All achievers

Jessye Norman

Legendary Opera Soprano

I am just trying to live my life in song.

Jessye Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia. Her father Silas was an insurance salesman, her mother a schoolteacher. Jessye Norman’s parents placed an enormous importance on education. Although the schools of Georgia were racially segregated in the 1950s, the Normans and their neighbors pressed for high standards in their local schools and expected a high level of academic performance from their children. The presence of the University of Georgia medical school in the community had a powerful influence on the Norman children. One brother became a physician, one sister the director of a nursing program. Jessye too thought she might pursue a career in medicine, until her unmistakable talent led her in a different direction.

Marian Anderson returns to the Lincoln Memorial in 1952 to sing at memorial services for former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was her first appearance at the memorial since the historic 1939 concert, arranged by Secretary Harold Ickes and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson sing in their Constitution Hall. Marian Anderson’s grace under pressure captured the entire nation. Her recordings enthralled listeners, such as the young Jessye Norman. (Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

Music was another interest of the Norman family. Jessye’s father sang in the church choir; her mother played piano and insisted that Jessye study piano as well. Jessye’s powerful singing voice attracted attention at an early age. By age four she was singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Soon she was singing in school assemblies and community functions. Noting her love of singing, her parents gave her a radio of her own, and she spent many Saturday afternoons in her room, listening to the live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. As a ten-year-old child, she was spellbound by a recording of the great contralto Marian Anderson. Inspired by Anderson’s recordings and by reading the singer’s autobiography, Norman imagined becoming a classical singer herself.

Australian soprano Joan Sutherland rehearses for her Metropolitan opera debut in the title role of Lucia di Lamermoor, 1961. Young Jessye Norman listened to Sutherland's performances at the Met on the radio in her bedroom in Augusta, Georgia. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)
1961: Australian soprano Joan Sutherland rehearses for her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Jessye Norman listened to Sutherland’s performances on the radio in her bedroom in Augusta, GA.

While still in high school, she learned of the annual Marian Anderson Music Scholarship Competition. With the aid of her high school classmates, she traveled to Philadelphia, accompanied by her high school choir teacher, to participate in the contest. At age 16, she was the youngest entrant, and although she did not win an award, the judges encouraged her to study seriously. On her trip home, she and her teacher stopped in Washington, D.C., and her teacher arranged an impromptu audition with the music faculty of Howard University. Although she had over a year of high school ahead of her, Jessye Norman was offered a full music scholarship to Howard. Young Jessye set aside her plan for pre-med studies and resolved to pursue a musical career.

American opera singer Jessye Norman, September 1984. (Photo by David Montgomery/Getty Images)
In 1984, the French government bestowed upon Jessey Norman the title Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris named an orchid for her. (David Montgomery/Getty)

Norman received a thorough grounding in music at Howard; after graduation in 1967, she continued her studies at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree, consolidating her command of music theory and vocal technique, as well as learning to sing in the languages of the classical repertoire, Italian, French and German.

For generations, American classical singers have traveled to Europe to pursue their art. The numerous opera houses of Germany and Austria have long provided opportunities for young singers that the less developed American opera scene has not. Two American opera enthusiasts, Patricia and J. Ralph Corbett, invited the directors of the major European opera houses to New York to hear their country’s most promising young singers. At age 23, Jessye Norman made the trip and sang an aria from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäser. The director of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, Egon Seefehlner, was so impressed, he invited Norman to Berlin to sing the entire role. Norman quickly learned the rest of the role and made sure that her spoken German would serve her as well offstage as her singing diction onstage.

