Opera singer Jessye Norman

Originally aired on July 22, 2011

Tavis: Trying to find the right word here. I am pleased, I am honored, I am humbled, I am delighted, I’m just crazy to have Jessye Norman on this program tonight. The legendary soprano has been an acclaimed and inspirational voice in music for many of us for many years now. Last year, she released […]

Jessye Norman has been described as a diva in the truest sense. Her powerful voice combined with an intellectual understanding of the music she sings has made her one of opera's most celebrated artists. She's the recipient of many awards and made history in 1997 as the youngest recipient ever of a Kennedy Center Honor. Born into a musical family, Norman learned piano as a child and sang in public at age 6. She studied her craft at several institutions, including the Peabody Conservatory, and made her operatic debut in 1969. She also released her first jazz CD in 2000 to broad acclaim and has an arts school named for her in her Augusta, GA hometown.


Tavis: Trying to find the right word here. I am pleased, I am honored, I am humbled, I am delighted, I’m just crazy to have Jessye Norman on this program tonight. The legendary soprano has been an acclaimed and inspirational voice in music for many of us for many years now.

Last year, she released her first new recording in more than a decade. The disc is called “Roots: My Life, My Song.” It’s a good one. As I mentioned, for those of you here in Southern California, if you are fortunate enough on July 30, you can see her at the MUSE/IQUE event at Caltech’s Beckman Mall in Pasadena.

Before we get to that conversation, though, about that and so much more, we take you back to a classic Jessye Norman performance from Paris on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.


Tavis: I’m just tickled to have you here.

Jessye Norman: I’m tickled to be here. I can assure you of that. I’m such a great fan.

Tavis: That’s it. Goodnight. Thanks for watching. God bless you [laugh]. That’s all I wanted to hear really. Just teasing, but not really. I introduced that piece, that clip. It was a classic Jessye Norman performance. That’s what I have to say and what others have to say.

Norman: Thank you.

Tavis: I assume in your mind – I’m not looking for a list unless you want to give me some – but I assume in your own mind there are some performances in your career that you deem classic, yes?

Norman: Well, I certainly would include the singing of the national anthem for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution as being one of those moments where it is surreal in that it was such an honor to be, first of all, asked by President Francois Mitterrand to sing the national anthem on this occasion.

When I was asked – and I was asked the year before the thing actually happened, and I sing a great deal in France and speak French and all the rest of it – I just wanted to make sure that President Mitterrand didn’t think that I came from Martinique or Guadeloupe or what we call Zaire these days, that I really was African American. He was very clear about what he wanted and I was very flattered and I was certainly extremely honored.

But there have been so many wonderful occasions so far that it’s difficult to sort of choose some. I mean, I think that the first time that I was ever asked to sing for my grammar school was something that was tremendous [laugh].

It’s really true. I mean, there you are in first grade, you know, and Miss Southwood or somebody comes to you and says “We want you to sing at chapel on Friday.” Of course, I thought that meant with the choir from the school. So she said, “No, you can sing by yourself. You sing really loudly. You can do it.”

It was a large school, segregated school, so we had 1600 kids from first grade to eighth grade. So I thought was, you know, pretty nice, so I went home and told my parents I’m gonna sing at chapel on Friday.

I got to wear my Sunday dress to school, my Sunday shoes, my Sunday hair ribbons and I got to keep that on all day. I thought this is a pretty good gig. I like this. My parents came. I have no idea how they arranged their lives so they’d be at my school at 10:00 in the morning, but they did.

Tavis: Since you went there, I’m gonna follow you.

Norman: Okay.

Tavis: I was talking to my dear friend, Dr. Cornel West, earlier this week and we were talking about the fact that only Augusta, Georgia, a place that small –

Norman: – that small.

Tavis: – could give us James Brown and Jessye Norman [laugh]. Tell me about growing up in Augusta.

Norman: Growing up in Augusta in such a protected and loving community is something that I really enjoy talking about. I love talking about – even though I grew up, of course, in the time of segregated schools, Brown vs. Board of Education came along after I was already in first grade.

It was really a wonderful time for studying and being made to understand what I was, what each child was, and our worth as people and children because that was instilled in us by our parents at home, but also by our teachers at school who were so interested that we should learn and were insistent upon our learning.

Then we were kept after school. It wasn’t because we’d done something that they considered to have been wrong. It’s just that we needed to go a bit further or we needed to understand a bit more about sort of the formation of clouds or whatever it was we were studying at the time or to get our minds sort of wrapped around the ideas of algebra or something of that kind.

