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How opera legend Jessye Norman learned to ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing’

May 30, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a conversation with one of the greatest singers of her generation and her own look back at what made her the performer she is.

And again to Jeff. She sat down with Jessye Norman on a recent trip to New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a voice known across the globe for its size, power, range, and beauty. Jessye Norman has performed on the great stages of the world, singing in operas, alongside symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, and before the country as a sitting president renewed his oath to office.

She tells of such experiences, her childhood, training and more in the new memoir “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”

We met recently at Carnegie Hall in New York, scene of so many of her famous performances, and I asked about the command contained in her book’s’ title.

JESSYE NORMAN, Author, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”: It’s one that I heard whispered very gently in my ear by my mother when I was about, say, 6, 7 or 8 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have been telling yourself that ever since?

JESSYE NORMAN: And I have been telling myself that ever since, and when I find myself, because it’s — and I truly — and I write about this — it is a lifelong bad habit of resting in my right hip.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

JESSYE NORMAN: Exactly. So, and I find myself…

JEFFREY BROWN: Because we look. We see you. We’re so used to you…

JESSYE NORMAN: Oh, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. But you’re a sloucher?

JESSYE NORMAN: Mm-hmm. I’m a sloucher, sort of, when nobody’s looking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe so, but it’s hard to imagine a more regal presence on stage for a woman who’s received countless awards, including, in 2010, America’s highest artistic honor, the National Medal of the Arts.

It all began in Augusta, Georgia, where Norman gave her first performances in her local church.

JESSYE NORMAN: I feel comfortable sing in the great cathedrals of the world because I spent so much time as a child singing in church. And it isn’t very different.

Of course, nothing looks quite like Notre Dame de Paris.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JESSYE NORMAN: And it certainly is rather different from Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JESSYE NORMAN: But it is still a church.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was the South. It was the Jim Crow South.

JESSYE NORMAN: Of course. It was the segregated South.

JEFFREY BROWN: You went to segregated South.

JESSYE NORMAN: And I was very lucky to have teachers at my segregated schools that were so interested in us and so wanted us to be the best that we could that, even though one is growing up in a segregated situation, you’re still being offered the best that a person can give to you. And they want the best from you, and they want you to know that there is some good inside of you that they’re going help you find.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write about one such person, the choral director you had in middle school, Rosa Sanders.

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes, Rosa Sanders.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask you about this because you said she and then later teach — other teachers afterwards helped you to find and know your own voice.

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what does that mean?

JESSYE NORMAN: That means that I spent a lot of time listening to other singers on the radio, and all kinds of singing, whether it’s Ella Fitzgerald, or Rosetta Tharpe, who was a very famous gospel singer, or Mahalia Jackson, or Nat King Cole, or Joan Sutherland, or Leontyne Price.

And it was she who worked with me to say, no, no, you can’t possibly sound like Joan Sutherland, so sound like yourself. Just sing the song. She never tried to teach me vocal technique. I mean, after all, I was 13 years old or something. But what we did together was to learn a lot of music and to learn to enjoy it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Norman attended Howard University and then the University of Michigan for a master’s program in voice. She says she truly knew she found her voice when, at age 23, she won an international competition in Munich, Germany.

Once you find that voice, is it there forever? Or do you have to tend to it?

JESSYE NORMAN: You have to tend to it, whether that instrument lives inside of your body or whether it sort of lives at the top of your shoulder.

But you have to know how your voice feels.

JEFFREY BROWN: How it feels, not how it sounds?

JESSYE NORMAN: Feels. How it feels, not how it sounds, because what the audience is hearing is not at all what you’re able to hear.

So you have to know that if your voice is feeling well — it’s feeling well, and your shoulders are relaxed and your voice seems to flow with your breath, then you’re all right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that’s the production of sound that anybody can learn.

JESSYE NORMAN: That is the production of sound, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I suppose anybody can learn.

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then where — then the art comes in.

JESSYE NORMAN: Then the art comes in. Of course, that is with study and training and practice.

And the thing that changes, what is so wonderful is that everybody’s voice is different, because you’re different on the inside. And that is what changes your voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: I had a laugh when — one line — you said, “I acknowledge that I can bore a conductor to tears wishing to rehearse a phrase or a page more often than he feels necessary.”

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSYE NORMAN: I’m afraid that happens rather often.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re laughing now, but that does happen?

JESSYE NORMAN: I’m afraid so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JESSYE NORMAN: And — but I try not to be completely ridiculous. There’s only a certain amount of time on which the orchestra can be with you. And so, therefore, one needs to use that time more wisely than repeating the phrase three times because the singer would like it a little differently, please.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSYE NORMAN: So, we try to get those things kind of ironed out ahead of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you do mention this — the common usage of diva, right?

JESSYE NORMAN: Oh, yes, I’m afraid so.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSYE NORMAN: I decided that I would simply embrace it, and therefore change the meaning of it, because, if you don’t, then, of course, it’s used in a way that is most unflattering and is meant to indicate somebody that is capricious and just sort of difficult to be around. And I would hope that that is not true.

JEFFREY BROWN: At 68, Jessye Norman continues an active schedule of teaching and singing around the world. But she says it was a revelation to stop and gather memories of her life in music and as a child growing up in a loving family.

JESSYE NORMAN: My parents said to us, practically on a daily basis, that we were as good as anyone else on this earth, and that we would simply have to work harder in order to show that.

I knew that I was loved. And that’s such an important thing. And, of course, at such an early age, you take it for granted. Of course your parents love you. Of course Mrs. Hubert across the street loves you and your godmother loves you and your grandparents love you.

But the longer one lives, the more one understands that that’s not necessarily the way that everybody else grows up, or that they have grown up in this way. And so I say to myself as often as I can, you lucky duck.

JEFFREY BROWN: Giving some of that back, Norman helped found and remains deeply involved with the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, for talented, but economically disadvantaged children in her hometown of Augusta.