1987: American opera singer Jessye Norman in New York City. In 1987, Norman joined the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan in possibly the greatest rendition of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner in a historical concert (filmed and recorded audio by Deutsche Grammophon) at the Salzburg Festival. The concert was then repeated some weeks later in Berlin, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. (Getty Images)

On arriving in Germany in 1969, she won first place in the competition sponsored by the ARD (Allgemeine Rundfunk Deutschland – German Broadcast Corporation), the country’s largest national music competition. Shortly thereafter, she made her professional operatic debut as Elisabeth in Tannhäser at the Deutsche Oper. Her first aria was so well received that Dr. Seefehlner offered her a three-year contract before the performance was even over. In this quintessentially German role, the young African American singer was acclaimed as the greatest voice since Germany’s beloved Lotte Lehmann. Her Italian debut followed within a year.

Opera singers, particularly in Germany, are traditionally divided into narrowly defined vocal categories. The higher female voices are classified as coloratura, lyric and dramatic sopranos, and then divided into even narrower subcategories. The category or fach a singer is assigned to ordinarily determines what roles she will be offered. From the beginning, Norman’s warm, powerful sound seemed suited to the dramatic soprano repertoire, but the wide range of her voice defied classification. When asked to define her own voice, she famously replied, “Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.”

Soprano Jessye Norman stands at the Hotel Crillon in Paris. A gigantic and bizarre two-hour “opera-ballet” with a cast of 8,000 people, 100 sheep, and assorted oddities will crown celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14. In the show’s climax, American opera singer Jessye Norman will emerge from a pyramid in the Place de la Concorde to sing “La Marseillaise” while a wall of water divides, Hollywood-style, to let the sheep and marchers through. French Culture Minister Jack Lang said yesterday the surreal show would top two days of festivities marking Bastille Day when a Paris mob stormed the Bastille prison in 1789. (Getty Images)

Although she had made her initial impression in the dramatic role of Elisabeth, she was soon singing the Countess in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, a role often assigned to lyric sopranos. She was yet to appear in opera outside of Europe, but her 1971 recording of this role brought her to the attention of music lovers around the world.

In 1972, Norman made her first appearance at Milan’s fabled La Scala, in the title role of Verdi’s Aïda. At London’s Covent Garden, she sang Cassandra in Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz. Norman returned to America and made a recital tour of the country. In 1973, she made her New York debut in recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

American opera singer Jessye Norman sings
1989: Jessye Norman sings La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution in Paris. Norman wears the French national colors, in a gown designed by Azzedine Alaia. (© AP Images)

While critics struggled to describe her voice, Norman knew which roles were right for her and which were not. Within a few years of her debut, she felt that Dr. Seefehlner and the Berlin opera management were pushing her into roles her voice was not ready for. At best, opera singers’ voices mature in their 30s and 40s; singers who sing too much in their 20s may find their vocal equipment worn out before they reach their full potential. Norman was determined to protect her instrument, and refused to take on the heavier dramatic roles until she felt ready. In 1975, she moved to London, and concentrated on concert and recital appearances, including performances in concert works such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Throughout the 1970s, she toured Europe extensively, giving recital of German lieder and French chansons as well as works by contemporary American composers. She made major concert tours of the United States in 1976 and ’77, but stayed away from the opera stage until the end of the decade.

Jessye Norman visits Leningrad, Russia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Tchaikovsky. (Photo by Helene Bamberger/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
1990: Jessye Norman visits Leningrad, Russia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Tchaikovsky. (Getty)

In the first years of her career, her stature and noble bearing had made her a natural in the princess roles of Wagner and Verdi opera, but a hectic schedule had made it difficult to care for her own physical well-being. When she finally returned to the opera stage in 1980, she looked and sounded better than ever and was ready for the most demanding challenges. In 1980 she played the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss at the Hamburg State Opera, a role that remains forever associated with her powerful interpretation. In the United States, she electrified audiences with her performances in the leading female roles of Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Philadelphia Opera. These roles, spanning the range from 20th-century modernism to 17th century Baroque, were a compelling demonstration of Norman’s musicianship and stylistic versatility.

Jessye Norman performs at a White House State Dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. (Photo by Diana Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
May 1991: Jessye Norman performs in the East Room after White House State Dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1983, the Metropolitan Opera celebrated its 100th anniversary, and Jessye Norman made her long-awaited Met debut in Les Troyens. In keeping with the historic occasion, Norman performed a historic feat, singing the roles of both Cassandra and Dido in the same evening.

