Vocal myths and curses

A note from our holliday place: Hell must be like that — trying to connect to the world with a crappy MTN F@stLink Data Card – fast se voot! You must be joking. This (lack of noticeable) speed brought me back to the bad old days of slooooow Internet.. I’m battling. Hey — even Shakespeare would struggle to think creatively. He would probably find a suitable curse (‘a proxy on both your hubs’! maybe 😉

Thinking of curses got me to think about Cassandra and Marni Nixon, two women who carried a curse all their lives. Both curses had to do with their voice — both received little to no sympathy. Cassandra and Marni Nixon are remarkable, yet cursed, women.

Cassandra was the daughter of Hecuba and King Priam of Troy (Homer’s Iliad lists them the last king and queen of Troy when it was destroyed by the Greeks.) Beautiful Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, who wanted her as a lover. When she refused his advances, he was furious. Unable to reclaim his divine gift, he changed it slightly — yet significantly: Cassandra, he said, will tell the truth all her life but will never be believed.

Later generations encountered Cassandra the mad, raving woman – a lunatic without reason, an unfair treatment to the beautiful Trojan princess. She never married –men found her ‘madness’ disconcerting. Yet, the Greek hero Agamemnon, who conquered troy and destroyed her family, chose Cassandra as his mistress and trophy and took her home where both victorious soldier and his mistress were murdered by Agamemnon’s vengeful wife, Clytemnestra. Needless to sat, Cassandra warned Agamemnon of his pending doom – only to be ignored, once again.

Thousands of years later, Marni Nixon’s blessing was her wonderful voice. Nixon was- and is still – the most present, yet totally absent, aspect of some of Hollywood’s greatest musical successes. Hers is the voice behind Deborah Kerr as the lead Anna Leonowens in the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story (1961) and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964). Nicknamed “The Ghostess with the Mostess”, Nixon went on in later life to star on Broadway and other theatre centres. Most movie goers had no inkling that the voice did not belong to the females star who played the part.

In the sense that her voice was used in total suspension of her visual self, it appears that Nixon is an anomaly a-la-Cassandra. There is no doubt that her voice carries the very essence of the female leads. I simply cannot imagine Natalie Wood without ‘I feel pretty’ in ‘West Side Story’, Deborah Kerr without ‘Getting to Know You’ in ‘The King and I’ or Audrey Hepburn without ‘I Could Have danced All Night’ in ‘My Fair Lady.’ Yet, Nixon was able to shift the tones and texture of her own voice to fit in seamlessly within the demands of the characters – Maria, Anna and Eliza are very different from each other in age, culture and physicality – yet we have no problem believing the singing voice behind the face.

Cassandra, the tragic hero, had no opportunity to make use of Apollo’s magical gift, while Marni Nixon’s voice will be available for years to come through the magic of digitised recording – yet both women gave parts of themselves for no immediate personal benefits- Cassandra classic myth, Marni Nixon the modern Hollywood myth.