So I have great respect and great love for those people because they were there throughout my growing up in Augusta.

Of course, at the time, anybody that was older than you was your parents and they could tell you what to do. You know, don’t play in the street, don’t do this, don’t do that, and you said yes, ma’am and yes, sir and you carried on with your life.

It would never have occurred to you to say, well, you can’t say that to me; you’re not my father; you’re not my mother [laugh]. It just wouldn’t have happened. It just did not.

Tavis: When I say Mount Calvary Baptist Church, what comes to mind?

Norman: What comes to mind? Comes to mind, the minister that was there when I was a small child. His name was Reverend E.A. Moss. Reverend Moss could sing, he could preach, he could bring the entire congregation to shouting.

He had a daughter – her name’s gone straight out of my mind. I think her name was Rebecca. She was a gospel singer and had moved by that time to, I think, Ohio or somewhere and she would come back from time to time and sort of bless the congregation with a performance. She was really something [laugh]. She was really something.

I mean, Rosetta Tharpe was a fabulous gospel singer, but Reverend Moss’s daughter was also incredible [laugh]. She really was. So it was a wonderful place to grow up. There were all kinds of activities for children.

There was a wonderful person that was almost in charge of all the children. Her name was Miss Golden. Elizabeth Golden saw to it that we sat correctly, that we understood about ourselves and, when we had Negro History Week, we made sure that we honored the people that had gone before us and that we knew their names and we knew what they did and that we were just as clear about who Hank Aaron was as we were about who Marian Anderson was.

Those, of course, were the kind of – that’s the kind of nurturing that I think is missing in a lot of places these days.

Tavis: I want to come back to your Marian Anderson point in a moment. We can’t talk to Jessye Norman without talking about Marian Anderson, given all that she means and has meant to you.

Norman: Yes.

Tavis: Before I do that, though, you hit something else I want to come back and have you unpack for me, if I might. I recall reading a critic who shall remain nameless, but it was a Los Angeles-based critic who was critical of you in reviewing the liner notes for one of your CDs because he thought that you should have given more credit over your career journey to, say, Strauss or to Schubert.

He was, it appeared to me, complaining about the fact that you gave so much love to your gospel heritage, to your gospel roots, given who you have become. I can see now you’re appalled by that.

Norman: Well, yes. I mean, what in the world?

Tavis: I’m only raising that to ask why it is and how it is that, even to this day, you are so serious, so adamant, about giving all the props necessary to your gospel upbringing, your gospel roots?

Norman: Well, because those are my roots. I sing in languages that I speak. So when I’m singing a Schubert song, I know precisely what every word means and, you know, when it was composed and who was the poet and all of that and whether Strauss or Wagner or French Belioz, Duparc or Debussy or whatever. But these are things that I have had the pleasure and the privilege of studying and learning.

It’s quite a different thing to be five years old and to hear your grandmother in the kitchen or doing whatever she was doing sort of humming and singing herself through the day. She would sing, as my mother and her sisters would, sort of sing themselves through whatever occupation was sort of taking their time at that time.

It was very clear to me that these songs – and there are hundreds of them – these songs were created by people who had to have some sort of release. There had to be something that would take them from where they were to where they would prefer to have been. To ignore this part of my heritage would be heresy.

Of course, I sing dozens of songs of Schubert and dozens of songs of Brahms and the Wagner operas and all of these things, and I love them and I will do them at the drop of a hat. But I wasn’t born Austrian; I wasn’t born German. My roots are from Africa and I do not have any reason for not wanting to celebrate that.

Every time that I can, I like to kind of mention it, you know, just to keep people sort of knowing exactly what’s going on. My French is pretty good, but I’m still African, thank you very much.

Tavis: What is the value – since we’re talking about children as you were a moment ago – what is the value in a contemporary setting of children of color? We live, as you well know, in the most multi-cultural, the most multi-racial, the most multi-ethnic America ever.

Norman: Yes.

Tavis: What is the value of children of color being exposed to opera?

Norman: I think that it is expansive for the mind, for the fantasy of children and grownups alike, to understand that the world is huge. There is so much in the world to experience and the odds are so essential to life.

I mean, to broaden our minds, to help us to understand that we have voices inside of us that can come out whether in dance or in writing or in composing or singing or being a fantastic saxophone player, whatever. But to give a passage from one’s self to another person through the arts is something that is fantastic.

I mean, even a person as gifted as Einstein said that aside from the fact that he had a special talent for absorbing knowledge, he actually wrote near the end of his life that he felt that the gift of fantasy had meant more to him, that creativity, to be able to dream, to think of things had meant more to him than is talent for absorbing knowledge.