By this time, Norman was recognized as one of the foremost singers in the world, and was invited to sing at state occasions on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1985, she sang the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” at the second inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. A few years later, she performed at the 60th birthday celebration for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Norman’s concert performances in the 1980s also made news. In appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic in the United States and Europe, she stunned audiences with her powerful interpretations of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss. Her recordings of these works are treasured by collectors. Television brought Norman’s artistry to an even larger audience with the broadcast of her 1987 Christmas special, recorded in her hometown of Augusta.

Leontyne Price, internationally acclaimed soprano and a mentor to Jessye Norman, presents the Golden Plate Award to real estate developer Marshall B. Coyne at the Academy’s 1995 Summit in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

On the opera stage Norman undertook a number of challenging modern works, including a pair of one-woman operas in which she was the sole performer onstage, La voix humaine by Francis Poulenc and Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg. She first sang La voix humaine in a concert performance in 1988. The following year she sang Erwartung at the Met in a double bill with Bela Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Her performance of Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle was recorded and broadcast on national television. Her appearance with the New York Philharmonic in the opening concert of its 148th season was broadcast live on public television.

At the decade’s close, Norman had attained international stature as a uniquely beloved ambassadress of song. In 1989, she was chosen by President Mitterand of France to sing the national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” in the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The following year, the Secretary General of the United Nations named her an Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations, and she traveled to Leningrad to participate in the celebration of Tchaikovsky’s 150th birthday. In 1991 she sang at the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation, and recorded a live concert at Notre Dame in Paris.

Jessye Norman joins her fellow 1997 Kennedy Center Honorees: singer Bob Dylan, actress Lauren Bacall, dancer Edward Villella and actor Charlton Heston. (© Matthew Mendelsohn/CORBIS)
Jessye Norman joins her fellow 1997 Kennedy Center Honorees at the U.S. State Department for a celebration of their achievements: singer Bob Dylan, actress Lauren Bacall, dancer Edward Villella and actor Charlton Heston.

In the 1990s, her performances on the opera stage found her exploring widely diverse repertoire, and exploring new territory geographically as well as artistically. She assumed the title roles of Glück’s Alceste in Chicago, and sang the role of Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex in Japan in a production directed by Julie Taymor. Having sung roles in German, French, Italian and Latin, she added Czech to her arsenal of languages with the 1996 Met premiere of The Makropoulos Case by Leos Janacek.

Jessye Norman opens the 99th annual gala of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall in 2010. (© Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis)
Jessye Norman opens the 99th annual gala of the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall in 2010. (Corbis Photo)

In 1997 Norman sang at the second inaugural ceremony of President Bill Clinton. She was also among the year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the youngest recipient in the 20-year history of the Honors. This period also saw her asserting her identity as a uniquely American singer. She performed Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by a jazz band and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. She later brought the Ellington program to London and Vienna. She often programmed Ellington’s music alongside songs by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, comparing and contrasting these three quintessentially American 20th century composers.

Throughout her career, she constantly broadened her repertoire, mixing contemporary music with the classics in her concerts and recitals. In her 2000 album, I Was Born in Love With You, she sang the songs of the contemporary French composer Michel Legrand, accompanied by the composer at the piano, and jazz stars Ron Carter and Grady Tate on bass and drums. In 2001 she gave a typically expansive overview of her extensive repertoire in a three-part concert series at Carnegie Hall with Met conductor James Levine as her accompanist.

Opera singer Jessye Norman takes a jazz turn at the 2010 International Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland. (AP Images/Keystone/Dominic Favre)
Opera singer Jessye Norman takes a jazz turn at the 2010 International Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland.

