What a treat for an opera buff like me to be invited, gratis, to see Jessye Norman in the South Loop. Well, Ok, so she was just this side of Monroe Street at the School of the Art Institute ballroom at 112 S. Michigan. Which as far as I'm concerned is within the boundaries of my South Loop 'hood.
She spoke beautifully and at length about her life (answering good questions of opera dramaturg Colin Ure) which she has a book out about called Stand Up Straight and Sing! The program Monday evening was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, and cosponsored by my dear, dear, dear Lyric Opera, where, in the Winter/Spring of 2012, I was a supernumerary in Aida, playing the role of an Ethiopian prisoner during the last 15 minutes of the Triumphal Scene--one of the most famous scenes in all of opera. And boy, did I love my 15 minutes.
(I digress. But it seems like every time I write or talk or think about opera, it ends up being about ME, painted blue, dressed in purple, as an Ethiopian prisoner. On the other hand, Norman's repertoire did include Verdi's Aida.)
Norman, 68, was born in Augusta, Georgia into a "noisy" and musical family. She saw President Eisenhower come play golf in Augusta and she saw him go to church while he was there. But her father, an insurance salesman (her mother was a teacher), reminded her that she wouldn't be welcome in that church. She was a student leader in the NAACP--and helped orchestrate lunch counter sit-ins, fearful that the African American employees, who weren't supposed to serve their own, would lose their jobs if they broke the rules.
She started singing in the choir. And ultimately got a music scholarship to Howard University. She said she never felt discriminated against during her career as a soprano--much of which has taken place in Europe. But she did hear about others who did--and she said she isn't naive enough to think it didn't happen.
She stands out as a black woman who, ironically, has sung a lot of Richard Wagner.
Speaking of Germany, she helped another opera singer defect from East Berlin--and was overjoyed that the wall came down just a few years later. Norman hated the wall.
She was a friend and fan of Marian Anderson, the opera diva who broke the color barrier. Her house in upstate New York was near Anderson's in Connecticut.
She supports the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta and says the kids who attend--tuition free--start out shy, introverted and awkward. Before long, though, their confidence builds, their friendships blossom and they don't hesitate to think of themselves as performing artists.
Norman says one of the most important things for an opera singer to learn is how the voice works anatomically. Once that knowledge is mastered, the singer can relax a bit, secure in that knowledge, knowing enough to concentrate on the other fine points. She has no reservations about telling conductors how she wants to sing things.
But why should I drone on and on? The whole talk was videotaped. And, dear readers, you should hear Norman in her beautiful "European" accent deliver her own message in her spark-filled and witty way RIGHT HERE!
(But before you do that, take a look at these pictures of ME in Aida!)
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