I mean, my goodness, if Einstein could feel that way, then certainly a three-year-old, a four-year-old child needs to be given the opportunity to be creative and to think of things and to express, and that we don’t see to it that these things stay in public education is sort of one of my soap boxes because it really is a shame.

Tavis: There is a Jessye Norman School, in fact.

Norman: Yes, there is, in Augusta, Georgia, yes, a school for the arts for middle school children that are very talented, and so many of them are talented. We hope to grow and to be able just to be of service to more children.

They have to audition for our school and we have an agreement with their parents that their parents have to sign that they are going to make sure that the children practice at home, whatever it is they’re studying, whether they’re studying movement or group singing or painting or whatever they’re doing, that they’re also going to practice at home.

What they learn – and this is true for all of the arts, this is true for any child, any person, that comes across arts as a part of education – that because of the discipline that is needed in the arts, just become better at something.

You are practicing the piano scales. If you practice it 20 times, it’s gonna be better than the first time you did it. This act of discipline can be brought into all other subjects.

Any study that has ever been done on arts education having nothing to do with the socioeconomic status of that child’s parents, it shows that those children that are exposed to arts education do better in all of their other subjects all of the time, not some of the time, but all of the time, because they learn that, if you keep doing it over and over again, you’re going to get better at it, whether you’re learning to play the piccolo or whether you’re learning all of the states of the union.

Tavis: But you and I both know, Ms. Norman, that we live in a country right now where education is being cut severely and the first thing to go oftentimes are these program.

Norman: The arts, absolutely.

Tavis: What do you make of that? What’s the price we’re gonna pay for that long-term?

Norman: We’re going to pay for that long-term in that we won’t have people that are terribly interested in going to hear our symphonies and our operas and our sort of new singers and new sort of instrumentalists that are coming along because they won’t feel that this is a part of their lives, that it’s something that is elitist and they don’t understand it and don’t know about it, so let’s not go and make a fool of ourselves by going and applauding perhaps in the wrong place or something.

That is something that is so easily avoided and those of us that pay the taxes, that pay for our public schools, have to have more say when these cuts are done and our children are denied arts education or physical education or even recess. I mean, it’s maddening.

Tavis: Since you went there, for those who, in fact, do believe that the arts and especially the one that you are so gifted in, that they are, in fact, elitist, your response?

Norman: But they’re not. I mean, when you think – we talk about sort of somebody saying that I wasn’t giving sort of due to Schubert and Strauss and Belioz and all the rest of these wonderful composers whose music I perform. We have to understand that, in Vienna in 1800, the music of Schubert was the popular music of the day [laugh].

So the fact that we have something else nowadays that we call popular music and we’ve sort of wanted to put classical music over sort of in a corner someplace, that’s our mistake. I have never agreed with it. I always say, and my friends laugh about this because I’ve been saying it for at least 30 years, I said one thing clever in my entire life.

I was doing an interview after sort of making my debut at the opera house in Berlin. I was about 23 or 24 years old or something. The interviewer was saying, “Well, what kind of soprano are you? Are you soubrette or lyric or mezzo? What is that?” So I said, “Well, I don’t think I should have to say that now because I feel that pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.”

And I still feel that way, that we shouldn’t put classical musical over here and the blues over here someplace else and jazz is over there someplace and then we have sort of pop music in the middle sort of taking all of the attention.

We need it all. It’s all a part of us. It’s a part of the world in which we live. We should embrace it all in the same manner.

Tavis: This begs the obvious question for me, which is whether Jessye Norman has an iPod and, if she does, what’s in her iPod?

Norman: “I’m old-fashioned and I don’t mind it.” I still use a CD player.

Tavis: [Laugh] I love that, I love that.

Norman: I’m not embarrassed at all to take my CD player out of my bag on the plane.

Tavis: That’s a lot of baggage to carry that many CDs.

Norman: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I take my CDs with me and I listen to them whenever I can and I don’t have an iPod and I have tried to explain to the younger people in my family to please not listen to my voice on an iPod.

There isn’t enough bandwidth on an iPod to give me what I need, you know. So listen to me in the room turned up all the way [laugh]. And they go, “Aw, J.”

Tavis: So what kind of CDs are you carrying around? I’m just curious.

Norman: I carry a lot of jazz. I always have sort of Coltrane somewhere in the corner.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Norman: I always have Ella Fitzgerald. I have a lot of Odessa with me. She was such an important person in the civil rights movement and did so much with her music to change the minds of people.

