How did you first discover your voice, and find out you could become a singer?
Jessye Norman: My parents told me that I started singing at the same time that I started speaking. So I have absolutely no memory of not singing, and it was — and remains, thank goodness! — a very natural thing for me to do, because I’ve always done it. I was in the children’s choir at the church, and the choir at the school in first grade, and all the rest of it. And it wasn’t that I had such an interesting voice, it was just a very loud voice, and so for a five-year-old or a six-year-old, I could always sing on my own and be heard, you see, so that was the interesting part of that time. I hope that things have changed over time.
When did you first sing in public?
Jessye Norman: The first time I recall singing in public I was in the second grade. I’m sure that I sang in church before that, but I don’t really have a memory of that. But I remember being in second grade and the school — it was a huge school in the segregated South, at least 1,200 kids in school from first grade to eighth grade at the time — and every Friday the school would all come together in the auditorium, when the principal would tell you whether you’ve been good children or bad children and all the things you needed to do to be really good children. And so it was the responsibility of a class, out of the second grade or the third grade or the fourth grade, to present a kind of program on each of the Fridays. And it was now time for the second grade students to do this, and my teacher at the time said, “Well then, you should sing, Norman.” I was always called by my last name because there were too many of us to remember our first names. And so she said, “You can sing, Norman, because you sing so loudly we won’t have to sort of lower the microphone from the principal when you’re singing on stage.” I took it to be a compliment. Absolutely I took it to be a compliment.
How old were you?
Jessye Norman: I was seven. Second grade.
Is there a book that inspired you as a child?
Jessye Norman: I think when I was about five, I read a book that still remains one of my favorites, and I give it to all of the little children in my family, and it’s Ferdinand the Bull. I love Ferdinand the Bull because Ferdinand didn’t look like the rest of the animals and therefore had to think highly of himself to sort of get on in life. I still think of that book, and every time I mention it somebody sends me another copy of Ferdinand the Bull. I give them away. One can only keep so many copies of the same children’s book, but that was a book that inspired me as a very young child. I know it isn’t probably the answer that one is expecting to say, “Oh no, it was the first time I read Much Ado About Nothing of Shakespeare,” or something. No, it was Ferdinand the Bull.
What was the role of music in your house when you were growing up?
Jessye Norman: There was music all the time. The boys in my family played instruments in the bands at schools, 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 kind of things that are happening with the schools’ curriculum these days, all over the country and all over the world, that the arts are simply dropping out of the curriculum. They wouldn’t have allowed it. They knew how much being a member of the chorus — 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 education that really is just too important to be left aside. So music was in my house all the time. My mother played piano, and one of the things that I talk about all the time is at Christmastime, we do a version — if you can imagine it — of The Messiah‘s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Now with my mother playing the piano, and I’m singing all of the parts of the chorus, and one of my brothers is playing the tuba, somebody else is playing the trumpet, and somebody else is playing the trombone, we would simply look at the music and choose a line of it to play. And there we were, sort of doing this thing that really calls for a chorus and an orchestra, not five people in the hallway on the upright piano. I always say, if we hadn’t known where Handel was buried at the time, (we would have known) from the Norman rendition of “Hallelujah Chorus,” because he was certainly spinning in his grave!
Was this interest in music unique to your family?
Jessye Norman: There were a lot of musical children around. I mean there were a lot of us that studied piano. I studied piano from the time I was very young, and all of us were sent out to piano whether you wanted to or not. I mean, the boys in my family — my three brothers — had to study piano along with my sister and myself, and cousins and everybody at school went to study piano lessons, and to participate in various sort of musical things at the churches and schools. It was a very normal thing to have music in the house, to come in on a Sunday afternoon — which was one of the great things of growing up — to come in on a Sunday afternoon from church, and there was Leonard Bernstein doing the Young People’s Concerts on television. It was one of the few things that we were allowed to watch in television, and it was on Sunday in the afternoon, and it was incredible. It was almost as good as going to a concert, because he spoke directly into the camera. He told you everything you needed to know about the music and then the music was played. It was astounding, really wonderful.
You were lucky to have parents who understood the power of music and the arts.
Jessye Norman: Yes, they understood that.
Many Americans do not hear operatic music when they’re growing up. You started listening to opera at an early age. How did that come about?
Jessye Norman: I was given my very own radio. I know that most kids sort of listening to this right now would just burst out laughing, but it was the greatest thing in the world. I was given my very own radio in my very own bedroom, which meant I could listen to anything that I wanted to. I didn’t have to invite my brothers. I could close the door, and if I wanted to listen to Gunsmoke or to Elvis Presley or to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays, I could do that. And I would listen 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 the opera. Of course I didn’t understand Italian or French or German or any of these things, but I didn’t need to, because Milton Cross told you everything you needed to know. He told you what Joan Sutherland was wearing, that she was very tall, that she was wearing a very beautiful blond wig and that her costume for Lucia di Lammermoor was this beautiful teal blue color. So I could see all of this in my mind, and however long the opera lasted on a Saturday afternoon, that’s how long it took me to clean my room, which was my job on the Saturday. So if it was a long opera, it went on for a bit, my cleaning.
