Jessye Norman looks back on a life lived in song - The Buffalo News

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Jessye Norman looks back on a life lived in song

Stand Up Straight and Sing!

By Jessye Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

316 pages, $27

By Mary Kunz Goldman


Even in the impressive pantheon of opera divas, Jessye Norman has her own majesty.

A story goes around Buffalo about the time some audience members were behaving inattentively as she was singing. She did not hesitate to silence them, publicly and embarrassingly.

A YouTube video shows no less than the formidable conductor Herbert von Karajan fidgeting, saying, “Jessye Norman is here. Our first rehearsal is today.” Next you see Norman herself, walking nonchalantly down the hall, humming scales.

And speaking of YouTube videos, to watch Norman in action in one of her arresting opera roles is to marvel at her intensity. I can never get over her as the Mother Superior in the Met’s legendary 1987 production of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” about the nuns martyred in the French Revolution. It’s impossible to forget seeing Norman calming the sisters, squaring her shoulders and leading the “Salve Regina” as she walks to the guillotine. A singer commenting on the video writes poignantly: “I was one of the nuns. The very first time I was crying, could not sing.”

Jessye Norman’s great spirit shines in her memoir “Stand Up Straight and Sing.” It is like an aria, with themes that linger and repeat and emotion all the more striking because of how it is restrained.

She does not seem to have been stringently edited. The book circles around in an improvisatory fashion. You can imagine her working on it in pieces on planes or trains.

Her memories of her childhood in Augusta, Ga., strike the same tone that your grandmother’s might. While things weren’t perfect, Norman expresses nostalgia for days when neighbors looked out for each other, when church dominated most people’s lives, when children could be expected to respect elders. Her parents were old school. She reminisces about her father grilling her prom date: “What are your plans, young man?”

They must have influenced her queenly manner. So have all the opera colleagues she has met over the years.

“Marian Anderson used to speak in the third person plural,” she writes, for instance. “She would say something like, ‘We sang for the King of Sweden,’ not in reference to herself and her accompanist, Franz Rupp, but herself and her God.”

As a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau fan, I loved hearing how, in 1973, she sang with him in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” She was the Countess, and he was the philandering Count. “Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest singers who ever lived – a generous artist, and universally admired – walked into the rehearsal room and proceeded to introduce himself, shaking hands with everyone and announcing the role he was to sing, as if we did not know who he was or how thrilled we all were with the opportunity of performing with him. It was, however, the professional and courteous thing to do, and I never forgot it.” To this day, she writes, she emulates what he did.

Norman speaks glowingly of European musical conventions, and the openness she has enjoyed there. While some roads were closed to her in the United States because of racism, Germans did not hesitate to cast her as Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” a role Norman points out stands for the ideal of German womanhood. An entertaining tale tells of how German soprano Elisabeth Grummer coached Norman the tricky entrance she had to make onto the stage for the start of the great aria “Dich, Teure Halle.”

Norman spends too much ink on racist experiences – ignorant journalists, insensitive questions. While I share her outrage, I do not think the people who have insulted her over the years, intentionally or otherwise, deserve this much space either in the book or in her head.

Certainly she gets the last laugh. Her rich voice has made her a part of the American cultural fabric. You can tell that from the many funerals over the years where her voice has offered comfort and strength. Norman reminisces about them in the book. There are the Catholic funerals of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and for Lena Horne, the Episcopal services for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

She talks movingly about the African-American opera greats who came before her, such half-forgotten names as Sissieretta Jones and Robert McFerrin Sr. (the father of Bobby). Regrettably, she feels it necessary to remind the opera world that it still has a distance to go. To date, she laments, no other African-American has sung Elisabeth in “Tannhauser,” a part she has sung at the Met, at Covent Garden and in Berlin.

You certainly feel her thoughts are genuine. “Sometimes I think what a beautiful thing it would be to go back in time and invite Franz Schubert to dinner,” she writes. “A composer with music in his every pore, who gave us nearly a thousand works of art in his short lifetime, Schubert was barely able to sustain himself financially. I fantasize about planning the grandest of dinner parties for him and then sending him on his way after a fine supper, to return again soon, for another.”

Norman marvels at the experience of stepping into the shoes of Dido, the Carthaginian queen who loses her love, Aeneas: “Dido’s reaction to this tragic turn of events, as taken from the fourth book of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ and translated into beautiful French, set to the meltingly romantic music of Berlioz is, I feel, one of opera’s greatest treasures.”

She revels in the fall of the Berlin Wall, quoting both Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the words of Martin Luther King.

There are times when you wish you could interrupt her, and steer the conversation in different directions. Norman dwells lovingly and at length on singing the Marseillaise at Paris’ Place de la Concorde in 1989 on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. She includes pages about the gown she was fitted for by Azzedine Alaia. That is kind of amusing – a picture on Alaia’s Wikipedia page shows the diminutive designer dwarfed by a towering Jessye Norman, clad in that very gown. But I wished Norman had written less about the gown and more about the conflicting emotions she must have felt standing where the guillotine had once stood, just two years after singing in “The Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Her feelings on music, for the most part, seem genuine. She closes every chapter with a poem, usually a text from a spiritual or a Schubert song. She writes like a poet herself, in a declarative, majestic style.

She hints tantalizingly at having received a marriage proposal from a French aristocrat, a descendant of Louis XIV.

“Resistance is presented its greatest challenge yet,” she confides. “The thought of being titled oh so enticing, and with the beauty of that very special day still so alive in my spirit, I rejoice in knowing that I am sensible enough to be thrilled at ‘the invitation to this particular dance of life,’ while at the same time aware of that little streak of Carmen in me – that bird in flight, that freedom that I so cherish.”

That’s right, Miss Norman, you want to say. Don’t settle down, ever.

Just keep singing.

Mary Kunz Goldman is the News’ Classical Music Critic.

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