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Stand Up Straight And Sing! Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Luis Dias

“Stand up straight and sing!” That’s what the mother of celebrated American opera singer (soprano) and recitalist Jessye Norman whispered very gently in her ear when she was about seven or eight-years-old.

It is advice that would not only stay with her, but became the title of her memoir, published in 2014. Norman passed away on September 30, following complications from a spinal cord injury four years earlier.

Her Wikipedia entry makes no mention of racism affecting her life or career, but in her autobiography ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing!’ she devotes a whole chapter to it, titled ‘Racism as it Lives and Breathes’. After quoting the first verse of the traditional Negro spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’, her first sentence is “I learned about race discrimination and America’s system of apartheid long before my first day of school –even before my legs stretched far enough over the side of our living room sofa for my feet to touch the floor.” The ominous signs ‘Whites Only’, ‘Coloreds Only’ were everywhere. Schools, churches, neighbourhoods, all were segregated.

Her parents didn’t flinch from teaching their children about their heritage. “We were encouraged to find strength in knowing that we came from strong stock – that my ancestors endured things that we could hardly imagine, and yet they survived. I think about this fact when I consider my own work, my profession, my desire to contribute something to this world. Thinking of the strength and faith of my ancestors keeps my backbone straight, because the timber of which my soul and spirit are made is very strong. I owe them my best.”

Norman describes the vicarious thrill she got aged five from disobeying her mother and insisting on sitting in the ‘Whites Only’ section of a train; luckily for her, it passed without incident. Even at that age, she instinctively knew it was unjust, wrong that people should be humiliated in this way.

Unsurprisingly, Martin Luther King Jr was a huge influence, whom she calls “a leader and a prophet”. “We children were very fond of telling the entire world that our mother’s maiden name was King, and that her family was from a part of Georgia not very far from Atlanta, which naturally meant that we could have been related.”

As a teenager, in solidarity with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Norman joined others in sitting in sections of restaurants and establishments not open to them, daring the staff not to serve them. It was courting danger and risk of bodily harm, but she did it all the same.

Norman recounts a long list of episodes in her professional and personal life where she came face-to-face with racism, from orchestra conductors, to hotel staff, and at parties. It seems to have hit a raw nerve, as the Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen dismissed her book with a one-star review, calling it “an exercise in score-settling and self-congratulation”. To me, his uncharitable review revealed more about him than her. Only someone who has been slighted will know the pain it causes, and giving vent to an injustice is not “score-settling”.

In the wake of Norman’s death, the same critic grudgingly admitted that despite being “the spikiest and haughtiest of divas”, opera had “lost a majestic talent”.

As Norman put it in an interview as recently as 2014, after her autobiography was published: “Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?”

In her book and in press interviews, Norman saluted several key figures, many of them black and female, for shaping her life, notably among them Marian Anderson (who is given a special chapter in her book), Dorothy Maynor, and Leontyne Price among others.

“They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera’,” she conceded in a 1983 Times interview, “or, ‘I will sing German opera’, instead of being told, ‘You will sing Porgy and Bess’. Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

Obituaries and tributes are pouring in from all over, for the “sumptuous shimmering voice” Norman brought to a broad range of roles (notably Wagner’s ‘Sieglinde’, ‘Ariadne’ by Richard Strauss, Gluck’s ‘Alceste’, Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’, and both ‘Cassandre’ and ‘Dido’ in ‘Les Troyens’ by Berlioz, among so many others) at all the world’s major opera houses, to say nothing of lieder, songs, oratorio and orchestral recital parts.

I would like to focus on the Jessye Norman School of the Arts founded, and funded in large part by her in 2003, a free, comprehensive after-school arts programme serving mostly disadvantaged middle and high school students in Augusta, Georgia, United States, and offering courses in dance, drama, visual art, music (both instrumental and vocal) and creative writing, and from 2011, also photography, fabric art, and pottery.

Acceptance is based on teacher recommendations, academic standing, and an audition/interview process with a panel of arts professionals across the curricula who gauge the student’s talent, level of interest in the arts, and willingness to learn. Once admitted, students are divided into groups which receive approximately 90 minutes of instruction per week.

High-school students, who have attended Jessye Norman during their middle school years enter the Student Leader Program and continue their arts education while serving as mentors and apprentice teachers to the younger students.

Reading of this brought much joy to my heart, as it ties in so beautifully with our own aims at Child’s Play India Foundation. To quote from the Jessye Norman School website: “The school … is Miss Norman’s response to the understanding that given the opportunity to explore the art, students introduced to this positive means of self-expression perform better in their studies and become more involved citizens.”

Surely this is the need of the hour, both at home and abroad. Rest in Peace, Maestra! The world is a better place because you not only walked upon it, but you Stood Up Straight and Sang!

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