Jessye Norman | Academy of Achievement
how did you first discover your voice and realize you could become a singer?
jessye norman: my parents told me i started singing at the same time i started talking. so I have absolutely no recollection of not having sung, and it was, and still is, thank goodness! — a very natural thing for me, because I always have. I was in the children’s choir at church, and the school choir in first grade, and everything else. and it wasn’t that he had such an interesting voice, it was just a very strong voice, so for a five or six year old, he could always sing by himself and be heard, you see, so that was the interesting part of that time. I hope things have changed over time.
When did you sing in public for the first time?
jessye norman: the first time i can remember singing in public i was in second grade. I’m sure I sang in church before that, but I don’t really have any recollection of that. but I remember being in the second grade and the school (it was a huge school in the segregated south, at least 1200 kids in the school from first grade to eighth grade at that time) and every Friday the school would meet in the auditorium, when the The director told them if they had been good children or bad children and all the things they had to do to be really good children. and then it was the responsibility of a class, outside of the second grade or the third grade or the fourth grade, to present some kind of program every Friday. and now it was time for the second graders to do this, and my teacher at the time said, “well, then, you should sing, norman.” they always called me by my last name because there were too many of us to remember our names. and then she said, “you can sing, norman, because you sing so loud that we won’t have to put the director’s microphone down when you’re singing on stage.” I took it as a compliment. I absolutely took that as a compliment.
How old were you?
jessye norman: i was seven years old. second grade.
Is there a book that inspired you as a child?
jessye norman: i think when i was about five years old, i read a book that is still one of my favorites, and i give it to all the little kids in my family, and it’s ferdinand the bull. i love ferdinand the bull because ferdinand was not like the rest of the animals and therefore he had to think highly of himself to get ahead in life. I still think about that book, and every time I mention it someone sends me another copy of Ferdinand the Bull. I give them away you can only keep so many copies of the same children’s book, but that was a book that inspired me when I was very young. I know it’s probably not the answer one expects to say: “oh no, that was the first time I read much ado about nothing by shakespeare”, or something like that. No, it was Fernando the bull.
what was the role of music in your house when you were a child?
jessye norman: there was music all the time. the boys in my family played instruments in the school bands, because my father was the president of the pta and my mother was the secretary of the pta. parents in those days would not have allowed the kinds of things that are happening with the curriculum of schools these days, across the country and around the world, that the arts are just slipping out of the curriculum. they would not have allowed it. They knew how much being a member of the choir, or a member of the movement group, or a member of the poetry society, or a member of the band, they realized how much this influenced everything else in our lives, and that it was a part of the education that really is too important to be left out. so music was in my house all the time. My mother played the piano, and one of the things I talk about all the time is at Christmas, we do a version, if you can imagine, of the “hallelujah chorus” of the messiah. now with my mom playing the piano and me singing all the chorus parts and one of my brothers playing the tuba, someone else playing the trumpet and someone else playing the trombone, we would just look at the music and pick a line to play it. and there we were, doing something that really requires a choir and an orchestra, not five people in the hall at the upright piano. I always say that if we hadn’t known where handel was buried at that time, (we would have known) from the Norman rendition of “hallelujah chorus”, because I was certainly turning in his grave!
Was this interest in music exclusive to your family?
jessye norman: there were a lot of kid musicians around. I want to say that many of us study piano. I studied piano since I was very young, and we were all sent to play the piano whether we wanted to or not. I mean, the kids in my family, my three brothers, had to study piano together with me and my sister, and the cousins and everyone in school would go study piano lessons and participate in various kinds of musical things in churches and schools. . it was a very normal thing to have music in the house, to arrive on a Sunday afternoon, which was one of the best things about growing up, to arrive from church on a Sunday afternoon, and there was leonard bernstein doing the young people’s concerts in television. It was one of the few things we were allowed to watch on TV, and it was on a Sunday afternoon, and it was amazing. it was almost as good as going to a concert, because he was speaking directly into the camera. he told you everything you needed to know about the music and then the music was played. It was amazing, really wonderful.
you were lucky to have parents who understood the power of music and the arts.
jessye norman: yeah, they got that.
Many Americans don’t listen to opera music when they’re growing up. you started listening to opera at a young age. how did that happen?
jessye norman: they gave me my own radio. I know most kids hearing this right now would laugh, but it was the best thing in the world. I was given my own radio in my own bedroom, which meant I could listen to whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to invite my brothers. I could close the door, and if I wanted to listen to gunsmoke or elvis presley or metropolitan opera on Saturdays, I could. and I listened to the Metropolitan Opera because they had the most wonderful announcer. his name was milton cross, and milton cross would tell you everything you needed to know about opera. of course i didn’t understand italian or french or german or any of those things, but it wasn’t necessary, because milton cross told you everything you needed to know. she told you what she was wearing joan sutherland, that she was very tall, that she had a very nice blonde wig and that her costume for lucia di lammermoor was this beautiful blue-green color. so I could see all this in my mind, and as long as the opera lasted on a Saturday afternoon, that was the time it took me to clean my room, which was my job on Saturday. so if it was a long opera, it dragged on a bit, my cleanup.
