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Music: Jessye Norman: More than just a pretty voice

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Online May 2013

Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman Photo by Carol Friedman

Opera singers hold a special interest for me.  As a singer, it brings me endless pleasure to experience the sheer power of the operatic trained voice. As a member of the human race, it is doubly wonderful when the being that emits that glorious sound is equally dynamic. Jessye Norman is one of those singers. Having catapulted to stardom in Europe in 1969 making her operatic début at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tannhaeuser, Norman has made her life as limitless as her voice, which over the years has defied categorization.  She likes it that way.  “Pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons,” she purportedly once responded to a German reporter who asked her at age 23 to define her vocal style. “I like so many different kinds of music that I've never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range,” she explained in a New York Times article by John Gruen.

Norman has performed opera in the major venues Europe and the United States and has always chosen work that she felt maximized her vocal talents and personal style regardless of genre. Fearless in her choices and ready to experiment, she even sang a concert performance in 1988 of a Poulenc's one-act opera about a spurned woman trying to keep her lover on the phone line titled, La Voix Humaine. “I sing what I would enjoy hearing. I sing music that speaks to my spirit,” noted the four-time Grammy winner.

Standing tall at roughly 6’1”, at age 67 with a seemingly endless list of awards and honors such as the, Kennedy Center Honor, Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations and the Legion d’Honneur plus honorary doctorates from 35 colleges, universities and conservatories including Howard, Harvard and Yale, Norman may sing what ever she likes. And currently she likes American music. “I sing what I love.” Norman reflected in a recent interview on her love for the American masters, inclusive of musical theatre, spirituals, blues and jazz.

Recently, this writer had the pleasure of hearing for the first time, Norman perform live at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a program titled, American Masters.  Deftly accompanied by pianist, Mark Markham, the evening featured long-beloved standards including Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not For Me” as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and Harold Arlen’s tear-jerker, “A Sleepin’ Bee”. Norman also paid homage to some of her favorite singers like Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, and Ella Fitzgerald. Her closing set was pure Ellington though, including “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”.

It is a once perplexing and mesmerizing to witness a legend perform past their prime because though their ability may be somewhat diminished since the pinnacle of their career they are still pretty darned good. Norman remains dynamic but more so now for her song stylings than her ability as a singer.  A true Diva in every sense yet her warm personality exudes from her like beams from a welcome spring sun.  Dressed in a black skirt, silk top covered by a smoky red chiffon robe trimmed in fiery sequins with her hair wrapped in a signature turban, Norman had a shaky start with “Falling in Love” by Rogers and Hart. But she slowly warmed up to fabulousness by the fourth song, Gershwin’s, “I Got Rhythm” where she began to move with the music and really use operatic interpretation both vocally and physically to engage the audience.  Other selections that showcased her unique talents were, “My Man’s Gone Now” by Gershwin, Arlen’s, “Stormy Weather”, Ellington’s, “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” where she persuaded the audience to sing the “do-whop” chorus a la rock concert style.

Although a patron seated next to me commented that the operatic voice fails to translate to other genres, I beg to differ. For me, the operatic voice simply affords a different delivery. Her emotive quality reinforced by the control and strength of her voice at points enhanced these American favorites.  “Stormy Weather” and the more soulful numbers were drunk up by the audience. These songs were full-bodied and complex like a fine red wine. Witnessing her personal stamp on this program, the masterful vocal manipulation coupled with her effervescent personality, it is easy to see how she enraptured operatic audiences when she first came onto the scene in 1969. And of course, she showed brightest during the operatic samplings via “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Summertime” (delivered as a first encore) both from Porgy and Bess.

But the last number of the evening, “Steel Away to Jesus”, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 45th anniversary of death, entranced the audience to the point of complete silence.  Following that number one could easily understand how Norman’s performance of Strauss songs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1987 yielded more than ten minutes of applause. 

Norman sings like she lives varied, dramatic, thoughtful and exuberant.  Besides her impressive stature, musical accomplishments she serves on a half dozen boards such as The New York Public Library, The Elton John Aids Foundation, NYC Meals on Wheels and the Lupus Foundation.  She started a music school in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia where students can study for free. A supporter of same sex marriage, Norman has openly presented her thoughts about religious groups who oppose the concept saying, “It’s an oxymoron since all religion is about love and acceptance.” But the part of her that I find most charming is her paradoxical girlish zeal in her support of the Girl Scouts of America.  A life long member, she sells a couple thousand boxes of cookies each year.

Accomplished, engaged and active, Norman is not simply a musical legend but a model for living a joyous, full life. I, for one, adore her for that.

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