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Opera singer Jessye Norman visits Philadelphia to talk about her new book

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By RITA CHARLESTON
For 21st Century Media
You won’t hear opera legend Jessye Norman’s beautiful voice lifted in song, but you will hear her discuss her autobiography titled  “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” when she comes to the Central Library’s Author Events on Tuesday, May 27.

Jessye Norman. Photo by Carol Friedman

Jessye Norman. Photo by Carol Friedman

In conversation with Tracey Matisak, Norman will share her inspiring journey from the segregated South to the world’s greatest stages, from the gospel songs and spirituals she sang at church to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts that rang through her house in Augusta, Georgia on Sundays.
“I decided to write this book now because it became possible for me to write the kind of book I wanted to write,” Norman said during a recent telephone interview. “I wasn’t interested in doing a book full of pictures and captions. I wanted to talk about the support that can be derived from an American family and from the community under Jim Crow laws and other things that can stand in the way of growing up in a positive way.”
Acknowledging that there was always music in her home when she was growing up, and that she always loved to sing, she never thought of opera as a possible career.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t trying to sing. In fact,” Norman said, “I was told I started to sing the minute I started to talk. But it wasn’t until I had finished my bachelor’s degree at Howard University that singing opera was something I truly wanted to do.” She said it was only while working on her master’s degree at the University of Michigan that she finally knew this would be her future..
“I had a small role in an opera and found it to be such fun and so exciting. I was always intrigued with the theater itself, getting dressed up and putting on a costume and being someone else for a while on stage. I think that’s when I really caught the bug,” she said.
So along with discussing her beginnings and her illustrious career, her book also details her struggles with racism. She remembers that when she began singing there were not many African American singers singing the kind of repertoire she was.
“It was a basically German repertoire, and I think audiences were used to seeing more Arian looking people on stage. When I began, I was the only African American singing these Wagner operas and these lead roles. And it is bittersweet to this day to say that that is still the case.”
But Norman doesn’t like to dwell on all the negativity that invaded her life. Instead, this woman whose awards include five Grammys and some 38 honorary doctorates from universities, colleges and conservatories around the world, prefers to concentrate on giving back to the community that nurtured her.
Offstage, she founded the Jessye Norman School for the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Ga. The tuition-free arts program for talented middle school students is now in its tenth academic year.
“My goal with this school is to develop whole people who are interested in their community and want to be involved with it to become full and functioning citizens, “ Norman says.

IF YOU GO
Jessye Norman will discuss her new book  “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” at 7:30 p.m. May 27 at The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. in Philadelphia.  Tickets are $25.
Call (215) 567-4341 for more information.

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