Did you share your enthusiasm for opera with your friends? were you interested?
jessye norman: i was lucky to have a teacher, several teachers already in fourth grade, a lady. printup, and then in the fifth grade a mrs. hughes, in sixth grade, by the time i’m 11, a mrs. williams, and they knew that I was interested in this and they also knew that my classmates were not, so on a Monday, if I had heard the opera that Saturday, my various teachers would ask me, “now would you like to tell us what was the What did you hear on the radio on Saturday? I was happy the children were bored to tears. you can imagine it, you know, sort of 10 year olds sitting there listening to a girl talk about leontyne price singing aïda. I mean really, what is aïda anyway? and he would tell the story, because he would take notes when milton cross told us what was happening, so that he would be prepared. so I had my little trick every Monday morning, you know, during the course of the year when the opera was on, to get called to talk about the opera. so i arrived with my notes and bored the class to tears for these 15 minutes. one of the operas: a wonderful septet from a donizetti opera, the one i mentioned earlier, lucia di lammermoor, has such a beautiful, beautiful ensemble, and i memorized the melody because it was so pretty to my ears, and i had remembered it when it came Monday, and I got to talk about it with the class, and that was the only time I think the guys in the class really heard what I was saying.
can you hum it? what is it?
jessye norman: (humming). I mean the most beautiful melody imaginable.
What experience or event in your life inspired you the most?
jessye norman: oh my god. that would be very difficult to say. I would have to choose to be inspired by just listening to my grandmother sing all day long. she had a song for every moment of the day. in the morning there was a kind of fast singing, a spiritual that would be quite fast. and then later in the day, when she was maybe more contemplative, or maybe just exhausted from the day… I remember that appealed to me. she seemed to have her own kind of soundtrack that accompanied her throughout the day. I didn’t think of it in those terms when she was a kid, but now, on reflection, I think that she has her own soundtrack.
I think about being nine or ten years old, and the next-door neighbor saying that she had a 78 that someone gave her, and she knew that I was interested in that kind of music, and that I would like to listen to it. something. and I said, “yes, of course she would.” we didn’t have a stereo player in the house, in our house, that played 78, but she had one at her house that played 78, so she gave me this stack of recordings and left the room for me to have my own fun. and i found a recording of marian anderson, whose name i had already heard, and she was singing alto brahms rhapsody. I was listening to that on that record player, as she referred to them in those days, and even though I had no idea what the words meant, they sounded important to me, and the music sounded important to me, and I listened to her over and over again. and at the time at carnegie hall, many, many years later, when we were having a memorial—since marian anderson had passed away at that time, this was in 1997—and when robert shaw said to me, “let’s do the alto rhapsody,” I said: “well, I might not get over it, because I could cry all the time because it’s such a meaningful piece to me.” but it was exciting on that occasion in the memory of her singing the first thing I heard her sing.
When you were 16, you entered a major music scholarship contest. where did you go to participate and how was it?
jessye norman: when i entered the competition, this is of course on paper, i was 15, but i knew i would be the required age of 16 by the time the competition took place. This was my high school choir director’s idea, so she told me about it and said, “There’s something called the Marian Anderson Competition in Philadelphia, and you can be 16 and up.” What I didn’t understand at the time is that he went from 16 to 30, so there would be people in this pageant who were much more experienced than this 15-year-old from Augusta, Georgia. but anyway, we went together, and there’s a wonderful story that goes with that too, because the principal of my school decided that the school should participate in my trip to philadelphia. Then one day in particular, and this is unbelievable when I think about it, he said that all the kids in this great school should, instead of spending their money on lunch, they should give me their money so that I would have extra money to go to Philadelphia. , and the board of education paid for his lunch that day, so that it would be the act of his participation in my trip to philadelphia. Is it a wonderful story?
I wonder if those kids will remember that when they see where you went in life.
jessye norman: oh yeah. I am still in contact with a large number of children that I met at that time. I went to Philadelphia and of course I didn’t win the contest. I mean I was probably the youngest person to show up, but I remember very well Marian Anderson’s sister coming to me. She said: “You are very young now, but I want you to come back and sing for us once you have studied singing, because we are going to watch you”. and as far as I was concerned, she had won it all! marian anderson’s sister really spoke to me!
on the way back from philadelphia, because my teacher who was with me, rosa sanders, my high school music teacher, was with me, we stopped in washington, because we both had family here. we were visiting near the washington monument and the lincoln memorial and all that, and in the middle of the day she said, “why don’t we find out if someone at howard university is there and will hear you sing? I said, “well, that sounds like fun.” You know, at that point you don’t care that you’re tired and sweating from sightseeing all day. It never occurs to you that you can’t sing. so she knew one of howard’s professors because he had been a professor at paine college in augusta when she was a student, and that’s where she had gone to school. so we just called this person, dean fax was his name, mark fax. and now he was in college at howard college of fine arts so we called and he said “well why not? There’s a class this afternoon that’s a master’s class in vocal anatomy, so you can sing for that class.” I said, “why not? okay.” so we went and sang for that class, interrupted their studies and just knocked on the door. the teacher at the time was told that i was there, so she welcomed us into the class, where there was a little piano i sang a few songs and it turned out that teacher was carolyn grant who had been a voice teacher at howard university for about 42 years at the time she walked me and my teacher out of the room once we finished our little act, and she said “how old are you” so i said “i’m 16. i just turned 16. i’m an adult!” then she said “well where are you in high school?” i said ” I have another year.” She said, “Well, I guess you’d have to finish high school before you can come to school here,” and I said, “Do you come to school here?” At which point, she walked up to the dean. from college and said, “I want to teach this child. Make sure she comes to Howard University”. that’s how i got a scholarship to howard university. I know, they’re all fairy tales, aren’t they?