Did you share your excitement about the opera with your friends? Were they interested?
Jessye Norman: I had the luck of having a teacher, several teachers already in the fourth grade, a Mrs. Printup, and then in the fifth grade a Mrs. Hughes, in the 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 listened to the opera that Saturday, I would be asked by my various teachers, “Now would you like to tell us what it was you heard on the radio on Saturday?” I was happy to. The kids were bored to tears. You can just imagine it, you know, sort of 10-year-old boys sort of sitting there listening to some girl go on about Leontyne Price singing Aïda. I mean really, what is Aïda anyway? And I would tell the story, because I’d make notes when Milton Cross was telling us what was going on, so that I would be prepared. So I had my little sort of shtick every Monday morning, you know, during the course of the year when the opera was on, that I might be called upon to talk about the opera. So I arrived with my notes and bored the class to absolute tears for these 15 minutes. One of the operas — a wonderful septet from an opera of Donizetti, the one that I mentioned earlier, Lucia di Lammermoor, it has such a beautiful, beautiful ensemble, and I memorized the tune because it was so pretty for my ears, and I had remembered it by the time Monday turned around, and I could talk about it to the class, and that was the one time that I think the boys in the class actually listened to what I was saying.
Can you hum it? What is it?
Jessye Norman: (Humming). I mean just the most beautiful tune imaginable.
What experience or event in your life inspired you the most?
Jessye Norman: Oh gosh. That would be very difficult to say. I would have to choose being inspired by just hearing my grandmother sing her way through the entire day. She had a song for every time of day. In the morning there was a kind of quick song, a spiritual that would be rather fast. And then later in the day, when she was perhaps more contemplative, or maybe just exhausted from the day… I remember being taken by that. She seemed to have her own kind of soundtrack that accompanied her throughout the day. I didn’t think of it in those terms as a young child, but now, in reflection, I think about her having her own soundtrack.
I think about being nine or ten years old, and the next door neighbor saying she had some 78s that someone had given her, and she knew I was interested in that kind of music, and would I sort of like to listen to something. And I said, “Yes, of course I would.” We didn’t have a stereo player at the house — at our house — that played 78s, but she had one at her house that played 78s, so she gave me this stack of recordings and kind of left the room for me to have my own fun. And I found a recording of Marian Anderson’s — whose name I’d already heard — and she was singing the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. I was listening to that on that record player, as one referred to them in those days, and even though I had no idea of the meaning of the words, they sounded important to me, and the music sounded important to me, and I listened to it over and over again. And on the occasion at Carnegie Hall, many, many years later when we were having a memoriam — as by this time Marian Anderson had passed, this was in 1997 — and when Robert Shaw said to me, “Let’s do the Alto Rhapsody,” I said, “Well, I might not get through it, because I might cry all the way through it because this is a very meaningful piece to me.” But it was thrilling on that occasion in her memory to sing the first thing I’d ever heard her sing.
When you were 16, you entered an important music scholarship competition. Where did you go to participate and what was it like?
Jessye Norman: When I entered the competition — this is, of course, on paper, I was 15, but knew that I would be the required age of 16 by the time the contest would occur. This was an idea of my choir director from middle school, and so she told me about this and said, “There’s something called the Marian Anderson Competition in Philadelphia, and one can enter from age 16.” What I didn’t understand at the time is that it went from age 16 to age 30, so there would be people in this contest that had a great deal more experience than this 15-year-old from Augusta, Georgia. But anyway, along we went, and there’s a marvelous story that goes with that as well, because my school principal decided that the school should participate in my going to Philadelphia. So on one particular day — and this is amazing when I think about it — he said that all of the children in this big school should — instead of spending their money for lunch — that they should give their money to me so that I would have extra money to go to Philadelphia, and the Board of Education paid for their lunch that day, so that there would be the act of their participating in my going to Philadelphia. Is that a wonderful story?
I wonder if those kids remember that when they see where you went in life.
Jessye Norman: Oh yes. I still am in contact with a great number of kids that I knew at that time. I went to Philadelphia, and I didn’t win the contest, of course. I mean I was probably the youngest person that ever showed up, but I recall so well that the sister of Marian Anderson came to me. She said, “Now you are very young, but I want you to come back and sing for us once you’ve actually studied singing, because we’re going to keep an eye on you.” And as far as I was concerned, I had won everything! Marian Anderson’s sister actually spoke to me!