So it’s rather eclectic and it does sort of have me sort of paying extra for my luggage from time to time, but I love it.

Tavis: I could talk to you for hours and I got just a matter of minutes left.

Norman: Oh, gosh.

Tavis: I had better ask you about why you’re in Southern California. It’s such an honor to have you here.

Norman: Well, I’m so delighted to be here. It’s such an honor that sort of on Saturday, the 30th of July, I have the honor of singing the first performance of a brand new orchestra.

Imagine that, in these days and times, with the economy being what it is, that a new arts organization could come into being. They’re calling themselves MUSE/IQUE, which is a play on the word “muse” and then “musique” is the French word for music.

They’re going to be sort of players that are coming from all parts of Southern California and probably outside of California, as far as I know. They’re going to be a smaller group than a normal symphony orchestra and they will be conducted by Rachael Worby.

Tavis: She’s an icon around here.

Norman: She’s an icon around here. She certainly is. We’re going to do a program of all American music. So I’m going to sing things from “Porgy and Bess,” I’m going to sing music from Rodgers & Hammerstein, from Leonard Bernstein, and just have a grand old time.

Tavis: Is that fun for you to have an evening where you can do such a wide range?

Norman: Yes. It’s very challenging to show the difference between sort of among these composers, I should say, by singing something that is as different from “Porgy and Bess” as “My Man’s Gone Now” to, at the end of the program, singing Rodgers & Hammerstein from “Carousel,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” These utterly different ideas from these wonderful composers.

I sing a lot of these composers on tour these days. I have a program that I call “American Masters.”

I want the world to understand that these were wonderful composers and that these songs taken out of the context of these musicals show that they were great composers and that I just feel the same as Duke Ellington who said that there are only two kinds of music: good music and that other kind.

Some of that good music was written by George Gershwin and some of that good music was written by Amadeus Mozart, and I have equal love for all of it.

Tavis: Marian Anderson.

Norman: Oh, my. It was a privilege to be able to get to know her a bit, to be able to sit with her in her home and I would ask her always to just, you know, if you felt like talking, just tell me about being in Sweden in 1935 or whatever, whatever you want to talk about.

I wanted to hear from her. She was so sweet. She said, “No, no. Tell me where you’ve been recently. Tell me where you sang recently.”

I would say, “Ms. Anderson, that’s really not very interesting. Please tell me about the first time you met the King of Norway or something.” But she was always so very, very humble in the way that she spoke about herself.

Do you know she always spoke about herself in the third person? She always said “we” when she was talking about herself because she felt that, without the help of the Almighty, she would not have had a performing life at all.

So she would say we went to Sweden or we went to England and met Queen Victoria or we went to Paris or whatever. I always found that something that I think about a great deal.

Tavis: I’ve got just a minute or so to go and I went to end this conversation, sadly, because I could do this for hours if they gave me that kind of time rather.

I want to end this conversation on the point you make now, Ms. Norman, and that is how it is, after all the acclaim and all the success and all the accolade and all the love you’ve received around the world, you stay humble and stay connected to the humanity in other people as you’ve expressed clearly in this conversation tonight?

How do you juxtapose those two things? All that acclaim and yet remaining humble and reveling in the humanity of other people?

Norman: I thank you for saying that. That’s very kind. But I think that this is something that simply comes naturally from having grown up in the home in which I grew up. It was made very clear to me that everybody has the same potential if given the same opportunity.

So I know that I am blessed with the opportunities that have been presented to me and, also, it was instilled in me very early to be prepared for the opportunity. So I work very hard, I’m very often up studying very late at night.

So if I know how much work I have to put into doing this job, it is not really very sensible to be arrogant about it because it is something that takes a great deal of dedication, a great deal of determination and it gives me such joy that I simply want to share it as much as I can.

Tavis: Unlike Jessye Norman, I have an iPod and Jessye Norman is on that iPod.

Norman: [Laugh] Thank you.

Tavis: After eight or nine years of doing this show, there are only a handful of shows, with all due respect to all of my guests, who I actually have on my iPod so I can actually not just hear them, but watch the show again and again as I travel around the world.

This show is about to go on my iPod so I can watch this again. I’m honored to have you here.

Norman: You’re so very sweet. Thank you.

Tavis: If you are lucky enough to find a ticket – I’m not giving you mine, but if you’re lucky enough to find a ticket for July 30, she will be performing here in Southern California. Honored to have you on this program. Thank you so much.

Norman: My honor, I assure you.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 23, 2014 at 12:53 am