Did you know you would become a professional singer?
jessye norman: i understood singing and music of course like i said from a very young age but i didn’t understand getting paid to sing because as a kid of course you get something to drink and two shortbread like “thank you” for coming to whatever and singing. that was even more than one expected, you know? you waited for someone to shake your hand and thank you and that was the end of it. So the idea of becoming one of these people singing on the radio at the Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday, was very far from my mind, because I had no idea how that would be done. but I understood my other passion, which is still my passion, which is medicine. The University of Georgia School of Medicine just so happens to be in Augusta, Georgia, where I was born. so I saw people in white coats all the time, coming and going. i understood about going to college and then going to medical school and then getting a job. so until i was 17, at which point i had a scholarship to go to howard university to study at the college of fine arts, i still made sure, as a high school student, that i had the credits i would need. to go to liberal arts at howard university and prepare to go to pre-med.
so, were you thinking about becoming a doctor?
jessye norman: absolutely, very much.
did your parents know?
jessye norman: oh yeah, absolutely.
were you pushed in that direction?
jessye norman: i tell the story all the time about my mom walking into my room, sometime in august 19-00… when i was getting ready to go to college and you know what it’s like if you’re going to college or something like that for the first time or to camp, you start packing way before you’re supposed to go. You think you have so many things and so many things to organize that you start very early. and this was my first time having a locker so i was very interested in getting organized. This was weeks before I was due to show up in Washington, and my mother, who had a very special way of walking, passed my room. she said “oh honey. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you have a full scholarship to study music at howard university. but make your own decision.”
so she was really interested in you pursuing a career in music.
jessye norman: yeah. absolutely.
at that time, many people encouraged our children to study science.
jessye norman: yeah, and have a secure way to make a living. I was very lucky, and we talked a lot about this with my brothers, that our parents were so supportive without being around our necks. how did they do that all my siblings have children and are raising wonderful, wonderful, interesting children who are involved in their professional lives, but also in their communities. they try very hard to emulate what we learned at home, and that was being there, but not pushing.
Did any of your siblings also take up music?
jessye norman: no, they studied medicine. They also saw those white coats, but they participate a lot in the music. my older brother, silas, who is an internist, and actually the dean of admissions at wayne state university, the medical school there, and a professor of internal medicine, sings in a choir. it is a professional choir. they sing with the detroit symphony and tour, so he’s very involved in music. it turns out that my sister just got back from london (i was also working in europe) because she sings in the wynton marsalis choir. she’s a director of nursing, but she still sings. it’s wonderful.
carolyn grant from howard university was eager to teach you. what do you think she heard in your voice or saw in you as a person?
jessye norman: i think she saw a great joy in the actual act of singing, and that even though she was walking into a classroom of people, and it was a small classroom. it was not a large audience. people were sitting around me. and that I felt comfortable in that situation, because that’s how they sing in church. I mean, if you were standing in church singing, there’s someone sitting in the front row, there’s someone sitting to the side. there are the deacons sitting to your right, so it’s not like you’re on a platform performing. so I think she saw a certain degree of enthusiasm and a certain degree of happiness, just by letting him do it. I think that got her attention and hearing from her, which of course was a glorious thing for me, to be able to work with someone, without having studied anything about voice before.
how my parents understood that this would not have been a good idea is something I enjoy and celebrate every day of my life. because, you see…
It can be very easy to ruin a young voice if it’s trained in singing too early, especially for women. those muscles in the middle of our bodies that actually support singing are still developing a lot as teenagers. and if we go to those classes, which of course are proliferating all over the world now, because kids think that if they can sing on TV and be heard by the right person, they’ll have a record deal, so to speak, some kind of at night. that’s not the way life works. not real life. this is how life works on television. It’s really very important not to try to use those muscles before they’re fully developed, because if you do that, the tendency is to use muscles in the neck and muscles that aren’t there for it. those muscles are there for chewing, absolutely. and surely you have also noticed that one can see quite young singers who participate and the jaw trembles. that’s because the emphasis is being put on the wrong muscles, and they probably started doing it too soon, because these muscles didn’t develop, so the body uses whatever’s there. what I tell young singers, to try to scare them into taking themselves too seriously before the body is really ready for it, is that these vocal cords are unforgiving. if we abuse them, if we misuse them too soon, they stretch and, like any ligament, they don’t recede. They will not return. so it’s not about having ruined your voice at 16, if you can be quiet for two years everything will be fine. that’s not the way it works. It’s not like a muscle that you can massage, or you can give it an injection or something, or you can rest it and make it okay in a matter of time. the vocal cords don’t work like that. so i was very lucky to work with carolyn grant to start to understand how voice is produced. she was a great vocal pedagogue, what is called the study of vocal anatomy. so i understood how this all works: where the diaphragm is in the body, and what part of the body pushes air out of the lungs and through the windpipe and past the vocal cord, and how this all works. so that it’s not some kind of mysterious thing that happens to my body, that maybe it’s good one day and maybe it’s not good the next day. at least I know how it should work scientifically.