On the way back from Philadelphia, because my teacher who was accompanying me — Rosa Sanders, my high school music teacher was accompanying me — we stopped in Washington, because we both had relatives here. We were sort of visiting near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and all of that, and in the middle of the day she said, “Why don’t we find out if anybody at Howard University is there and will listen to you sing?” I said, “Well, that sounds like fun.” You know, at that time you don’t care that you’re tired and sort of perspiring from sightseeing all day long. It never occurs to you that you can’t sing. And so she knew one of the professors at Howard because he had been a professor at Paine College in Augusta when she had been a student, and that’s where she’d gone to school. So we just called this person, Dean Fax was his name, Mark Fax. And by now he was on faculty at the College of Fine Arts at Howard and so we called and he said, “Well why not? There’s a class this afternoon that’s a master’s degree class in vocal anatomy, so you can sing for that class.” I said, “Why not? That’s fine.” So along we went, and sang for that class, interrupted their studies and just sort of knocked on the door. The professor at the time was told that I was there, and so she welcomed us into the class, where there was a small piano. I sang a few songs, and that professor happened to be Carolyn Grant, who had been professor of voice at Howard University for about 42 years at the time. She accompanied me and my teacher out of the room once we finished our little performance, and she said, “How old are you?” And so I said, “I’m 16. I’ve just turned 16. I’m all grown up!” So she said, “Well, where are you in high school?” I said, “I’ve got another year.” She said, “Well I suppose you’d have to finish high school before you could come to school here,” and I said, “Come to school here?” At that moment, she went down to the dean of the college and said, “I want to teach this child. Make sure that she comes to Howard University.” That’s how I happened to have a scholarship to Howard University. I know, it’s all fairy tales, isn’t it?
Did you know you would become a professional singer?
Jessye Norman: I understood about singing and music, of course, as I said, from a very early age, but I didn’t understand about getting paid for singing, because as a child, of course, you get something to drink and two butter cookies as a “thank you” for coming to whatever it is and singing. That was even more than one expected, you know? You expected to have somebody shake your hand and say thank you and that was the kind of end of it. So the whole idea of becoming one of these people singing on the radio from the Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday, that was very far from my mind, because I had no idea as to how one would do that. But I did understand my other passion — which remains a passion of mine — which is medicine. It happens that the University of Georgia Medical School is in Augusta, Georgia, where I was born. So I saw people in white coats all the time, going back and forth. I understood about going to university and then going to medical school and then getting a job. So up until age 17 — which by this time I had a scholarship to come to Howard University to study in the College of Fine Arts — I was still making sure, as a student in high school, that I had the credits that I would need in order to go to liberal arts at Howard University and to prepare to go to pre-med.
So you were thinking of becoming a doctor?
Jessye Norman: Absolutely, very much so.
Did your parents know that?
Jessye Norman: Oh yes, absolutely.
Did they push you in that direction?
Jessye Norman: I tell the story all the time about my mother coming through my bedroom, sometime in August of 19-ought… when I was getting ready to go to university and you know how it is if you’re going off to university or something the first time or going off to camp, you start packing long before you’re supposed to go. You think you’ve got so many things and such a lot of things to organize that you start very early. And this was the first time I’d had a locker, so I was very interesting in getting myself organized. This was weeks before I needed to show up in Washington, and my mother, who had a very special way of walking, sort of came through my bedroom. She said “Oh, darling. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but you do have a full scholarship to study music at Howard University. But make up your own mind.”
So she was really interested in your following a musical career.
Jessye Norman: Yes. Absolutely.
At that time, so many people were pushing our kids to get into the sciences.
Jessye Norman: Yes, and to have a sure way of earning a living. I was just very lucky, and we talk about this a great deal with my siblings, that our parents were so supportive without sort of being on our necks. How did they do that? All of my siblings have children and are raising wonderful, wonderful, interesting children that are involved in their professional lives, but also in their communities. They try very much to emulate what we learned at home, and that was to be there, but not pushing.
Did any of your siblings go into music as well?
Jessye Norman: No, they went into medicine. They saw those white coats too, but they participate very much in music. My older brother Silas, who’s an internist — and actually the Dean of Admissions at Wayne State University, the medical college there — and a Professor of Internal Medicine, he sings in a choir. It’s a professional choir. They sing with the Detroit Symphony and go on tour, so he’s very much involved in music. My sister happens to have just come back from London — I was working in Europe as well — because she sings in Wynton Marsalis’s choir. She’s a nursing director, but she still sings. It’s wonderful.
Carolyn Grant of 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 that she saw great joy in the actual act of singing, and that even though I was walking into a classroom of people — and it was a small classroom. It wasn’t a big auditorium. People were sitting all around me. And that I was comfortable in that situation, because that’s the way you sing at church. I mean if you were standing in church singing, there’s somebody sitting in the front row, there’s somebody sitting on the side. There are the deacons sitting to your right, so it’s not like you’re on a platform performing. So I think that she saw a certain degree of enthusiasm, and a certain degree of happiness, just being allowed to do it. I think that that sort of caught her eye and her ear, which was, of course, a glorious thing for me, to be able to work with someone, not having studied anything about voice before.
