Jessye Norman: Dress size has nothing to do with opera singing
Legendary soprano Jessye Norman talks weight, race and what it really takes to be an opera star
Opera singer Jessye NormanPhoto: BEN MCMAHON
By Adam Sweeting
7:00AM BST 02 Jul 2014
Never let it be said that the Royal Opera House doesn’t offer value for money. Not only am I sitting across a table from the fabled operatic soprano Jessye Norman in the house’s Royal Retiring Room but, as an added bonus, the strains of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda are floating in from the auditorium, as the cast rehearse for opening night on July 5.
Norman made her Covent Garden debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1972, and it would become one of her signature roles. During the Eighties and Nineties she became one of the world’s most popular dramatic sopranos, a technically formidable artist equipped with a voice of unusual range and texture. She was hailed for her roles in operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss, but was also willing to stretch herself by testing less familiar waters, such as Poulenc’s La voix humaine or Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Conductor James Levine, music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, describes her as “one of the very rare sovereign artists”.
She’s in London to discuss her new book, Stand Up Straight and Sing! The memoir picks out themes from her life – we hear about her upbringing in segregated Georgia, the American civil rights movement, the inspiration she took from the African-American singer Marian Anderson, and how her professional life in music began in Europe.
“I was given the opportunity to write the kind of book that I wanted to write, rather than one that catalogues where I sang and what I sang and what I wore,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about an American family, the family that has produced me. The longer I live, the more I realise the incredible support and love we were given as children.”
She’s a powerful, Rubenesque woman, and her strong features and sonorous diction give her an intimidating air of command. Questions that don’t interest her are deftly quashed, and she has a reputation for being among the most demanding of divas. Her book recounts how she has caused ructions by giving conductors advice on how to do their job, and tackles an often-told anecdote about African-American soprano Kathleen Battle.
Supposedly, Battle was incensed by a favourable review that referred to her not merely as a singer but a black singer. After she’d flounced out of the room, Norman allegedly commented, “Well, somebody had to tell her”.
Norman’s remark has previously been considered evidence of wit. In her memoir, she tells how a music critic asked her about the story and asserts that not only was the story “bogus”, but that the critic’s attitude to it rendered him unable to make an unbiased assessment of “a performance by an African-American”. No laughing matter at all.
Her race has been an inescapable issue since she was born. She describes herself as a product of “a specific place and time in the history of our nation, in the Deep South, where our people marched, bled, and soldiered their way through the civil rights movement”. While still at school she joined the youth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and participated in marches and sit-ins.
She recalls a vivid memory from the Fifties of watching President Eisenhower attending the whites-only Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. When Eisenhower played at the segregated golf club, she says “we were made to understand that President Eisenhower and all too many other whites were not on our side”.
Was the election of Barack Obama a major event for her? “Having elected – twice – an African-American to the leadership of the free world, of course it’s significant,” she says. “It’s amazing what he’s been able to achieve, considering that on the day of his inauguration the people from the opposite party were conspiring to obstruct anything he might put forward.”
Was that hostility based on racism?
“Racism certainly is a part of it, indeed. But I don’t despair because for me the glass is always half full.”
What her memoir conspicuously lacks is outrageous anecdotes or backstage scandal, though it briefly heats up when she sticks the boot into Morley Safer, an interviewer for CBS TV’s 60 Minutes programme who cast aspersions on her “body mass” – “I am not one to equate dress size and artistic performance,” she declares witheringly.
Now 68, she has withdrawn from the opera stage, but still gives recitals and masterclasses. “I try to frighten my very young colleagues into studying and understanding their voices before they attempt things that are beyond them. It’s wise to take gymnastics and swimming to strengthen the body, because people don’t realise what an athletic undertaking singing actually is.”
A crusader for music and the arts, she has established the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Georgia to provide free tuition for disadvantaged kids. Yet behind the public face of the diva who has been showered with awards and honorary doctorates, has sung for presidents and royalty and performed La Marseillaise for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Norman’s emotional life remains enigmatic. However, there is an intriguing bit in the book where she suggests that she was once invited to marry into the French aristocracy. She agrees that this was indeed so.
“Yes, it was fascinating. It was lovely.” Could she throw more light on it? “I don’t care to, thank you.”
Well, I tell her, I think she’d fit very well into the French aristocracy. She roars with laughter. “The French have always been very supportive of my work, so I’ll leave it at that.”