science has always been a part of your life and what you do, right?
jessye norman: absolutely. it’s really a part of my life. I bored people in my family to tears. there are various doctors and nurses etc and i always talk about what i just read in the american medical association and one of the youngsters in my family said “aunt j. have you ever read fashion? It is a very nice magazine about clothes. you like the clothes take a look at that sometime.”
but this lifelong interest has obviously made a difference.
jessye norman: oh yeah. I think it makes a difference for any of us to understand how we produce something. whether it’s a person who’s an amazing marathon winner, I can hardly wait for the olympics, or a person who’s a superb swimmer, to understand which muscles are engaged at what point in the production of whatever it is you’re doing. .quiet your mind to know how this thing works in your body.
All modesty aside, how would you describe the contribution you have made to your field?
jessye norman: oh my god. the contribution I have made in my field. First, I’d say I’ve contributed to longevity considering how long I’ve been doing this and how much I enjoy it and want to do it more.
I think one of the things, when I talk to younger artists, whether they’re singers or violinists or pianists, I feel like I’ve encouraged them to go beyond the limitations of the box that we can put ourselves in. as classical performers. that it really is okay to be a cellist and play the elgar concerto, but also to be interested in the music of the silk road, as yo-yo ma has so brilliantly demonstrated. that the music need not have been originally composed for the classical cello. that doesn’t mean you can’t play it, and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be interested in it. why shouldn’t a person playing brahms second piano concerto be interested in scott joplin’s ragtime music? why shouldn’t a singer who is singing mimi, a puccini (role), be interested in cole porter’s music? I feel that many times we limit ourselves, because we think that we have to follow a certain line, that we have to continue and do what has been done before, instead of finding our own ways and making our own way. I hope that my life as a performer will encourage other singers in particular to not limit themselves, to not pigeonhole themselves and be told, “You’re that kind of soprano, so this is the kind of music you’re supposed to do.” sing.” I said one smart thing, and I say this all the time, I said one smart thing in my entire life, and I was asked this question when I was about 23 or 24. when I was doing probably the second interview I’d ever done in my life , and the interviewer said: “what kind of soprano are you? you sing this and you sing that and you have sort of fiorituri possibilities…”, I mean, sort of like coloratura sopranos, “…so what kind of soprano are you exactly?” so I said, in my 23rd 24 years old, “I think the pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.”
jessye norman: i don’t know where that came from, but it came out of my mouth.
That’s a brilliant answer. is one of the questions that people have asked about you for many years. where does your voice belong? where does it go?” and you’ve replied, “wherever it goes.”
jessye norman: exactly. whatever we’re doing. this concert? this is the kind of soprano I am.
but there aren’t many singers, there aren’t many sopranos or other opera singers, there aren’t many people who sing opera who can do that. they sing the same roles over and over again and allow themselves to be limited in this way.
jessye norman: i think that’s unfortunately the truth. I think it has a lot to do with listening to managers and all that, because they would like to know how to sell you. so if you sing these parts then they know what to do. I am not trying to accommodate you. I’m just trying to live my life in a song. Wherever it takes me, that’s where I want to go. if it’s a song that odetta made famous and it speaks to me, as it does, and i want to sing his song, which was his protest song against capital punishment, called “another man is gone”, then that’s what i want to do.
what’s the most unusual thing you’ve sung? what surprises people when they hear jessye norman sing?
jessye norman: i’m trying to think of a name for the song. it’s pretty amazing because a few years ago we did a benefit for the rainforest in brazil that was organized by sting and trudie styler, his wife, at carnegie hall. she was singing with bon jovi and bruce springsteen and james taylor. there were a bunch of guys and me, so we were having a great time and we were singing some elvis presley. what was the song i got out of my head, but i had to learn it because i didn’t know, but we had a lot of fun and people were very surprised.
You love to sing.
jessye norman: i really do. I really do like I always say, I think it helps to be a bit of a fan, that you really like to go out there and do it, because I really do.
Is there someone you’d like to sing with that you haven’t sung with yet?
jessye norman: yeah. herbie hancock i would like to sing with herbie hancock playing the piano.
do you like jazz?
jessye norman: yeah i love jazz.
can you squeeze out?
jessye norman: oh yeah. I do it all the time. I’ve been singing jazz for a few years and I have to tell you that I have a great time. early in my professional life I thought, “oh no, I’ll never be able to do that. no, no, absolutely. that’s a whole different kind of line of study. there’s no way I can…” but of course, after all those years of singing my ella fitzgerald and carmen mcrae recordings, I’m going to do it.