How my parents understood that that would not have been a good idea is something about which I revel and celebrate every day of my life. Because, you see…
It could be very easy to ruin a young voice by having training in singing too soon, particularly for women. Those muscles on the middle of our bodies that actually support singing are still very much developing when we are teenagers. And if we go to those classes, which, of course, are proliferating all over the world now, because kids think if they can just sing on television and be heard by the right person they’ll have a record deal, as it were, sort of overnight. That isn’t the way life works. Not real life. That’s the way life works on television. It really is so important not to try to use those muscles before they are fully developed, because if you do that, the tendency is to use muscles in the neck, and muscles that are not there for that. Those muscles are there for chewing, absolutely. And I’m sure that you have noticed, as well, that one can see rather young singers that participate and the jaw shakes. That’s because the emphasis is being put on the wrong muscles, and they probably started doing it much too early, because these muscles were not developed so the body uses whatever there is. The thing that I say to young singers, to try to frighten them into not sort of taking themselves too seriously before the body is really ready for it, is that these vocal chords are unforgiving. If we abuse them, if we use them in the wrong way too early, they stretch, and like any ligament they don’t go back. They don’t go back. So it’s not a matter of having sort of ruined your voice at age 16, if you can just be quiet for two years everything is going to be all right. That isn’t 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 have it be all right in a matter of time. The vocal chords don’t work like that. So I was very lucky to work with Carolyn Grant to begin to understand how the voice is produced. She was a great vocal pedagogue, what one calls the study of vocal anatomy. So I understood how all of this works: where the diaphragm is in the body, and what part of the body sort of pushes the air out of the lungs and through the trachea and past the vocal chord, and how this all works. So that it’s not some sort 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’s meant to function, scientifically.
Science has always been a part of your life and what you do, hasn’t it?
Jessye Norman: Absolutely. It really is a part of my life. I bore the people in my family to tears. There are several doctors and nurses and so on, and I’m always talking about what I’ve just read in the American Medical Association, and one of the youngsters in my family said, “Aunt J., have you ever read Vogue? It’s a really very nice magazine about clothing. You like clothes. Have a look at that sometime.”
But this lifelong interest has obviously made a difference.
Jessye Norman: Oh, yes. I think it makes a difference for any of us to understand how it is that we produce something. Whether it’s a person that is an incredible marathon winner — I can hardly wait for the Olympics — or a person that is a magnificent swimmer, to understand what muscles are engaged at what point in that production of whatever it is you’re doing… It quiets the mind to know how this thing in your body functions.
All modesty aside, how would you describe the contribution you have made in your field?
Jessye Norman: Oh, good gracious. The contribution that I’ve made in my field. First, I would say that I’ve contributed 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 performers, whether they’re singers or violinists or pianists, is that I feel that I have encouraged them to go beyond the limitations of the box in which we can be placed as classical performers. That it really is all right to be a cellist, and to play the Elgar Concerto, but to be also interested in the music of the Silk Road, as Yo-Yo Ma has shown so brilliantly. That the music need not have been composed originally for the classical cello. That doesn’t mean that you can’t play it, and that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be interested in it. Why should a person who’s playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto not be interested in the ragtime music of Scott Joplin? Why should a singer who’s singing Mimi — a Puccini (role) — not be interested in the music of Cole Porter? I feel that we so often limit ourselves, because we think that we have to follow a certain line, that we have to follow and do what’s been done before, instead of finding our own paths and making our own way. I hope that my performance life encourages — particularly other singers — not to be limited, not to be put into a box and to be told, “You are that kind of soprano, so therefore this is the kind of music that you’re supposed to sing.” I said one clever thing — and I say this all the time — I said one clever thing in my entire life, and I was asked this question when I was about 23 or 24 years old. 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’ve got sort of fiorituri possibilities..” meaning sort of like coloratura sopranos, “…so what kind of soprano are you exactly?” And so then I said, in all of my sort of 23 or 24 years, “I think that pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons.”
Jessye Norman: I don’t know where that came from, but out it came out of my mouth.
That’s a brilliant response. It’s one of the questions people have asked for many years about you. “Where does your voice belong? Where does it go?” and you have answered, “Anywhere I want it to go.”
Jessye Norman: Exactly. Whatever we’re doing. This concert? This is the kind of soprano that I am.
But there are not many singers, not many sopranos or other opera singers, not many people who sing opera who can do that. They sing the same roles over and over and let themselves be limited that way.
Jessye Norman: I think that that is unfortunately the truth. I think it has a great deal to do with listening to one’s handlers and all of that, because they’d like to know how to sell you. So if you sing these roles, then they know what to do. I’m not trying to accommodate them. I’m just trying to live my life in song. Wherever that 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 her song — which was her protest song against capital punishment, called “Another Man Done Gone” — then that’s what I want to do.
What is the most unusual thing that you’ve ever sung? What are people surprised to hear Jessye Norman sing?
Jessye Norman: I’m trying to think of the name of the song. It’s quite incredible because we did a benefit some years ago for the rainforest in Brazil that was organized by Sting and Trudie Styler, his wife, at Carnegie Hall. I was singing with Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor. It was a whole bunch of guys and me, so we were having a great time and we were singing something or the other of Elvis Presley. What was the song? It’s gone straight out of my head, but I had to learn it because I didn’t know it, but we had the most fun, and people were very surprised.
