Jessye Norman - A Voice For Peace

Symphony - The Magazine For Classical Music, Art, Culture - Thursday, April 01, 2004

An orchid is named after her, she received the Legion d'Honneur from the President of France, the United Nations has made her an Honorary Ambassador - and she is unquestionably one of the greatest sopranos not only of today, but of all time.

On the auspicious occasion of the Sixth Cycle Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen of Thailand, Thai Toshiba Group of Companies, The International Peace Foundation and the Bangkok Opera in co-operation with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra Foundation, will present a recital by the American soprano, Jessye Norman, at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok on Sunday 2nd May.

Somtow Sucharitkul, Director of the Bangkok Opera, and Symphony Magazine's Editor-in-Chief John Duffus relate their experiences of one of the world's most adored artists.

The N-dimensional Diva
By S P Somtow

If a cataclysm were to destroy all the recordings made by Jessye Norman except her definitive per­formance of Schoenberg's Erwartung, she would still have a secure place in operatic history. This is not something that can be said of any other major soprano from any period in history, and is as good a place as any to begin a discourse on her uniqueness.

When young singers begin to advance toward an operatic career, they soon encounter the word 'fach'. This German word with its fairly harmless meaning of 'area of expertise' or 'speciality' is a blessing and a curse for the budding singer. It's a quasi-scientific classification of opera singers that combines all the different features of each role — its tessitura, its range, the weight of its dramatic content, the size of the orchestra with which the singer must contend. By this method of analysis, once young singers are perceived as heading towards a particular fach, they'll start getting looked at ser­iously by opera houses trying to cast those particular roles — but also get ignored for roles that don't fall within the subcategory.

Just about every world-famous soprano is known for performances in a particular fach, and often for one or two plum roles within that fach. But Jessye Norman has managed to escape this kind of categor­isation completely. She has succeeded in doing more different things more successfully than any other soprano. She can't be pigeonholed. With her, one always expects the unexpected. This is why some call her the world's prima donna assoluta — the operatic world's equivalent of the Mafia's capo di tutti capi.

Her career began conventionally enough. She was born in Georgia, discovered quickly that she had a fine voice, and like many young American singers went off to Germany to learn the craft of opera. She made her mark almost immediately as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The news of this exciting new voice rippled across Europe — as a music student at Cambridge, I read the reviews and eagerly anticipated the birth of a new Wagnerian soprano who might assume the mantle of Birgit Nilsson.

Jessye Norman surprised everyone by not belting her way up the Wagnerian ladder. Her next triumph was at La Scala, and it was in Aida. Ah well, people thought, this didn't mean she wasn't going to be a typical Wagnerian soprano. After all, Birgit Nilsson had recorded Aida. What was extraordinary was that Jessye Norman seemed just as much at home in both idioms, and when she added Cassandra in Berlioz's massive opera The Trojans to her repertoire, staggering audiences at London's Royal Opera, she seemed if anything even more comfortable in that most elusive of operatic styles, the French.

It appeared that there was nothing this soprano couldn't do. But to many the biggest surprise of all was

her advocacy of, and her obvious delight in the composers of the Second Viennese School — Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg. A double bill was created for her in which she sang not only the gruelling role of Judith in Bartok's Blue-beard's Castle (a one-act opera with only two characters, on stage the entire time, who must combat a vast orch­estra in a gamut of searing post-romantic emotions) but also Schoenberg's Erwartung.

Erwartung is a sort of bete noir among operatic roles. In this opera, a woman is wandering in a forest, and dis­covers the corpse of her lover. Is she insane? Did she kill him herself? The role is a virtuoso display of madness — the mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor has nothing on it! — and the score is completely atonal. When Schoenberg wrote it, he had just thrown a thousand years of classical harmony out the window, but he had not yet invented his controversial twelve-tone system as a new way of organising sound. So, this is a score in which the soprano is up the proverbial creek without a paddle. The music is perched so precariously on the brink of tonality at times that a wrong note could be a jarring consonance.

In Jessye Norman's rendition of the role, which she has recorded on the Philips label, the soprano walks the tightrope with breathtaking skill. As the Bangkok Post's notoriously picky CD reviewer, Ung-aang Talay, once said to me, 'She sings it as if she wrote it!' It's true. There is this feeling throughout her performance that the music is actually being written as it emerges from her lips, that she is utterly at one with the character's schizophrenia; with no one else does one experience the rightness, the utter precision of Schoenberg's concept.

Yet this command of what is perhaps the most cerebral role in the entire repertoire of opera doesn't prevent Jessye Norman from having a go at Gershwin, ripping out a rousing spiritual, or singing the theme song at the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics without a shred of cynicism. 