How would you explain to someone who knows nothing about your field what makes it so exciting for you?
jessye norman: what is exciting about this field of activity? singing? I think it excites me to be able to communicate a thought to an audience, not necessarily in that particular person’s language, but because of the way that I hope I’m singing, they would capture the essence of what I’m singing. that’s exciting to me.
I went to greece a few years ago and we were going to do a whole program in english: the holy music of duke ellington, with gospel choir, some kind of spiritual dancer, jazz combo, jazz ensemble, pianists, all in this wonderful amphitheater, of course, created before the birth of christ, practically. we call it epidorus, but the greeks call it epidoros, and there we were standing on the same piece of marble that socrates stood on. I mean these things are just surreal to me. I was very worried about singing in English all the time and singing music that was not known. I mean, we know “fancy lady” and “take the train” etc., but we’re not that familiar with Duke Ellington’s holy music. But the moment you hear it, you know it’s Duke Ellington, whether you’ve heard the music before or not. and he was worried about it, and he needn’t have been. because the audience, even though, imagine we’re outside, it’s summer and of course there’s a full moon, it was absolutely stunning, and it was so quiet, 15,000 people sitting in that amphitheatre, it was quieter than singing in a church . and one understood from the quality of the silence that the people were listening, that they were not just silent until the concert was over. it was a silence to listen to. you could feel that. and when it was over, they expressed their joy that they had heard this music, and it was overwhelming. I will never forget that night as long as I live.
You had already performed in most of the major opera houses in Europe long before you made your first opera appearance in the United States. Your Berlin debut was in 1969, you said, but you didn’t perform in American opera houses until 1982. Why did you wait so long?
jessye norman: i waited so long because i was waiting for a very good reason: to be offered a role that would be right for me. maybe i’m making a mistake on this, but i actually sang aïda with the orlando opera company in the 70s. U.S”. It was with the Philadelphia Opera. I was asked to play Stravinsky’s Oedipus the King along with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. First of all, I thought it was a very interesting double bill, and that’s what interested me enough to say, “okay, let’s do it.” and then the following year, i sang for the first night of the 100th anniversary of the met in new york.
how did you feel?
jessye norman: that felt wonderful. she had no idea that it would mean so much to so many other people. It never occurred to me that anyone was paying attention to that, but the amount of email I got from people saying, “thank god you finally made it to the opera house here in new york.” i was offered roles at the new york opera house for ten years, it just hadn’t been anything i felt would be right for me or would like to do. so I was very lucky as they didn’t lose interest and kept asking but I had no idea it meant anything to anyone else. truly. I just wasn’t thinking about that.
Didn’t you realize that while you were singing in Europe, the whole world was hearing about you here in the United States? they knew who you were and they wanted you to come home.
jessye norman: never thought of that. She sang very often in the United States with orchestras, she sang piano recitals, so she sang. she just wasn’t singing in the opera house. It never occurred to me that someone else was thinking about that, I promise. it’s amazing.
You seem to have a special affinity for the German repertoire, particularly the works of Richard Strauss. Does his music have special meaning to you?
jessye norman: i think strauss had a very special way, and this could be due to the fact that he was married to a singer, but he had a wonderful way of writing for the female voice. anyone who sings his music says the same thing. it is written in such a wonderful way. he understood how the female voice works, and there’s a lot for which i’m very grateful to strauss’s music. it has given me such a presentation of music for so long in my performing life, be it opera ariadne or whatever, or strauss’s “last four songs”. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without those songs. I can’t even imagine.
do you think you have an affinity for german music because your career really started in germany?
jessye norman: yeah, i’m sure. because there were so many singers at that time who were singing recitals. when i started working you still had elisabeth schwarzkopf, christa ludwig, hermann prey, dietrich fischer-dieskau and these are just four of the big names. irmgard seefried, all these people. I had the experience of listening to so many singers sing this repertoire, and it was very inspiring, because they made it seem so natural and easy. Of course, it’s anything but easy. I was inspired by the work they did and the fact that they could have a full house. they were singing, very softly, some songs by hugo wolf, some songs by johannes brahms, some songs by mozart or beethoven. there was no stage. there was nothing spectacular about what was happening on stage except the piano and the voice. it was a wonderful time to be a kid in this profession.
Of your operatic roles, which one is closest to your heart?
jessye norman: oh my god. that would be hard to answer. I can honestly say that I haven’t sung any opera roles that I really didn’t want to do, but I guess if I had to pick one, I’d probably pick Dido in Berlioz’s Trojans, because first and foremost the music is so beautiful and the story is glorious. you have the fourth book of the aeneid as your opera libretto, and I admit that opera librettos, the words can be a little less than great literature, let’s say.
and the story is sometimes a bit…
jessye norman: a bit ridiculous, to say the least. I mean, trying to explain the story of il trovatore de verdi to someone without breaking out laughing. but to have that text, the aeneid, translated into French, just to have words that are beautifully translated, and that are beautiful to say, and then set to music. I guess if I had to choose one, I’d choose dido.
