Jessye Norman Stands Up Straight and Sings
I hadn’t expected to like Jessye Norman’s newly published autobiography, Stand Up Straight and Sing!
Nobody disputes the glory of her voice. I heard her last year at Denison University’s Vail Series, with an “American Songbook” program. The powerful vocalist is pushing 70, but when she sat down to sing Another Man Done Gone, she was devastating. There is no way anyone could not call Jessye Norman a true artist.
She’s said to be difficult and temperamental, and speaks with a Mayfair accent that can’t otherwise be heard in Augusta GA. She presents herself as regal and oh, so formal.
Her voice is a wonder of the world.
Her book taught me that it is no easy thing for an African-American woman to insist on her own dignity. An African-American woman in the public eye who travels the world must carry herself with more dignity and more sense of self-worth. Even so, insults abound. They may be closeted now, but even when Jessye Norman was at the height of her fame, a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and Kennedy Center Honoree, she was still asked for her ID when strolling the hotel grounds.
Backstage gossip is fun and sells books, but you will find none of that here. Nor is this book a travelogue of …and then I sang…and then I won…and they applauded…” A woman of these gifts doesn’t need to self cheerlead. What we have here is closer to a meditation on family, on community and on an insistence on being treated with the courtesy and respect owed to us all.
There are some career highlights. Norman writes at some length of her collaboration with James Levine in Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung. She hoped to perform Racine’s play Phèdre (yet to happen but don’t count it out), and wrote the opportunity to sing this character in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie was delicious. She rightly calls Julie Taymor and Seiji Ozawa’s filmed production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex one of the best ever operas-on-film.
It would be hard to know for which composer or piece Norman would like to be remembered. Her repertoire is huge. She has given distinguished performances in baroque opera and in new music. Here’s a favorite of mine
Don’t read Stand Up Straight and Sing! for the dish. There isn’t any. Read it for the dignity and for the love of music. Not the love of Jessye. The love of music.