Ten Questions for Jessye Norman

Opera East, Magazine of the Bangkok Opera - Thursday, April 29, 2004

1. Your coming to Thailand is an amazing thing for music lovers. But what has brought you to Bangkok is a grand cause: Peace. What are your feelings about peace and the collaborating you are doing with the International Peace Foundation?

I cannot believe that there is a single person on this planet who does not long for a world where tolerance and understanding are the predominant feelings, rather than chaos in which we are forced to live our lives. Peace, in my mind, is not as illusive as it might appear; we need only to know that we are here to share, to love and to learn from one another. I prefer this simplistic view of it all, as it makes the idea of a peaceful planet more present. I have agreed to sing in Thailand for the International Peace Foundation as they are working on a daily basis for what we all desire and need.

2. At this stage in your career, is there a role or a peace of music which you yearn to perform yet have never done?

There is so much music that one could not possibly cover it all in a mere lifetime! Of course there is much that sparks my interest, roles that would be enjoyable to explore. I am pleased to be a part of a brand new opera that is to have its premiere in the United States in the spring of 2005. The libretto is by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and the music by Richard Danielpour. I am sure that this experience will be very special.

3. Many Jessye Norman fans would point to the great roles of your distinguished operatic life: the Sieglindes, the Cassandras. But in fact, you're one of the few 'big-name' sopranos who are able to tackle the challenging repertoire of the Second Viennese School and other difficult modern composers as well. What appeals to you most about this music?

Yes, indeed, the music, not just the operas, of the Second Viennese School is very much a part of my performance life. I have been interested in this music always. While still at university, I recall singing the Op. Four songs of Webern for an 'Art Song' class. My professor asked at the time why on earth I chose such difficult music. My response was something like... 'Oh, I did not realize it was difficult.' Ah youth!
I love the challenge of it, figuring out the architecture of music of this period…finding the way to bring the idea of bel canto – singing to music that might at first appear to be more instrumental in its structure.

4. There has been a rumor in recent years that Pierre Boulez is or was composing a piece especially for you. Is this still in the works?

This is not a rumor, this is a plan. Maestro Boulez takes his time in composing. I am patient...one day the music will arrive, and I will go into a room, close the door for as long as it takes and learn it!

5.You've worked with just about every conductor in the field. Which ones do you feel most attuned with?

I do not wish to speak about one musician and not about another. I feel lucky indeed to have such wide experience with the great conductors of our time. They all have their own special musical gifts.

6.In opera, you are often called upon to present a character vastly alien to experience in the modern world, whether it be a Trojan princess or a semi-divine Nordic maiden. How do you manage to portray these people so convincingly?

I am not sure I agree that a Trojan princess, or any other operatic role that I have sung thus far, is alien to this world. I am drawn to roles that allow for an expansion of a woman's choices and responsibilities, a character of great diversity, a full-developed heroine. In modern life, the events may be different, but the role, the real role of fully expressed womanhood, is no less important or real. Think of a Golda Meir, an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Florence Nightingale. How are these lives less convincingly lived than that of the Queen of Carthage in Les Troyens?

7. In Thailand, there is now a fledgling opera movement and a small number of fervent young singers who see your career as an important role model. Is there some advice you would like to give young singers in a place such as this, far from the world's operatic centers?

Thanks, but I tend to stay away from offering advice to young performers unless I can address a specific question. There are so many components to making a performance life that I wonder how any of us ever manage it. I would say, gingerly, that as the profession is extraordinarily demanding, that anyone thinking about it should be very, very sure that they are willing to respond, fully, to such requirements. I would most assuredly encourage the opera movement in Thailand and wish everyone involved to know that music made anywhere is still music, is still soul-sustaining...whether in the famous European capitals or in a small hall... away from the great music centers.

8. You are able to retain vast resources of power through the entire length of Wagnerian operas. Where does this mighty energy come from?

Stamina and energy are indeed needed for long, Wagnerian roles or, for example, the production that I am doing at present of two one-person operas in the same evening.
This is training, this is an understanding of pacing, of experience. Physical preparedness is sometimes overlooked by the general public as an important part of operatic performance, but its athletic requirements are enormous and must be respected. Just as a soccer player trains the body, the muscles needed for that game, singers must engage their bodies in preparation for performance. We are no less concerned with extra vitamins and strength training, and so forth.

9.You have often used your fame as a vehicle for doing good in the world. Is this an artist's duty?

I am a part of this world, my activity outside of my profession comes from this recognition. Being well-known can sometimes serve to help call attention to need or to distress, or bring a larger consciousness to a particular problem. To lend a helping hand is the duty of any person; an artist has no less a responsibility.

10.Will this be your first journey to Thailand? What would you most like to see while you're here?

This will be my third visit to your astoundingly beautiful and graceful country, and I look forward to seeing some of the things I have missed on my previous visits…perhaps more places outside of Bangkok.

Ung-Aang Talay

Ung-Aang Talay's weekly column in the Bangkok Post has continued now for decades. Ung-Aang himself is one of those rare creatures, a formidable intellectual who sleeps with a full score of Alban Berg's Lulu by his pillow. Recently, he acquired a different kind of immortality when he was adopted as a fictional character in several of S.P. Somtow’s short stories.