Do you like Italian opera?
jessye norman: yes, i love italian opera. I don’t sing much Italian opera, but I love hearing it from other people. one of my favorite roles to listen to is the traviata. I love the role of violetta in that opera. I really love it.
but you would never sing it?
jessye norman: not for my voice at all. not for my type of voice, even my very different voices. there is not one of those voices within me that suits that role. I guess that’s one of the reasons I love hearing other people sing it.
Have you ever felt that people discriminate against people who are brilliant, who speak their minds and who perhaps know more than the people who lead them?
jessye norman: i have had the strange experience of working with colleagues who would have preferred me to keep quiet when i expressed a different opinion about what was going on. i was working, for example, years ago, i was just thinking, working years ago for one of the queen’s birthdays in britain, and the director wanted to do some scott joplin music, except i don’t think i’d never seen anything. Scott Joplin’s music before, much less performed. it was a slow drag that is in two. (hums). and he did it in four, which is… (hums). there were a couple of other singers involved, and this was our first rehearsal, and it was with the piano, so we weren’t with the orchestra yet, and he kept doing that, and eventually we had a break in rehearsal, and I sort of kept forward. I said, “excuse me, but actually a slow drag is on two, not four. So if we could go through that maybe again.” and he was like, “well, it’s your music, you should know it.” and so i said in response, “we can talk about schubert’s great symphony in c if you want. I have a few things to say about that as well.” so it shows you that people sometimes prefer you to do what you’re supposed to do. you’re supposed to sing. You’re not supposed to point out that he’s actually conducting the piece in the wrong time signature!
do you think he said that because it turned out to be the same color…
jessye norman: as a songwriter, yes.
not because you could read the music.
jessye norman: yeah, exactly. no, no, no, not at all.
Well, I just didn’t know you.
jessye norman: he didn’t know me, but he got to know me over time.
in 1989 he was asked to participate in a celebration in paris for the bicentenary of the french revolution. Could you describe that experience?
jessye norman: president mitterrand asked me through one of his emissaries, a year before the celebration took place. I have been singing in France all my performing life, and I have a very special relationship that I treasure with the French musical audience. I was very concerned that perhaps because I spent so much time performing there, I was very concerned that President Mitterrand would think I was from Haiti, or Cameroon, or a former French colony in Africa, or somewhere else. so i said to the person who was asking me this on behalf of the president, monsieur du pavignon was his name, i said, “does the president realize that i am american and i am not french in any way?” he said, “yes, the president probably knows what he’s doing. thank you, miss norman. i was very flattered, of course, and on the occasion of singing this national anthem for the bicentenary of the french revolution still sounds a bit implausible. i was very comfortable I was very happy to be a part of it, and everyone around me, the people responsible for it, were as nervous as they could be. I mean, at one point, one of the people in charge of the whole sort of parade, like we called him, it’s called défilé in French, he came up to me and said, “are you nervous?” and so i said no. and he said, “how can you not be nervous to go out and sing for three billion people who watch TV all over the world, not to mention people who are on the Champs Elysées and in the Place de la Concorde? and so I said, I practiced, I know the melody, I practiced the words. you could wake me up in the middle of the night and say, ‘sing the third verse of the french national anthem’, and i’d get it, so i’ll have a good time. I wear the tricolor, the French colors, as a dress, like an American singing the Marseillaise. I’m not nervous. I’m having a wonderful evening. and I had a wonderful evening.
Which is more difficult to sing, “the starry banner” or the Marseillaise?
jessye norman: “the starry banner”. it is unsingable. No, really, and I know there are people who say, “She must be absolutely crazy,” but I really feel like “The Crashed Banner” covers too much territory. that’s an eighth and a fifth. that means you have 13 notes that are incorporated into our national anthem. for a song that is going to be sung by a general public, one octave is enough. and the song that i would like to have as a national anthem is “america the beautiful”. It doesn’t talk about war, it doesn’t talk about anything except the beauty of this land, and the joy we should have to be on this land, and it’s so much more, to me, a much more beautiful song, even though I fully understand the awakening that happens in the heart when hearing only the first bars of “the star spangled banner”.
Would you sing “America the Beautiful” at Yankee Stadium to kick off a game?
jessye norman: why not? absolutely. I have sung “america the beautiful” for the tennis open. why not?
You have performed in at least two one-person operas in which you are the only singer on stage, continuously singing without a break, erwartung and la voix humaine. in 1989 you performed erwartung back to back with the blue beard castle, where there is only one other singer on stage. how do you prepare for such a challenging and demanding performance?
jessye norman: it’s kind of perverse of me to like to do this kind of thing. I am still the only singer to have done schoenberg’s erwartung and poulenc’s la voix humaine on the same night. la voix humaine is “the human voice”. the work is by jean cocteau and the music is by francis poulenc and these are very demanding and each has different characters and very different operas, but I enjoy the challenge. I mean I did it in one night too, going back to the Trojans. Having mentioned that dido, if I had to choose a role, I would choose that one. but also, because the trojans are made in two parts, i did cassandra, who is the character, the female lead, in the first part, and i also did dido in the same night.
they have a new production of the trojans in covent garden which is wonderful, and some of the singers, i was visiting them backstage, and one of the singers came up to me and said, “my agent told me he was in the met when you did both parts. how in the world could you do both parts? i’m exhausted after singing cassandra.” i said, “well you have to carb load the night before. you have to prepare for that like a runner of marathon would prepare to run 26 miles why anyone would want to run 26 miles is beyond my comprehension, but that’s another thing! so you have to prepare your body to have enough stored energy to draw on, once There may come a day when you have to do this, so I eat in a completely different way when preparing for something that will happen the next day.
