MARILYN TYLER (1926-2017)

a tribute to a dear friend, a marvellous singer who had a tremendous European career in both the classic repertoire and contemporary music, and a great role model and teacher to many


I was allowed to sit in on a voice lesson that Marilyn gave, a rare privilege, indeed. She was coaching ‘Connais-tu, le pays’ from ‘Mignon’, and resorted to demonstrating a particular point herself, and suddenly the room was filled with a phrase of raw velvet plush, totally transfixing—earthy and ethereal at the same time.


This was in 1989, when Marilyn produced and directed my opera ‘The Skin Drum’ here in Popejoy Hall, and I stayed with her and George for six weeks. She was not easily drawn out about her early career, though one could glean things through carelessly dropped remarks; and she was downright mysterious about her episodes in Iran and Pakistan. George found me an old racing bike in the garage and I would cycle to and from rehearsals, freeing up Marilyn who had teaching commitments, and sparing George, who was happiest puttering here and there. I would have some spare time and, if I were left alone in the house—Marilyn had given me the run of her music room—I would rummage through old recordings, coming across some of hers,  and immersing myself in them. When I mentioned my discovery, she feigned indifference, but I could tell that she was rather pleased I had listened; and then would open up more and more with tales of working with this and that luminary in so many places. At this very time, the Berlin wall fell, and we were all glued to the television, prompting Marilyn to share a slew of further reminiscences of her extensive career in Europe, touched by her lovely brand of graceful informality which could be at odds with her grandeur. I remember the Sunday brunches where Mitch and Lynn, and the tiny Anna and Philip, would all be entertained by Marilyn at the piano, the playfulness of these times in sharp contrast to her iron will when it came not only to organizing the one off production of my new opera, but dealing with bureaucracy at UNM, as well.


These six weeks cemented a long friendship that continued when she and George would regularlydecamp to London to stay on Earl’s houseboat in Chelsea, which was literally around the corner from where Peter, my husband, and I were living. They particularly liked Peter, as they had a New York connection, whether Brooklyn or the Bronx, and I would occasionally wish I had supertitles for all the allusions I missed in their conversation which so oddly combined provincialism and the sweep of the world. Marilyn and George would phone ahead and alert me to their arrival time and I would often be there to greet them and help with the daunting pile of luggage that she would bring, including a refrigerated metal case stuffed with Hebrew National hot dogs for her brother. On one occasion they beat me to it, and wrestled the luggage themselves along the maze of gangplanks. I arrived on the boat to find Marilyn sitting with her feet up, a cold compress on her forehead, saying ‘It’s terrible, just terrible. We got all the way here, and what do you think happened?’ I imagined they had been mugged or all the luggage stolen. ‘George’ - and here she paused for dramatic effect - ‘dropped the plover’s eggs.’ I tried to look concerned, I really did, but giggles overcame me—and Marilyn started giggling madly too. She could be every inch a prima donna, but also very funny indeed, having no problem laughing at the ridiculousness of her airs and graces—on her terms, of course.


One trip coincided with a premiere of mine, sung by the doyenne of new music in England, Jane Manning. Marilyn and she met at a party in our house—and Jane was in awe, having done a masterclass as a student, with Marilyn, who, in her glory days, had appeared at the Royal Academy of Music singing Messiaen and Hindemith. It was a riotous and noisy party, and in one corner of the living room, sitting on adjacent chairs like two thrones, were Marilyn and Jane—one a picture of elegance and style, and the other in grungy 1970’s hippy garb (all the more incongruous for the early ’90’s); and over the din of the crowd could be heard Marilyn’s impeccable enunciation declaring ‘colora-toooo-ra’ and ‘Fach’—the latter, be assured, is the German word for vocal range, weight and colour!


Many years later (2009?) when we were living in Beijing, Marilyn announced she would be taking a trip to China. Alas, on day 2 she fell (no-one should wear designer stilts in a Beijing market!) and broke a hip. When we visited her in hospital, it was the first time she met our little girls; though prone, she sparkled and put on a real show, giving none of the game away. She was flown to Hong Kong, where, by chance, Peter was on a business trip. When he visited her in the hospital, he marveled at her contentment - very happy with the ministrations of an opera-loving doctor in her thrall.


The last time we saw her was in 2013 on a family trip from Denver to Albuquerque. She invited us to—as she put it—an informal picnic at home, first proudly and modestly showing us a new jewel of a personal shrine to her past career secreted in the garage. As for the informal picnic, it was all hands on deck. I have never seen so many platters and silverware! The girls were busy fetching and carrying and baffled, indeed, by Marilyn’s imperious demand that ‘We need chargers’; after all, they are of that generation automatically looking for something to plug in. Not so, I said, suggesting rather that they think of something you could put John the Baptist’s head on; and then, from the depths of a cupboard, Marilyn finally retrieved imposing golden platters that ended up beneath several other plates that held cold cuts and cheese. Marilyn also performed at restaurants—and even diners—where she hypnotized the girls by sending her food back. It was one of her party pieces. That we never seemed to all eat together because of her stunts worried her none in the least. When we asked her why she regularly made a scene, she offhandedly replied, ‘Oh I always send something back. It keeps them on their toes!’


We would telephone regularly, with Marilyn generously serving up hare-brained suggestions for new opera projects for me and recounting her adventures with irrepressible giggles at the ridiculousness of just about everything. Oh, those giggles, right along with the strains of ‘Mignon’—such is the music of Marilyn which will remain in my mind’s ear for all time.


For more about Marilyn Tyler - please see HERE

© Julian Grant 2018