Norman showed yet another side of her talent in 2009, when she curated the Honor! Festival, celebrating the achievements of African American artists through concerts, performances and exhibitions at venues throughout New York City, including Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Jessye Norman used her great success to give back to the community, particularly her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, and in New York City. In 2003 the Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in Augusta, a free after-school program that gives talented middle school students the opportunity to study music, drama, dance and art. She served on the boards of Carnegie Hall and the New York Public Library, as well as the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Lupus Foundation, and the Partnership for the Homeless. She was a proud lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.

President Barack Obama presents Jessye Norman with the National Medal of the Arts during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, 2010. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Barack Obama presents Jessye Norman with the National Medal of the Arts during an awards ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2010. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski and Bloomberg, via Getty Images)

After her first work with the Alvin Ailey dancers in 1997, she pursued increasingly adventurous collaborations with theater directors, filmmakers and modern choreographers, including: her 1999 project with Bill T. Jones, How! Do! We! Do!; a 2006 Ellington program with Trey McIntyre; a double bill of Erwartung and La voix humaine designed by Austrian multimedia artist Andre Heller; a theatrical interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, staged by director Robert Wilson; and a documentary film, Jessye Norman, directed by Heller and Othmar Schmiderer.

Three of America’s great classical singers, Denyce Graves, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, after performing at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., 2012. The concert and dinner honored Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, who received Ford’s Theatre’s Lincoln Medal. The event was hosted by Wayne and Catherine Reynolds.

Norman recorded more than 75 CDs. In addition to highest honors from the recording associations of France, Britain, Germany and Spain, in 1996, she became the fourth classical singer to receive the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, joining the company of Enrico Caruso and the heroines of her youth, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. In 2010, she received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.

2015: In Stand Up Straight and Sing!, Jessye Norman recalls in rich detail the strong women who were her role models, from her ancestors to family friends, relatives, and teachers. She hails the importance of her parents in her early learning and experiences in the arts. And she describes coming face-to-face with racism, as a child living in the segregated South and as an adult out and about in the world. She speaks of the many who have inspired her and taught her essential life lessons. A special interlude on her key relationship with the pioneering singer Marian Anderson reveals the lifelong support that this predecessor provided through her example of dignity and grace.

After she retired from the opera stage, she continued to perform as a soloist, in innovative theatrical works and in recital, as well as in concert with the world’s leading orchestras. She died in New York City at the age of 74, from complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1992

One of the most distinguished musical artists of our time, Jessye Norman traveled from her home town of Augusta, Georgia to the opera houses and concert halls of the world. As a ten-year-old child she was spellbound by a recording of the great contralto Marian Anderson. Inspired by Anderson’s recordings and autobiography, she resolved to become a classical singer herself. At age 16 she won a music scholarship to Howard University. In Europe, she was discovered by the Continent’s leading conductors and impresarios.

A dramatic soprano with a special affinity for the German repertoire, she has won acclaim in the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Equally at home in French and Italian, she has enchanted audiences as Bizet’s Carmen and as Mozart’s Countess Almaviva. For the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial season, she made history by singing the roles of both Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.

In addition to her opera roles, her recitals and recordings included American spirituals, French chansons and German lieder. From Haydn to Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg, from Satie and Poulenc to Gershwin, Bernstein and Ellington, the breadth of Jessye Norman’s artistic range was breathtaking.

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You achieved great success at such an early age. Have you ever had any doubts about your ability?

Jessye Norman: I don’t think that I have had doubts about my ability. What I certainly have had doubts about, particularly as a very young performer, was being allowed to have what I felt — and what a lot of people felt — as my potential to catch up with my age, or perhaps it was vice versa. I’ll give you an example.