Lots of people play musical instruments, but your instrument, your voice, is a part of you. how do you feel about it?
jessye norman: it’s a responsibility, i’m so grateful for it, but at the same time, it can really make other people nervous, you know, saying, “okay, we’ve got to turn off the air conditioning.” ”, and “I must not be in a draft”, and all the rest. everyone else is fanning themselves because it’s so hot, and I’m sitting there saying, “but I can’t be in the air conditioning, because I’ll get sinusitis,” and all the rest. Sometimes, particularly the little people in my family will say, “can’t you just get your voice out and put it on the table so we can sit in the car in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer with the air conditioning on, please?” /p>
People might mistake that for being moody, being a diva. Do you understand?
jessye norman: they don’t get it. they don’t understand that all you’re doing is trying to preserve your job activity. this is your profession, and people would prefer that you not appear hoarse, and with sinusitis, and everything else that can happen from having a cold.
what do you think of contemporary popular music? Do you hear anything you like in current popular music?
jessye norman: well, i try to understand popular music today, because i have a lot of young people in my family and i want to keep up with everything. So I need you guys to tell me what to listen to, and who’s the hot new thing, and everything else. But sometimes I find that it’s too easy for me, that it’s too easy. words don’t really mean anything and words are repeated meaning nothing the second time. there’s something quite wonderful and satisfying about hearing really good writing, hearing really wonderful lyrics. that, to me, is missing from much of popular music these days. people who are working in the classical field are also beginning to understand that writing for the voice in contemporary music is quite different from writing for the trombone or writing for an orchestra, and that one has to understand how the human voice works. It’s not the same as another instrument, but it’s wonderful that composers are starting to write really well for the voice.
You participated in several vocal contests when you were starting out. now singing contests have become very popular on tv shows like voice. Can you imagine being a judge on a show like this?
jessye norman: I decided years ago that I would never work as an adjudicator. as a kid i sang in various competitions and in various contests etc, i decided a long time ago that i would never do that. I’ve been asked several times, not for that in particular, but to award a vocal competition, and I was very flattered to be asked to do this for a jazz organization just a couple of years ago. and I said I won’t, because I’ve seen judges make so many mistakes that people who have had potential have been discouraged, because one judge said, “well, you’re not what we’re looking for.” ”, or “you don’t have the right look”, or “you don’t have the right sound”, or whatever, and they’ve been discouraged. and people have been cast who really were kind of a one pony show, and they haven’t gone beyond that one pony show. so I determined very early in my professional life that it would take more than I think is available to mere humans, to be able to determine that a person at 18 will continue to sing or play the violin or play the piano. at 40 years old. your own experience cannot determine that. you are a completely different person from that young man who is on stage singing puccini’s waltz de la bohème or something like that.
what do you make of the situation where these relatively inexperienced singers become famous overnight, like susan boyle after appearing on a british tv show?
jessye norman: i didn’t watch the show, but i’ve heard her sing ever since, and she’s a wonderful voice, so it’s wonderful that she’s been discovered, so to speak. I wish there had been the kind of support one would need to have that kind of exposure at that point in life. It all seemed to happen so fast, and I felt like I didn’t have enough people around to say, “This is going to be okay. I’ll take care of this part for you. Don’t worry. You don’t have to talk to everyone you want to interview and everything else.” I felt that it was an unnecessary strain on that beautiful woman. I thought it wasn’t entirely fair.
What do you know about achievement now that you didn’t when you were younger?
jessye norman: i’ve learned that achievement is continuous. it’s like learning, that no, certainly within my artistic life, you don’t get to a point where you can say: “now I can rest.” I already did, so now I can rest on my laurels.” That is not the case. there is always someone in the audience who has never heard you before. there is always something new that I interpret for the first time. I like that. I love that on tour, I never sing the exact same show everywhere. I want the thrill of knowing, “oh yeah. well we didn’t do that cole porter song in that group in paris, but we’re doing it in lyon”, because that keeps things fresh for me. I hope it also keeps things more interesting for the audience. but certainly, I have learned that one has to achieve, that one does not reach the level of saying “well, now I am fine, there is no need to worry anymore”. no no no. I don’t think that will happen.
