A voice for peace - World-renowned Jessye Norman will perform this evening at the Thailand Cultural Centre

Bangkok Post, Outlook - Sunday, May 02, 2004

Bangkok music lovers will be treated this evening to a memorable and historic performance by Jessye Norman, one of the most celebrated singers of our time. She will be bringing her velvet voice to grace the hall of the Thailand Cultural Centre in a recital entitled 'A Voice for Peace' for an event to be presided over by Her Majesty the Queen.

Her performance here is part of the event series entitled 'Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' hosted by the International Peace Foundation. It is also being held to help celebrate the 72nd birthday of Her Majesty the Queen, with the aim to raise funds for Her Majesty's Support Foundation.

The main sponsor for the event is the Thai Toshiba Group of Companies, with additional support from Thai Airways International, The Oriental Hotel, the Bangkok Opera and the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra Foundation.

Jessye Norman is an American soprano, trained entirely in America. She made her operatic debut with the Deutsche Opera Berlin in 1969, singing the role of Elisabeth in Wagner's 'I'annrhauser. Since then she's been conquering the musical world and has been hailed as one of the greatest singers of the last-half of the 20th century. Her repertoire is amazingly wide and adventurous, from the most demanding roles in Wagner's musical dramas and the Italian operatic tradition, to the intimate German lieder and the French chanson to highly complex contemporary classical works, from jazz to spirituals.

The Bangkok programme will embrace songs in four languages and musical traditions including three lieder by Richard Strauss, the famous Habanera aria from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, and a cycle of Spanish folk songs by Manuel do Falla. The programme will conclude with three spirituals and perhaps a Thai song as well.

During an interview with the Bangkok Post, Ms Norman said a 'peaceful planet' was the desire of everyone. 'Peace is a choice' — and we are all responsible for making it.

Bangkok Post: You are performing in Bangkok as part of the 'Bridges — Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' series, hosted through the International Peace Foundation. What do you think of it—peace—in today's world? How do you, a leading and influential artist, see your role concerning the promotion of peace? And how have you used your art to do this? Do you think you have achieved it in a certain way?

Jessye Norman: Surely there is no one who does not dream and pray every day for peace in our world. Whether one is a performing artist or a baker, a college professor, or a child of only 10 years, one has the same desire: a peaceful planet.

My life and work for tolerance and understanding among all peoples of the world are, for me, the cornerstones of peace. If we could all see ourselves in the eyes of those around us, in the eyes of the stranger, what a different world we would create. To be tolerant of another's life choices, ethnicity, religious preference, even is different manner of dress, is to know and understand that, at the level of the soul, we arc all one. Peace is a choice, it is a decision that one should make every single day and we are all responsible, equally, for its presence or lack in our communities, our cities and countries.

It is said that you were impressed by the broadcast of an opera performance when you were young, that this inspired you to take up a career in operatic singing. What was that opera? Has it always been special to you during all these years of your enormously successful and illustrious career? And it is also reported that you prefer recording in the studio to performing on stage. Is that true?

I am hesitant to try to comment on things that anyone may have read concerning my life, as with certainty, 99 percent of this is incorrect, misinterpreted, or at worse, simply invented. The same answer goes for the nonsense, no doubt found on the Internet, that claims that I have a preference for singing in the studio to singing before a live audience.

It is total and complete nonsense. l have no idea from where such misinformation originates. I enjoyed listening to opera on the radio as a child, because I loved the stories as much as the music and the announcer always explained the story. I was never worried by the fact that I did not understand the languages; I simply enjoyed the experience of this great art form.

It is clear that such experiences influenced my musical choices and preferences, but were most assuredly not the deciding factor in my becoming a performer.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a performance of mine would know right away that it simply could not be true that I ever expressed a preference for singing in a studio. The audience and I form a communion, a wonderful passage of energy back and forth; this could never happen in a studio and is something I would be the poorer for, indeed, were this not an integral part of my professional life.

Having a career in performing arts can be very intense, demanding and competitive. What is the inspiration that helps you to keep it adventurous and meaningful?

The thing that keeps me interested and focused in this profession really has to do with the enormity of the repertoire from which I have the ability to choose.

Not only can I sing opera and other classical music, but spirituals and jazz. Great adventures come in new music, those compositions done especially for me, in working with jazz musicians whose work I have admired for years, in finding little gems like a Schubert song, that for some reason, I have never sung before. The possibilities are many and my joy of discovery only grows with my years.

What do you desire most in each performance? Do the environment and audience in a particular performance have much effect on you and your artistic communication?

My wish in every performance is the same, that the audience and I should enjoy the journey together. That the audience and I should understand that we will take more away from the performance if we allow ourselves to bring more to it, meaning our open minds and spirits, our concentration and preparation.

With a career more demanding than most, how do you handle and cope with the ups and downs of life, the emotions that might occur on the day of a performance?

Yes, life does have highs and lows, but one's personal life is not what the audience comes to the concert hall or opera house to experience. Therefore, discipline and a commitment to giving a complete performance must always take precedence over such happenings and concerns. Someone said long ago: 'The show must go on' — most of the time, I feel this is true.

As both a singer and a person, do you have musical interests other than Western music - classical or jazz? 

I have many, many interests, not all of them musical, I might add. I love African music, most particularly from West Africa and South Africa. I find the folk songs of Middle Eastern countries absolutely wonderful. I would love to know more about the music of Thailand. I love traditional Thai dance — what beauty and meaning in the hand gestures, not to mention the extraordinary costumes!

What do you do in yours spare time? Do you think of music all he time? Do you avoid thinking about it sometimes?

In my spare time, I love to be near water. I love to read, to be in the most informal way at home with friends and family. I also enjoy movies and nights out at the theatre.

Most of the Bangkok programme - maybe with the exception of Carmen and Strauss's Morgen—are less well-known in this part of the world. Would you say something for the Bangkok audience about the programme you will be giving here?

As this is sty first time performing in Thailand, I thought it important to give a small selection of the various kinds of music that I perform, normally: German lieder, arias, spirituals, and one of the best known cycle of songs in the Spanish language, as arranged by Manuel de Falla.

I am sure that the sophistication of the audience here will mean that practically all of the music we will perform will be very familiar and I trust, enjoyable.

Sadapin Ratanaruang
Bangkok Post