NEW YORK She has been called the finest mezzo-soprano of modern times. A Kennedy Center honoree and recipient of the National Medal of Arts, she sang at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. And she was recently named the Metropolitan Opera's first official legend.
Now declared free of pancreatic cancer two years after diagnosis, Marilyn Horne adds another milestone to her long list of accolades: "Prima donna and survivor."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Horne who has never discussed her experimental cancer treatment publicly said she wanted to talk about it to help others facing the same illness.
"I looked at the doctor and I said, 'Well, that's a death sentence, isn't it?"' Horne says of the news that she had pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed her friend and fellow opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
The tenor died last summer, 18 months after diagnosis, about the average survival time for the fourth deadliest form of cancer, which kills more than 30,000 Americans a year.
Horne, who turns 74 on Wednesday, remains vibrant and healthy-looking. She travels between homes in New York and California, teaching at Carnegie Hall and various colleges and running a summer school and festival in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The week before her birthday, Horne was at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, getting another dose of a new cancer vaccine that has so far been administered to only about 200 people.
Horne began receiving the injections of lab-grown pancreatic cancer cells in early 2007, after surgery to remove the tumor. The vaccine has been genetically modified with an immune-boosting gene to tackle any lingering malignant cells.
She was injected every two months for a half year and is now scheduled to get additional doses twice a year.
"Essentially, the vaccine teaches the immune system to recognize those pancreas cancer cells as being foreign and attack them specifically," says Dr. Daniel Laheru, a Johns Hopkins oncologist leading the study. "Her most important treatment was the surgery, but we hope the vaccine is additional insurance against recurrence."
Horne still has much to live for. Through the Marilyn Horne Foundation, she coaches young American singers on the fine points of performance. A four-day series of master classes culminating with public recitals begins Jan. 22 at Carnegie Hall.
"If you don't have great teachers, you're not going to have great singers," she says.
Known for her powerful voice, lyrical tone and stunning vocal pyrotechnics, Horne has been honing her art since she started lessons
at age 5 in her hometown of Bradford, Pa.
By 1954, then just 20, she was the voice of Dorothy Dandridge in the movie "Carmen Jones," while making her operatic debut in Los Angeles. She also sang in the chorus for the movie "The King and I."
In 1964 came Horne's debut at London's Covent Garden, followed by more than three decades of performances in works by Handel and Rossini she resurrected from near-oblivion. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970 in Bellini's "Norma."
Between appearances as an opera star, her comic bent landed her far from opera, dancing and harmonizing with the likes of Carol Burnett and the Muppets on television.
That long and prolific career was threatened in December 2005 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Sitting at her kitchen table recently in an apartment overlooking Central Park, she related details of her illness, beginning with the first symptoms.
"It was like a pressure, a little pain," she said, pointing to her abdomen." I thought it was indigestion."
A blood test and a biopsy revealed the devastating disease, often called a silent killer for its lack of symptoms until it's too late.
Horne, whose parents both died of cancer, underwent radiation and chemotherapy at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for nine months, experiencing no major side effects.
She had to wait to learn whether her tumor had shrunk enough to be removed, without destroying nearby blood vessels; only about 15 percent of pancreatic cancer patients can ever be operated on.
"I was in a state of weirdness, I couldn't focus on the reality of the illness. I was quiet and tired," she said. "But I never canceled anything. I'm used to working under duress!"
By September 2006, the tumor was small enough for her to be cleared for surgery and enrolled in the Hopkins study.
This past December, Horne was honored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild as the first in a series of Met Legends who have left an indelible stamp on their art.
In her kitchen, she summed up her approach to her life after a cancer diagnosis.
"I don't think it's 'I want to live' it's 'I'm going to live!"'