You really love to sing.
Jessye Norman: I really do. I really do. As I always say, I think it helps to be a bit of a ham, that you really like getting out there and doing it, because I truly do.
Is there anybody you’d like to sing with that you haven’t sung with yet?
Jessye Norman: Yes. Herbie Hancock. I’d like to sing with Herbie Hancock playing the piano.
Do you like jazz?
Jessye Norman: Yes, I love jazz.
Can you scat?
Jessye Norman: Oh yes. I do it all the time. I’ve been singing jazz now for a few years, and I have to tell you that I have a very good time with it. Early in my professional life I thought, “Oh no, I can never do that. No, no, absolutely. That’s a whole different sort of line of study. There’s no way that I could possibly…” But of course, after all those years of singing to my Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae recordings, I’m doing 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 endeavor? Singing? I think that I find excitement in being able to communicate a thought to an audience, without that being necessarily in the language of that particular person, but that by the way in which — I hope — that I’m singing, they would get the essence of what it is about which I’m singing. That is exciting for me.
I went some years ago to Greece, and we were going to do an entire program in English: the sacred music of Duke Ellington, with gospel choir, sort of spiritual dancer, jazz combo, jazz ensemble, pianists, the whole thing 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 concerned about singing in English the entire time, and singing music that wasn’t known. I mean, we know “Sophisticated Lady” and “Take the A Train,” and so on, but we’re not quite so familiar with the sacred music of Duke Ellington. But the moment you hear it, you know that it’s Duke Ellington, whether or not you’ve heard the music before or not. And I was concerned about that, and I needn’t have been. Because the audience, even though — imagine we are outside, it’s summertime and of course there’s a full moon, it was absolutely stunning — and it was as quiet, that 15,000 people sitting in that amphitheater, it was quieter than singing in a church. And one understood from the quality of the silence that people were listening, that they weren’t just being quiet until the concert was over. It was a listening quiet. You could sense that. And after it was over, they expressed their joy in having heard this music, and it was overwhelming. I shall never forget that night as long as I live.
You had already performed in most of the great opera houses in Europe long before you made your first operatic 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, and that was to be offered a role that would be suitable for me. Maybe I’m being incorrect in this, but I actually sang Aïda with the Orlando Opera Company in the ’70s. And it wasn’t until 1982 that I was offered something that I thought, “Now this will be a good way to sing opera in the United States.” It was with the Philadelphia Opera. I was asked to do Oedipus rex of Stravinsky along with Dido and Aeneas of Henry Purcell. I thought, first of all, it was a very interesting double bill, and that was the thing that interested me enough to say, “Okay, let’s do it.” And then the next year I sang for the 100th anniversary first night of the Met in New York.
How did that feel?
Jessye Norman: That felt wonderful. I had no idea that it would mean so much to so many other people. It never occurred to me that anybody was paying attention to that, but the amount of mail that I received from people saying, “Thank goodness you’ve finally come to the opera house here in New York.” I had been offered roles at the opera house in New York for ten years, it’s just that it hadn’t been anything that I felt would be suitable for me, or that I would enjoy doing. So I was very lucky, in that they hadn’t lost interest and continued to ask, but I had no idea that it meant anything to anybody else. Truly. I just wasn’t thinking that.
Didn’t you realize that while you were singing in Europe, everybody was hearing about you here in the United States? They knew who you were and they wanted you to come home.
Jessye Norman: I never thought about it. I was singing very often in the States with orchestras, singing recitals with piano, so I was singing. I just wasn’t singing in the opera house. It never occurred to me that anybody else was thinking about it, I promise you. 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 for you?
Jessye Norman: I think Strauss had a very special way — and this might be due to the fact that he was married to a singer — but he had a wonderful way of writing for the female voice. Anybody that sings his music says the same thing. It is written in such a wonderful way. He understood how the female voice functions, and there’s just so much, for which I’m just so grateful, for the music of Strauss. It’s given me such a presentation of music for so long in my performance life, whether it’s the opera Ariadne or whatever, or the “Four Last Songs” of Strauss. I can’t imagine what my life would be like minus those songs. I can’t even imagine it.
Do you think you have an affinity for German music because your career really began in Germany?
Jessye Norman: Yes, I’m sure. Because there were so many singers at the time that 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 of these people. I had the experience of listening to so many singers sing this repertoire, and it was so inspiring, because they made it seem so natural and so easy. Of course, it is everything except easy. I was inspired by the work that they did, and by the fact that they could have a full house. They were singing, very quietly, some songs of Hugo Wolf, some songs of Johannes Brahms, some songs of Mozart or Beethoven. There was no stage set. 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 is the nearest to your heart?
Jessye Norman: Oh gosh. That would be difficult to answer. I can honestly say that I have not sung any opera roles that I didn’t really, really want to do, but I suppose if I had to choose one, I would probably choose Dido in the Trojans of Berlioz, because first of all 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 libretti, the words can be a little less than great literature, shall we say.
