Classical 91.5

Personal Reflections on an American Icon: Jessye Norman

Oct 4, 2019

Credit play.primephonic.com

It was the early 1980's and I had just begun my work at WXXI as the radio secretary (WXXI had only one radio station at the time).  Our news team had scheduled an interview with the legendary opera soprano Jessye Norman while she was in town. She came through the door near my desk in a full length fur coat, head held majestically and floated past my desk in a way that left a lasting impression on this 20-something voice major, just a few years out of college. The scene is as vivid in my mind today, as the day it happened.

Many years later I had the opportunity to see Ms. Norman perform in recital on the stage of the Eastman Theater.  Ms. Norman always made a grand entrance, and she is the only performer that I have ever experienced that could single-handedly command the entire stage with her presence.

Credit www.amazon.com/Stand-Straight-Sing-Jessye-Norman/dp/0544003403

In June 2014, the year her memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing! was published, Ms. Norman was in Rochester again for an event for Action for A Better Community – the organization headed by her brother James Norman. The concert ended with the expected standing ovation and multiple curtain calls.  After a few moments Ms. Norman returned to the stage without her accompanist. Eastman theater fell silent as Ms. Norma sat at the piano an accompanied herself in a simple, yet stunning performance of Amazing Grace. I will never forget that moment.  

I purchased her memoir at that time and was honored to have Ms. Norman sign it for me. I don’t have a lot of time to read, so it was just this year (2019) that I finally got around to reading it – finishing it just two months before her passing on September 30.  Now I cherish this memoir and the opportunity to meet her more than ever.

At this point, I want to share a tribute provided to station by The Metropolitan Opera and hosted by Met Opera Radio host Mary Jo Heath.  In this tribute we hear Jessye in a 2014 Ford Foundation interview, talking about how she first came to discover the Texaco Metropolitan Opera when she was just a child of nine years old.

In her memoir, Jessye describes spending hours cleaning her room while listening to the Metropolitan Opera on her “magic box, my radio” like this.  “Lucky for me, my mother entertained this preference of mine, in part because she simply wanted the work done, and perhaps also because, deep down, she adored having a daughter who was developing a love for beautiful music.” (Norman, 2014, p. 7-8)

Whether it was in the church, spirituals, opera or jazz, music and spirituality were central to forming this young woman who grew up in the south during the time of the civil rights movement. She joined a local chapter of the NAACP as a teenager and participated in marches and demonstrations fighting for equal treatment.

While in her final years at the University of Michigan School of Music, Jessye participated in a concert by the opera department that highlighted “student accomplishment.” (Norman, 2014) Although she did not know it before she performed, that night turned out to be the night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That event, and those of that time, reinforced Jessye’s commitment to activism. 

In her book she states, “…any time that I have a chance to speak on the subject, I do, because it is vitally important that those who did not live through that period of our nation’s history learn about it and understand it. See it through the eyes of those who did live through it. Know that there is still work to be done. As a people, we have stood tall in faith, in determination, and in knowing that the light that guided our forefathers and foremothers is the same light that must guide this world to tolerance, to mutual acceptance, and, indeed, to the fellowship of humankind.” (Norman, 2014, p. 111)  Such words speak the truth today as much as ever.

In this report by WXXI-AM 1370’s News Director Randy Gorbman, Jessye’s brother James talks about the kind of community commitment and activism that was so important in her life.

Jessye with some of the many students at the school
Credit www.jessyenormanschool.org

Jessye tells how she remained inspired by her parents and the adults in the community where she grew up, and their willingness to support children who are interested in the arts.  “When I was a youngster, arts education was simply part of public school education. In recent years, though, we have allowed this to fall out of the public education curriculum, which is unfair to children and reflects a lack of understanding of the value of the art in the growth of our young people.  Every study of the rewards of arts education shows that regardless of the socioeconomic standing of the family, a child with arts education as a part of their studies performs better in all other subjects.” (Norman, 2014, p. 118) It was this support that inspired her to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia where she could make an impact on hundreds of children each year.

Jessye Norman used the talent she was given and saw it as her charge to cultivate that gift and use it to help people develop a love of music – whether it was jazz or opera, or classical music of any genre.  “I spend a certain amount of time in helping to make adults who are coming to classical music a bit later in life comfortable and happy.  Some who are new to the genre express concern that they will not be able to appreciate songs or opera arias sung in a foreigh language or, perhaps more typically, that they need special training in order to understand classical music in general, or they worry about something as unimportant as applauding at the wrong moment. To which I say: Fear no music! Fear no art!” (Norman, 2014, p. 221)

In the following Metropolitan Opera tribute, hosted by John Bishoff, we hear about Jessye’s history at the Metropolitan Opera, some of her iconic roles and favorite repertoire.

Jessye Norman as Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens
Credit www.metopera.org

Thankfully, in this day and age of technology, we are fortunate to have recordings, downloads and access to Ms. Norman’s voice at the push of a button or the spoken command. Her words in song will be heard and can live on in our hearts and souls.

In the final postlude to her memoir, Ms. Norman shares some of her “Sermons;” life lessons that she has heard and lived by her whole life.  I share some of those final words. “Those of us who live and breathe our days through the arts are placed uniquely to help treat the malaise of our world.  The self-awareness that comes from participation in the arts at any level opens the self to one’s own humanity in its fullness.  This knowledge of ourselves can lead to wisdom and wisdom to the understanding of others. This understanding, this acknowledgement that every human being has worth, must surely lead to tolerance.” (Norman, 2014, p. 284-285)