What does the American dream mean to you?
jessye norman: the american dream means to me that people who need the support that only a government can provide are given what they need to live, not just to survive but to thrive. I’m so tired of hearing this business of lifting oneself up with one’s own hands. there are people in our country who don’t wear boots. and that not understanding that it is the responsibility of a society to take care of the little ones is, for me, a very wrong way of seeing life and living it. The American dream is realized only when we reach the point of understanding, when we see a person who is not doing very well in life, if we can understand that “there (but by) the grace of God I go”, and that it is our responsibility to lend a hand, a hand up. people don’t want a handout, they want a hand. and the American dream, for me, is to understand and participate in that. not to achieve something by yourself and let that be all that happens in one’s life, but to understand sometimes it is necessary to go back. Sometimes you gotta get to the side and say, “hey, come with me.” don’t be sad this will work. you will never walk alone.”
Speaking of “you’ll never walk alone”, you’ve sung that at various events recently.
jessye norman: i’m in washington for the 19th international AIDS conference where i had the pleasure of singing and giving a little speech about the wonderful people who give their time, their emotional support, their incredible knowledge scientific minds, working towards a cure, or certainly at least a vaccine, for AIDS after all these years. i told them rodgers and hammerstein actually created an anthem for themselves a long time ago on carousel when he wrote what they have been saying for 30 years to people involved with and affected by AIDS, “you will never walk alone.” so I was really happy to be able to sing that last night.
You have been very active in AIDS-related causes for many years. how did that start?
jessye norman: it was a big mystery, of course, to everyone, when the disease first appeared. and being in the performing arts, it turned out that many of my friends and colleagues were affected first. it was a complete mystery as to what it was, how it was transmitted and everything else. in a very short period i lost a lot of people, like a lot of us, a lot of friends, and i was very confused by this, and i decided that whatever it is, we have to work to find out what it is and how it is transmitted and how it can be cured. so i started working with various organizations, mainly in new york city, an organization called balm in gilead, led by the very dynamic pernessa seele. They moved to Richmond, Virginia about five years ago and are still very, very active. one of the things we did was do a concert at the riverside church around 1997, i think that was the first. I arranged it the way a Southern Baptist church would host a service, so we had the choir procession, singing a spiritual, and then we had the scriptures, and whoopi goldberg was our preacher, and our guest in the audience was be elton john so i got to have toni morrison and maya angelou and anna deavere smith and bill t. jones and max roach at the time, all these people as members of the congregation who just happened to be there and wanted to come and praise the lord in the name of finding a cure for aids.
in 1997, did you think we would have a cure by now?
jessye norman: absolutely. already, 15 years ago at the time of this first performance, scientists told us that in about 10 years there could be a vaccine. but of course we know that did not happen. everyone is still frantically working to figure out what can be done. But much progress has been made, in the sense that this transfer from mother to child is now a thing of the past in the United States, and it is fast becoming a thing of the past throughout the world. and as mentioned last night, by 2015 this part of the AIDS crisis should be over, and that’s really very encouraging. there’s a new method of determining whether or not you’re HIV positive that can be done at home, that you don’t even have to use a number when, of course, you want to keep medical information private. but that it is possible to do these tests at home, and find out for yourself, in the company, hopefully, of someone who will be with you. because it can be devastating, I’m sure, to hear this news for yourself. but being able to do it in the privacy of one’s own home is a huge step forward, and that’s only in the last month or so that it came out.
What advice or encouragement would you give the children in your life? What would you like to leave as your verbal imprint?
jessye norman: like my verbal print? I would say that this time on earth is to live it fully, to enjoy it, to be at the service of someone else, not just oneself, and that living fully should be the goal.
This will be our last question. what is creativity and where does it come from?
jessye norman: i love quoting einstein, when he said that for him, the gift of fantasy, the act of creativity in his life, the brilliant life of this brilliant man, that the act of fantasy, creativity, had meaning more to him in his life than the ability to absorb knowledge. can you cere it? of einstein? that the gift of getting into your own mind and thinking about something, to think that there might be something called the internet that could connect people all over the world through a little machine that’s on your desk, or on your lap, or today in her bag. where does it come from? it comes from deep within us. it comes from that place that is not trying to do anything except live. It is not thinking about whether this is a good idea or not, whether someone else is going to think that this is good or not, whether it is a viable idea. it’s just there. and some people have the courage to accept it. i had the privilege of seeing bill gates receive an award last night and had a chance to chat with him for a moment. when i think about my friends who were in california at the time there was something in bill gates garage that i wanted people to see, and they thought it was going to be something very interesting, and there were people smart enough to say, “okay, I’ll walk you”, and other people saying, “don’t be so silly”, that he kept going anyway. and he looks where he has led us. and the people who work in this field of technology tell us that we are only at the beginning.
imagination. how has it worked in your world?
jessye norman: it works in my world by allowing me to get out of the box, to work with bill t. jones when we’re doing a performance, and we’re working on steps and stuff, and bill says, “it’s going to be 17 to the right, and then you’re going to step back with your right foot 11 times, and then you’re going to move here to the count of three,” and I say to bill, “why can’t we have numbers that are even?” and he says why, if you can count to ten, you can count to 11. I think creativity means going with whatever you have in mind that will make your life more interesting and fun, be it your personal life or your professional life. with everything that is happening, with all the need and suffering in the world, may we find time to have a good time. this is a very short existence that we have on this earth.
thank you. that was amazing.
jessye norman: well that’s very kind of you.