And the story is sometimes a little bit…
Jessye Norman: A little bit ridiculous, to say the least. I mean, try to explain the story of Il Trovatore of Verdi to somebody without breaking into laughter. But to have that text, the Aeneid, translated into French, just to have words that are that beautifully translated, and that they’re beautiful to say, and then to have them set to music. I suppose if I had to choose one, I would choose Dido.
Do you like Italian opera?
Jessye Norman: Yes, I love Italian opera. I don’t sing a great deal of Italian opera, but I love to listen to it from other people. One of my favorite roles to listen to is La Traviata. I love the role of Violetta in that opera. I really just love it.
But you would never sing it?
Jessye Norman: It’s not for my voice at all. It’s not for my sort of voice, even my very different voices. There isn’t one of those voices inside of me that would suit that role. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I love to listen to other people sing it.
Have you ever felt that people discriminate against people who are bright, and who say the things that they feel, and who know perhaps more than the people who are directing them?
Jessye Norman: I’ve had the odd experience of working with my colleagues who would have preferred that I should keep quiet when I have expressed a differing opinion to what was going on. I was working, for instance, years ago — I was just thinking — working years ago for one of the Queen’s birthdays in Britain, and the conductor wanted to do some music of Scott Joplin, except I don’t think he had ever seen any music of Scott Joplin before, much less performed it. It was a slow drag which is in two. (Hums). And he was doing 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 we finally had a pause in the rehearsal, and I sort of went forward. I said, “Excuse me, but actually a slow drag is in two, not four. So if we could go through that perhaps again.” And he said something like, “Well it’s your music, you must know about it.” And so I said in response, “We can talk about the Great Symphony in C of Schubert if you’d like. I have some things to say about that too.” So it shows you that people would sometimes rather you just sort of 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 meter!
Do you think he said that because you happened to be the same color…
Jessye Norman: As the composer, yes.
Not because you could read the music.
Jessye Norman: Yes, exactly. No, no, no, not at all.
Well, he just didn’t know you.
Jessye Norman: He didn’t know me, but he got to know me over time.
In 1989 you were asked to participate in a celebration in Paris, marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Could you describe that experience?
Jessye Norman: I was asked by President Mitterrand through an emissary of his, a year before the celebration should take place. I have been singing in France all of my performing life, and have a very special relationship which I treasure with the French musical public. I was very concerned that perhaps, because I spent so much time performing there, I was very concerned that perhaps President Mitterrand thought that I was from Haiti, or from Cameroon, or from a former French colony in Africa or somewhere. So I said to the person who was asking me this on the behalf of the President, Monsieur du Pavignon was his name, I said, “Does the President realize that I’m American, and that I’m 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 bicentennial of the French Revolution it still sounds kind of implausible. I was very comfortable. I was very happy to be a part of it, and everybody else around me — the people that were responsible for it — were as nervous as they could be. I mean at one point, one of the people in charge of the entire sort of parade, as we call it — it’s called a défilé in French — came to me and said, “Are you nervous?” and so I said no. And he said, “How can you not be nervous going out to sing for three billion people watching on television all over the world, not to mention the people that are actually on the Champs-Élysées and at the Place de la Concorde?” And so I said,” I practiced, I know the tune, I’ve practiced the words. You could wake me up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Sing the third verse of the national anthem of France,’ and it would come out of me, so I’m just going to have a good time. I get to wear the tricolor, the French colors, as a dress, as an American singing the Marseillaise. I’m not nervous. I’m having a wonderful evening.” And I did have a wonderful evening.
What’s harder to sing, “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the Marseillaise?
Jessye Norman: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is unsingable. No, truly, and I know that there are people who say, “She must be absolutely crazy,” but I really do feel that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it covers too much territory. That is an octave and a fifth. That means you’ve got 13 notes that are incorporated into our national anthem. For a song that is to be sung by a general public, one octave is enough. And the song that I wish we had as a national anthem is “America the Beautiful.” It doesn’t talk about war, it doesn’t talk about anything except for the beauty of this land, and the joy that we should have in being in this land, and it’s a much more — for me — a much more beautiful song, even though I understand completely the rousing that happens in the heart from listening just to the opening 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’ve sung “America the Beautiful” for the tennis open. Why not?
You’ve performed in at least two one-woman operas where you’re the only singer on stage, singing continuously without a break, Erwartung and La voix humaine. In 1989 you performed Erwartung back-to-back with Bluebeard’s Castle, where there’s only one other singer on stage. How do you prepare for such a taxing and demanding performance?
Jessye Norman: It’s kind of perverse of me that I like sort of doing this kind of thing. I still happen to be the only singer that’s ever done Erwartung of Schoenberg and La voix humaine of Poulenc on the same evening. La voix humaine is “the human voice.” The play is by Jean Cocteau and the music is by Francis Poulenc and these are very demanding and every different characters and very different operas, but I enjoy the challenge. I mean I’ve also done in one evening — going back to The Trojans. Having mentioned that Dido, if I had to choose one role, that I would choose that one. But I’ve also — because The Trojans is done in two parts — I’ve done Cassandra who’s the character, the female lead, in the first part, and I’ve also done Dido on the same night.
