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Remembering Celebrated Operatic Soprano Jessye Norman


This is FRESH AIR. The celebrated African American soprano Jessye Norman died Monday in New York at the age of 74. Norman sang more than 80 times at the Metropolitan Opera and performed in opera houses around the world. She won four Grammy awards for her recordings and another for lifetime achievement and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009. In a 1992 review, the New York Times' Edward Rothstein wrote that her voice was like a mansion of sound with enormous dimensions reaching backward and upward, opening into unexpected vistas.

Terry spoke to Jessye Norman in 1987. Let's begin with an excerpt of Norman's performance of "Im Abendrot" from the "Four Last Songs" by Richard Strauss conducted by Kurt Masur.


JESSYE NORMAN: (Singing in German).


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That was my guest Jessye Norman. Jessye Norman, how were you exposed to opera when you were a child?

NORMAN: I was exposed to opera as a child first by hearing opera on the radio. I was and still am a devoted fan of those Texaco broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera live on Saturdays, and I spent a great deal of time as a child listening to these broadcasts. And I didn't have any pretensions of understanding what the music was about or what the story was about. I was dependent upon the announcer to tell me about that.

And I certainly didn't know anything about singing, but I was intrigued by it all, and I loved it, and I listened every Saturday, even though a lot of my friends thought it was just something weird and odd that I did. But I enjoyed it without really understanding what sort of drew me to it. I studied piano as a young child, but I wasn't by any means an opera singer at 6 or 7 years old. I didn't do really know what it all meant except that I loved it.

GROSS: I bet your friends did think you were weird because most kids listened to pop music and not to opera.

NORMAN: Of course, and certainly then as well, listening very much to pop and sort of to Elvis Presley and all of these things, you know, that one was sort of meant to love. And I was very fond of symphonic music and chamber music and listening to the opera.

GROSS: You didn't take singing lessons when you were young.

NORMAN: No, I didn't. Very fortunately, I didn't have singing lessons until I went to university, and that was just a lucky thing. Somehow, my parents understood and really wanted me to go on singing as a child - which I did all the time just everywhere - with this interest and the love for it that I had already.

And they rather felt that - I think if I had had lessons that I might have started to take it and myself much too seriously, and that somehow, this natural enjoyment might have gone away, which, of course, would have been just too bad. And so I wasn't given lessons at all. I was given piano lessons, and I was, you know, sort of learning the rudiments of music, as it were, but certainly not anything about singing.

GROSS: What an interesting perspective for parents to have because I think...


GROSS: ...In fact, a lot of children are musically ruined but the obligation of lessons.

NORMAN: Yes, precisely. But my parents were certainly my earliest fans. I've always said that, but they were not - I didn't at all have a stage mother. I mean, I didn't have a mom who had wanted to sing at some point in her own life professionally and hadn't quite done it or something and was sort of pushing me. She was - they were always extremely supportive but not in any way sort of trying to make me do something that perhaps they hadn't done in their own lives, not at all.

GROSS: When you got older and wanted to start auditioning...


GROSS: ...For scholarships...


GROSS: ...For colleges, were you aware of how few black singers had actually gained acceptance in the opera world?

NORMAN: Well, I knew that there were few, but I didn't think that there was any justification for it, and therefore, it wasn't something that I worried about or something that, in my own mind, held me back because the only limitations that I have, I feel, as a singer are what my brain can handle and what my voice can do. And whether or not there are people that might hire me to sing somewhere or who might have an idea that I can't do something because I'm black, well, that's their problem because I really do not have a problem with this because I know - as I've always said, as I said rather naively as a young child - my brain is the same color, and so are my vocal chords.

GROSS: A lot of black singers end up having to sing "Porgy And Bess" a lot because it's the opera where black singers...


GROSS: ...Are most...

NORMAN: Of course.

GROSS: ...Readily cast.

NORMAN: Exactly.

GROSS: Did you go through that?

NORMAN: No, I've never sung...

GROSS: It seems like almost a rite of passage for black singers.

NORMAN: Well, it certainly has been a rite of passage for a lot of singers, and they've done incredibly well outside of the music of Gershwin, you know, after having had a platform on which they could be heard. And this is something that, because other singers have gone through this before my time, I didn't have to start a career by singing various roles in "Porgy And Bess."

I was invited to Vienna and to Munich and to Frankfurt to sing recitals that included the music of Schubert and Brahms and Schumann without having prove that I could sing anything else. I was allowed to learn this music in front of the German audiences there, and that's a lucky break. And that is something that happened for me because there were singers who went before me and took the hard knocks and were not perhaps considered in their professions that they should have been.

GROSS: Jessye Norman, it's really been a pleasure to meet you. I want to thank you very much for being with us.

NORMAN: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Soprano Jessye Norman speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1987. Norman died Monday at the age of 74.


DAVIES: On Monday's show, our guest will be countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo. He's about to star in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Philip Glass' opera "Akhnaten." He sings in the range associated with women's voices, a range once sung by castrati, men who kept their voices high by being castrated before puberty. He'll demonstrate how he's able to get his voice so high and how it's different from falsetto. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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