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Jessye Norman’s voice is known around the globe for its power, range, and beauty. In her new memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” Norman recalls her journey from growing up in the segregated South to singing on the greatest stages of the world, and winning America’s highest artistic honor. Norman looks back with Jeffrey Brown at what shaped her talent.
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.
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.
And you have been telling yourself that ever since?
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.
Exactly. So, and I find myself…
Because we look. We see you. We're so used to you…
Yes. But you're a sloucher?
Mm-hmm. I'm a sloucher, sort of, when nobody's looking.
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.
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.
And it certainly is rather different from Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.
But it is still a church.
This was the South. It was the Jim Crow South.
Of course. It was the segregated South.
You went to segregated South.
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.
You write about one such person, the choral director you had in middle school, Rosa Sanders.
Yes, Rosa Sanders.
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.
Now, what does that mean?
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.
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?
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.
How it feels, not how it sounds?
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.
So that's the production of sound that anybody can learn.
That is the production of sound, yes.
I suppose anybody can learn.
But then where — then the art comes in.
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.
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."
I'm afraid that happens rather often.
You're laughing now, but that does happen?
I'm afraid so.
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.
So, we try to get those things kind of ironed out ahead of time.
Well, you do mention this — the common usage of diva, right?
Oh, yes, I'm afraid so.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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