A Wonderful Sense of Fun
by John Duffus

Opening a new Concert Hall requires a very special concert with a very special artist. So it is no surprise that Singapore's Esplanade and Hong Kong's Cultural Centre both turned to one of the greatest artists of our time, soprano Jessye Norman.

For that concert in Hong Kong in November 1989, Ms Norman chose a programme of arias by Mozart, Bizet and Verdi which the glitter­ing opening-night audience adored. At its conclusion, the applause and cheering were deafening.

Returning to the stage for a solo 'bow', she gently raised her hands to indicate an encore. When the Hall was absolutely silent, almost inaudibly and unaccomp­anied, she began to sing Amazing Grace. Her voice gradually gaining in strength, she started a slow 360-degree turn so that she would be singing directly to every single person in that Hall, including those in the choir stalls behind the stage.

Many in the audience were in tears, for only 5 months had passed since the tragic events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Nothing could have been simpler, nothing more poignant – a great artist conveying her feelings directly to each and every member of the audience. As the last note died away, there was silence for a full 5 heart-stopping seconds, before the Hall erupted with applause again. We all knew we were in the presence of a truly except­ional artist.

Her glorious voice and this extraordinary ability to communicate are just two of many elements that make Jessye Norman one of today's most loved artists. She has appeared with every major orchestra and conductor, and graced the stages of most of the world's great opera houses. And as Khun Somtow has remarked above, unlike many other artists, her repertoire has always included a goodly proportion of unusual and 20th century music.

On-stage, she is the perfect professional, demandig that everything be absolutely right; not because of a prima donna temperament, only because she feels strongly she owes it to those who have paid to hear her that everything be as perfect as possible. And whether it be in opera, in concert or a more intimate recital, she is indeed a rare and consummate artist.

I had the joy of working with Jessye Norman at the Hong Kong concert and a subsequent recital in Taipei, and I quickly came to realise there is one side of this unique artist which the public rarely sees – a wonderful sense of fun.

There were about ten minutes remaining of the final rehearsal in Hong Kong, when someone remembered that one of her big fans would be in the audience that evening, Britain's Prince Charles. The British National Anthem would have to be played and conductor Eon Marin – at that time Abbado's assistant at the Vienna State Opera – had never conducted it. So the Hong Kong Philharmonic's librarian raced to find and distribute the parts. With only seconds left, Marin raised his baton and the familiar strains of God Save the Queen were played. 

It is not generally known outside Britain that the full 14 bars of the Anthem should only be played when the Queen, or someone officially representing the Queen, is present. For other members of the Royal Family, just the first 6 bars are played. So, when Marin stopped the anthem without launching into the final 8 bars, Jessye Norman immediately asked 'Why?' Marin admitted he had no idea. I therefore volunteered the information that it was because 'the Queen herself would not be present.' With a chuckle, her large and deep voice boomed from the darkened stalls: 'What do you mean? I am the Queen!'

Jessye Norman is also one of the most intelligent artists to grace the concert platforms of the world. Following the Hong Kong concert, she gave a recital in Taipei's National Concert Hall. Whilst there, she was anxious to visit the city's National Museum which houses many of the treasures from ancient China. It soon became clear that there is very little she does not know about Chinese jade and bronzes. She has a phenomenal interest in so many things.

On the flight to Taipei, she asked me about the Concert Hall lighting. She would prefer some colour rather than the stark white most commonly used for recitals. She then surprised me by asking for a special pale colour which goes by the technical title 'shocking pink', as this was good for her complexion. Having spent part of my career as Technical Director of a European opera company, I knew exactly what she meant. I said I would go to the Hall well in advance of her rehearsal and spend some time with the lighting technicians. I promised to find either 'shocking pink' or something similar.

The following afternoon she arrived at the concert hall and proceeded to her dressing room to lay out her gowns for the performance. Philip Moll, her pianist, came on stage to test the instrument and warm up. After a few moments, I went down to the dressing room to let her know that we had arranged the lighting, and that it included 'shocking pink' as well as some other gentle pastel colours. She said she would be up shortly.

I returned to the Hall and sat in the auditorium. Moments later, Ms. Norman walked on to the stage, took a few paces forward, stopped, and then rather dramatically looked first at the lights above her, then at those at the sides of the stage, and finally out to the spotlights high up in the auditorium. Then that huge voice boomed, again with a hint of a chuckle: 'JOHN?' and with delicious em­phasis on each syllable, 'I –AM – NOT – A – CA-BA-RET -A-RT-ISTE!'

I thought I had done an excellent job with the light­ing and was horrified that she might be upset! I vaulted on to the stage to discuss what changes she would like. Passing Philip at the piano, I asked if he thought she really was annoyed. 'Don't worry,' said Philip, 'She loves it! There's absolutely no need to

change a thing!'