Keys to success — Courage

As a very young singer, I was invited to the opera house in Berlin by the then-director of the opera house, Egon Seefehlner, and I had one opera to my name that I knew. He felt that there was a lot that I could learn there, which was very true, and I was so lucky to be able to have this opportunity. The thing that was happening is that I kept being offered operas that I knew that I wasn’t ready to sing, just from an experience point of view, as well as being 24 years old. So I was always asked to sing things that I thought, “Well no, I really don’t think I should sing that now. I need to sing that maybe in five years, or maybe in 10 years, but not right now. Couldn’t I please sing something else?” And that became a difficulty for me. And after being at the opera house for three years, and singing Elsa and Elisabeth — the Wagner roles that are not sort of the heavy Wagner roles — and then Mozart operas that suited my voice at the time, I was continually invited to sing things that I just felt I shouldn’t. So I took it upon myself to go to speak with the artistic director to say that I thought I should leave the opera house, and come back in some years when my maturity sort of chronologically would have caught up with the invitations that I was being offered. Of course, considering that he’d taken me into the opera house when I knew one role, he wasn’t all that happy. I thought he’d say, “Oh, what a smart girl. Oh yes, absolutely. That’s what we’ll do.” No, no. He was absolutely furious.

Were you afraid you might be making a mistake?

Keys to success — Courage

Jessye Norman: I decided that I had to save myself by leaving the opera house.  It isn’t as though I had, you know, sort of sheaves and sheaves of work.  I made this decision because I was trying to save myself.  I have always sung more solo recitals with piano than opera, but it isn’t as though I had recitals lined up all over the world.  I had two or three things that I knew that were coming up, but I didn’t have a lot after that. So at that point in my very young life, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to be able to continue, because it wasn’t certain that I would have enough work as a solo performer to support myself. So there were probably about two months before I actually told my parents what I’d done. When I called them, and my mother was on one extension and my father was on the other one, which was in the kitchen, there was stunned silence, and my father said, “Well sister, how is it going since you’ve left the opera house in Berlin?”  I said, “Well actually, I have two recitals in this place, and another recital in that place, and I think I’m going to be all right.” And at some point, Mother said, “Do you need to come home?”

Three of America's great classical singers, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Denyce Graves, after performing at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., 2012.
Three of America’s great classical singers: Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman and Denyce Graves, after performing at Ford’s Theatre during a tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, in Washington, D.C., 2012.

What did you say?

Jessye Norman: I said, “No, I think I’m going to be all right.”

How did you come to be offered this opportunity in the first place?

Jessye Norman: It’s a wonderful story. A very wealthy industrialist by the name of J. Ralph Corbett from Cincinnati, Ohio happened to be married to a person who had wanted to be a singer. She was supportive of the Cincinnati Opera and they supported practically single-handedly the Cincinnati Symphony, and they wanted to broaden their interest in supporting young American singers. They had the idea, along with some people in the classical music world that they trusted, and had discussions about how they might help American singers to get going, because there really wasn’t a lot of financial support. They had the brilliant idea that instead of having American singers traipse all over Europe singing for various directors of opera houses, because they were in a position to do so financially, they would invite 25 directors of opera houses from all over Europe to come to the United States for two weeks. They could wine and dine them in New York, take them to the concerts, to the opera, to the theater, and during the day they had to sit there and listen to American singers all day long. Somehow I was invited to be a part of this.

I went along at my appointed time — it was in New York — and sang for this group of directors from opera houses all over the place. I sang the second aria from Tannhäuser, which is one of the early operas of Wagner, and it was a very good choice, because you’re only accompanied by the brass instruments in the orchestra, which means unless you have very good breath control you can’t do this aria. It is very slow, and it’s very hymn-like in the way that it’s composed. It’s not a lot of orchestral accompaniment that is kind of brilliant and spectacular. It really is a prayer, and so either you can pull it off or you can’t. You really can’t sort of cheat on it. And it’s, again, one of these fantasy stories. Egon Seefehlner was one of the directors that was sitting there. He actually came backstage after I finished my little presentation and he said to me, “Do you know the rest of that opera?” And so I said, “No, but I could know it by next week.” And he said, “It doesn’t need to be quite so early. You would have time.” So this was in May of a year, and he said, “I have looked at my calendar all through the time that you were singing, and I could offer you a date in November to sing this opera at my opera house.” I said, “Fine. Wonderful.” I mean at 23, what is not possible, you know? So I said, “That sounds like a good idea.”