They have a new production of The Trojans at Covent Garden which is wonderful, and some of the singers, I was visiting with them backstage, and one of the singers came up to me and said, “My agent told me he was at 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 carbo load the night before. You have to prepare for that the way a marathon runner would prepare to run for 26 miles. Why anybody would want to run for 26 miles is beyond my understanding, but that’s something else again! So you have to prepare your body to have enough stored energy upon which you can call, once the day arrives that you’ve got to do this. So I eat in a completely different manner when preparing for something that’s going to happen like that the next day.
Many people play musical instruments, but your instrument, your voice, is a part of you. How do you feel about that?
Jessye Norman: It is a responsibility, I’m very grateful for it, but at the same time, it can really get on other people’s nerves, you know, saying, “Well, we have to turn off the air conditioning,” and “I mustn’t be in a draft,” and all the rest of it. Everybody else is sort of fanning themselves because it’s so hot, and I’m sitting there saying, “But I can’t be in air conditioning, because it’ll give me sinusitis,” and all the rest of it. Sometimes, particularly the little people in my family will say, “Can’t you just take your voice out and put it on the table so that we can sit in the car in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer with the air conditioning on, please?”
People could mistake that for being temperamental, being a diva. Do they get it?
Jessye Norman: They don’t get it. They don’t understand that all you’re doing is trying to preserve your work activity. This is your profession, and people would prefer that you not show up hoarse, and with sinusitis, and everything else that could happen from having a cold.
What do you think of contemporary popular music? Do you hear anything you like in popular music today?
Jessye Norman: Well, I try to understand the popular music of today, because I have lots of young people in my family and I want to be on top of things. So I need them to direct me as to what to listen to, and who’s the new hot thing, and all the rest of it. But I do sometimes find that it’s too facile for me, that it’s too easy. The words don’t really mean anything and the words are repeated without their meaning anything more the second time around. There is something rather wonderful and satisfying about listening to a really good text, to listen to really wonderful lyrics. That, for me, is missing in a great deal of popular music these days. People that are working in the classical field are beginning to understand also that writing for the voice in contemporary music is rather different from writing for the trombone or writing for an orchestra, and that one has to understand how the human voice works. It is not the same as another instrument, but it’s wonderful that composers are beginning to write really well for the voice.
You participated in several vocal competitions when you were starting out. Now singing contests have become very popular on television programs like The Voice. Can you imagine being a judge on a program like that?
Jessye Norman: I decided years ago that I would never ever work as an adjudicator. As a kid, going around singing in various competitions and various contests and so on, I decided long ago that I would never do that. I’ve been asked several times, not for that particular thing, but to adjudicate 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 do that, because I’ve seen judges make so many mistakes that people that have had potential have been discouraged, because a judge said, “Oh well, you’re just 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 who really were kind of the one-pony show have been chosen, and they haven’t sort of gone beyond that one-pony show. So I determined very early in my professional life that it would take more than is, I think, available to simple humans, to be able to determine that a person at age 18 is going to still be singing or playing the violin or playing the piano at age 40. Your own experience can’t determine that. You’re a completely different person from that youngster that is on stage singing the waltz from Puccini’s Bohème or something.
What do you think of the situation where these relatively inexperienced singers become famous overnight, like Susan Boyle after her appearance on a British television program?
Jessye Norman: I didn’t see the show, but I’ve heard her sing since, and it’s a wonderful voice, so it’s marvelous that she was, as it were, discovered. I wish that there had been the kind of support that one would need in having that kind of exposure at that point in one’s life. It all seemed to happen very quickly, and I felt that she did not have enough people around saying, “This is going to be all right. I’m going to take care of this part of it for you. Do not worry. You don’t have to talk to everybody that wants to interview and all the rest of it.” I felt that it was an unnecessary strain on that beautiful woman. I thought that wasn’t quite fair.
What do you know about achievement now that you didn’t know when you were younger?
Jessye Norman: I have learned that achievement is ongoing. It’s like learning, that you don’t — certainly within my performing life — you don’t get to a point where you can say, “Now I can rest. I’ve done that, so now I can sit on laurels.” That’s not the case. There’s always someone in the audience who’s never heard you before. There’s always something new that I’m performing for the first time. I like that. I love that. On a tour, I never sing exactly the same program everywhere. I want the excitement of knowing, “Oh yes. 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 that it also keeps things more interesting for the audience. But certainly, I have learned that one has to go on achieving, that one doesn’t get to a level to say, “Okay, now I’m fine, don’t have to worry any more.” No, no, no. I don’t think that happens.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Jessye Norman: The American Dream means to me that people who need the support that can only be given by a government, that they are given what is needed in order to live, not just to survive but to thrive. I am so exhausted from hearing this business about pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps. There are people in our country that are not wearing boots. And that not to understand that it is the responsibility of a society to look out for the least of us is, for me, a very wrong way of looking at life and living. The American Dream is realized only when we come to the point of understanding, when we see a person that is not doing very well in life, if we can understand that “there (but for) the grace of God go I,” and that it is our responsibility to lend a hand, a hand up. People don’t want a handout, they want a hand up. And the American Dream, to me, is understanding and participating in that. Not achieving something on one’s own and letting that be all that happens in one’s life, but to understand sometimes you need to reach back. Sometimes you’ve got to reach on the side and say, “Hey, come along. Don’t be sad. This is going to work out. You’ll never walk alone.”
