provided the students with valuable tips to help them improve.

“I treat it always as an improv. We see what we have and we see how we can help them to get better. Each student has a different process,” she said in an interview from New York.

She said when she was dubbing the voices of famous movie stars like Audrey Hepburn back 60 years ago, her work was kept strictly under wraps.

“It was not supposed to be known. It was thought that it would be a terrible thing for the movie if anybody knew it was dubbed. That was before the days of the reality thing. I had to go along with it or not do it. It was required of me to be secretive. ”

Although she did lots of work dubbing, Nixon said she never got any official credit for her work.

“It was hard to take at first but obviously it kind of backfired, I think, because it became a big secret that was then revealed. It was a little scary because I was warned by the studios who said they would make sure that I would never work again if it became known.”

But by the ’60s and ’70s, dubbing became an accepted part of the movie business.

The key was to sound like the actress in the movie. There were times that she was much younger than the voice she was dubbing.

“We just improvised. I think it’s because of the fact that it wasn’t on the stage and we had microphones and they could put certain settings on the microphone to make your voice sound deeper than it was. I think that was very helpful. You just stretch your imagination,” recalls Nixon.

Although she is 80 years old, Nixon says she still teaches and is planning to record a new album in the near future.

“The main principle that I use, is ‘keep working.’ Whatever you are offered, take it and then learn from that and maybe it leads to the next thing. Then people find out you’re talented at it and they offer you jobs,” says Nixon of the philosophy that guided her career over decades.

“I never thought of limiting myself to recording. I was doing jingles and commercials while I was having an operatic career while I was in my teens. I made my debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Oratorio in Mozart requiem when I was 17 years old.

“It’s only later on that you realize how incredible it was. I wasn’t aware of myself being young. It was the thing that I did.”

And in case you were wondering, yes, she still gets nervous.

“I get nervous. It’s adrenalin. Any kind job that you do that is exposing your soul … it’s frightening. Even master class is frightening.”

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