So I set about working that opera backwards and forwards and up and down. I knew everybody’s part. I went to Duke University to study conversational German, because I had no intention of going to Germany and not being able to talk. I didn’t know whether or not people spoke English. There was no reason that I could imagine this. It sounds like I’m making it up, but I went to rehearsals, and went to my costume fittings, which were rather different from having a costume fitting at the University of Michigan for the operas that we did there. I sang the performance, and after the second act, which is the act in which my character first appears, Egon Seefehlner actually came to my dressing room. The opera wasn’t finished and he said, “This is going very well. I’d like to offer you a three-year contract.” So I said, “But Dr. Seefehlner, I haven’t finished the opera.” And he said, “The aria that’s coming up in the third act, that’s the one you sang in New York and I know that you can sing it.”

Were you in graduate school when you went to New York and did this?

Jessye Norman: Yes, I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

You left there and moved to Germany and the rest is history.

Jessye Norman: Well yes, we’re still trying to make it.

What did it feel like that first time, singing with a full orchestra on the stage of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin?

Jessye Norman: By this time I had sung with an orchestra. I had sung with the University of Michigan Orchestra.

Jessye Norman at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, July 1989. Norman was chosen by the President of France to perform the national anthem,
Jessye Norman at the Hotel Crillon in Paris, July 1989. Norman was chosen by the President of France to perform the national anthem, La Marseillaise, during the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution. (Corbis Photo)

Was there a standing ovation at the end?

Jessye Norman: There was a standing ovation at the end of the opera, I think because everybody was just so surprised. One has to understand … think about this. Berlin, December of 1969, just a little bit before Christmas, the Berlin opera house, an African American singing a quintessential German character in a Wagnerian opera in a German opera house. It’s completely crazy when you think about it, but that’s what happened to me.

After your successful debut in Berlin, how did you come to realize you were being offered roles you were not ready for?

Jessye Norman: Imagine Berlin at the time: Herbert von Karajan directing the Berlin Philharmonic. You had all of these wonderful — I lived across the street from the Schiller Theater, which is still one of the great theaters in Germany, where I would go and listen to really well-spoken German. So there was a lot that I was learning, just from being in that particular place at the time. I went to the opera practically every night. I went to something practically every night, just learning and seeing and absorbing, and what I noticed is that there were singers that were only sort of slightly older than I whose voices sounded as though they were many decades older than that, and didn’t sound pretty, and I needed to understand what was happening. I mean there were singers that were 28 or 30 years old or something, and I would speak to them afterwards to say, “Was your voice tired tonight? Tell me what’s happening,” because I didn’t understand it. Their voices should have sounded fresh and blooming and wonderful, but instead they sounded different, and it was because they were singing a different opera every night, and singing whatever was offered, and I didn’t understand and needed to understand — because no one was telling me these things — why they just didn’t say no. Why didn’t they just say, “Oh no, I don’t think I should.” Because it certainly could have happened that I could have been fired earlier in the process, but I didn’t have sense enough to worry about that. I was more concerned about preserving myself.

How did you learn to speak German?

Jessye Norman: Determination. Five hours a day for six months.

And then Italian, and then all the other languages that you’ve mastered.

Jessye Norman: Yes, and Spanish, yes. Rabbi Freidlander works with me every time I’ve got to sing in Hebrew. I don’t pretend to speak Hebrew. But otherwise I don’t sing in languages that I don’t speak.


Jessye Norman: I want to be able to express, I want to be able to communicate, and I want to be able to understand what it is I’m doing, and I want the people whose language it is to understand what I’m doing.  And to help me with that, I need to listen to people speaking their own language, to listen to the difference in nuance which, of course, is just… I just love languages, and I love learning, and I love listening.  I love being able to listen to Italian and to be able to tell that that person comes from North Italy, and that person is from Southern Italy, and that person is from Napoli.  Only people from Napoli speak Italian like that, and I enjoy that sort of thing.