Speaking of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” you’ve sung that at a number of events recently.
Jessye Norman: I’m in Washington because of the 19th International AIDS Conference, at which I had the pleasure of singing, and to make a little speech about the wonderful people who give their time, their emotional support, their incredible scientific minds, working towards a cure — or certainly at least a vaccine — for AIDS after all these years. I told them that Rodgers and Hammerstein actually created an anthem for them long ago in Carousel when he wrote what they’ve been saying for 30 years to people involved and affected by AIDS, “You’ll never walk alone.” So I was very pleased to be able to sing that last night.
You’ve been very active in AIDS-related causes for many years. How did that begin?
Jessye Norman: It was such a mystery, of course, for everybody — when the disease first appeared. And being in the performing arts, it turned out that a lot of my friends and colleagues were affected first. It was a complete mystery as to what it was, how it was passed on and all the rest of that. In a very short period I lost a lot of people — like a lot of us — a lot of friends, and was very confused by this, and decided whatever it is, we have to work towards finding out what it is, and how it is transmitted, and how it can be cured. So I started working with various organizations, principally in New York City an organization called Balm In Gilead, run by the very dynamic Pernessa Seele. They relocated to Richmond, Virginia about five years ago and they’re still very, very active. One of the things that we did was to put on a concert at the Riverside Church in about 1997, I think it was, our first one. I arranged it in the way that a Baptist Church in the South would organize a service, so that we had the choir to process in, singing a spiritual, and then we had the scripture, and Whoopi Goldberg was our preacher, and our guest in the audience happened to be Elton John. So I was able to have Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Anna Deavere Smith and Bill T. Jones and Max Roach at the time, all of these people sort of as a member of the congregation who just happened to be there and sort of wanted to come and sort of praise the Lord in the name of looking for a cure for AIDS.
In 1997, did you think that we would have a cure by now?
Jessye Norman: Absolutely. Already — 15 years ago at the time of this first performance — the scientists were telling us that in about 10 years’ time it could be that there would be a vaccine. But, of course, we know that didn’t happen. Everybody is still working furiously to find out what can be done. But a lot of progress has been made, in that this mother-to-child transference is now a thing of the past in the United States, and is fast becoming a thing of the past all over the world. And as was mentioned last night, by 2015 this part of the AIDS crisis should be over, and that is really very encouraging. There is a new method of determining whether or not you happen to be HIV positive, that one can do at home, that you don’t have to even use a number when it’s, of course, wanting to keep one’s medical information private. But that it is possible to do these tests at home, and to find out for yourself, in the company, hopefully, of somebody that’s going to be with you. Because it can be devastating, I’m sure, to find out this news on one’s own. But to be able to do it in the privacy of one’s own home is a great step forward, and that’s just sort of in the last month or so that that’s come to the fore.
What advice or encouragement would you give to the children in your life? What would you want to leave behind as your verbal footprint?
Jessye Norman: As my verbal footprint? I would say that this time on earth is to be lived fully, to be enjoyed, to be of service to somebody else, not just one’s self, and that to live fully should be the goal.
This will be our last question. What is creativity and where does it come from?
Jessye Norman: I love to quote Einstein, when he actually 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 meant more to him in his life than the ability for absorbing knowledge. Can you imagine that? From Einstein? That the gift of going into one’s own mind and thinking of something, thinking that there could be something called the Internet that could connect people all over the world through a little machine that is on your desk, or on your lap or nowadays in your handbag. From where does it come? It comes from deeply inside of us. It comes from that place that is not trying to do anything except live. It isn’t thinking about whether or not this is a good idea, whether or not anybody else is going to think this is good, whether it’s a workable idea. It is simply there. And some people have the courage to go with it. I had the privilege of seeing Bill Gates receive an award last night and had a chance to chat to him just a moment. When I think of my friends that were in California at the time that there was something in Bill Gates’s garage that he wanted people to see, and that he thought was going to be something very interesting, and there were people that were smart enough to say, “Okay, I’ll go with you,” and other people that said, “Don’t be so silly,” that he kept going anyway. And look where it has taken us. And people working in this field in technology tell us 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 step outside of the box, to work with Bill T. Jones. When we’re doing a performance, and we’re working on steps and so on, 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 over here on a 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 that creativity means going with whatever is in your mind that is going to make your life more interesting and fun, whether it’s your personal life or your professional life. With everything that is going on, with all of the need and the suffering in the world, that 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, you’re very kind.