Two decisions that saved Jessye Norman

In 1975, at the age of 30, the American singer moved to London and disappeared from the opera stage for the next five years.

The decision was never fully explained but it was calculated to save her voice and to focus on her greatest strength – singing with and above a full orchestra. For the next half decade, she developed a healthy schedule as a concert soloist and solo recitalist.

A 1983 recording of the Strauss Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra sealed her position as perhaps the foremost performer of orchestral Lieder.

She returned to the opera stage in 1980 with an insipid account of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Hamburg and London, a performance that served chiefly to accentuate how uncomfortable she was moving about the stage.

A Met debut followed in 1982 in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, but opera gradually faded out of her agenda. At the end of the decade she returned to live in the US and made the second decision that extended her career – a drop from soprano repertoire to mezzo.

Given that top notes were never her forte, this allowed her the freedom to explore the best facets of her remarkable instrument – warmth, deep colours and a lightness that took listeners often by surprise.

She was a great singer, substantially self-made, and her death this week at 74 is justly mourned around the world.

Due to a Jewish New Year break, Slipped Disc is two days late in reporting Jessye Norman’s passing. Jessye would have understood.

Jessye with Costa Pilavachi, her recording manager at Philips

 

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  • I don’t think it’s true that she switched to mezzo roles at the start of the ‘90’s. I saw her Kundry twice, in New York in 1992. Kundry is sometimes sung by high mezzos but it’s not a mezzo role. Then I heard her Emilia Marty in Vec Makropoulos around 1996, also not mezzo.

    • I saw her singing Sieglinde in Act 1 of Walkure at the RFH in around 1992. Not a notable mezzo role…she was amazing.

  • I’m saddened to hear of her death. A glorious voice and a lovely singer.
    But Norman mentions “how uncomfortable she was moving about the stage”.
    This is true. This, and her extremely odd and off-putting mannerism of grimacing and scrunching up her face to make every consonant sound out (other singers don’t do this), have always made her completely non-believable in staged operatic roles. Much better to listen to those roles on record.
    She certainly made the right choice in accentuating concert soloist and solo recitalist appearances throughout her career.
    And her voice never lost its beauty. She will certainly be missed.

  • Just a couple things:
    1) Norman’s Met debut was in 1983, not 1982.
    2) Referring to Norman as “substantially self-made” strikes me as unnecessarily dismissive of her voice teacher, Elizabeth Mannion. Norman began studying with Mannion at the University of Michigan in the 1960s and was still seeking Mannion’s guidance from time to time when she was singing at the Met 20 years later.

  • What about that Carmen with Ozawa? I can remember it was such a challenge for her at that time, due to the expected stereotype for the character.

  • Our world is a sadder place after the passing of Jessye Norman. She was one of the greats. I did not always agree with her interpretations – her Carmen with Ozawa was surely too slow, but the voice was utterly magnificent.

    Although I only had the joy of working with her on two occasions, I discovered an artist of intense intellectual curiosity and a great sense of fun. Flying to the first venue, she asked me about the lighting in the concert hall. The usual, I informed her. Whlte, mostly from above, some in front and some from the side.

    She asked me if I had heard of a gel colour titled ‘shocking pink’. It so happened I had. She asked if I could add some to some of the lights as it was flattering to her skin. We agreed that I would go to the concert hall two hours in advance of her rehearsal and work with the electricians. If on her arrival she found anything not to her liking, I would have it changed between the rehearsal and the recital.

    Sitting in the stalls listening to her pianist Philip Moll warming up, I heard that she had arrived. Soon the door on stage left opened and a head emerged. It looked up, then to the front and then to the sides. Ms. Norman slowly walked on to the stage (‘glided’ is almost a more appropriate word) and called my name. “I’m here, Ms. Norman,” and ran to the front of the stage. After asking if there was a problem, in her booming voice with clipped syllables she stated, “I am not a cab-ar-et ar-tis-te!”

    Fearing that I had overdone the addition of colour, I jumped on to the stage. As I walked in front of the piano, I asked Mr. Moll is she was really angry about the lighting. “Don’t panic!” he said. “I’m certain she loves it!” Nothing was changed.

    I also looked after her at the opening of Hong Kong’s Cultural Centre Concert Hall almost exactly 30 years ago. When we arrived in Hong Kong, the first thing she wanted was to fax her friend Kurt Masur as the Berlin Wall was coming down. The next faxs were to friends to tell them she was watching a beautiful sunset.

    The Prince of Wales was to be present at the concert and so at the end of the rehearsal, the conductor Ion Marin did a quick run through of the British National Anthem. He stopped after the first few bars. Ms. Norman asked why the full anthem was not being performed. I explained that when a member of the Royal Family is present but not representing the Queen, only the first bars were played. She looked at me in astonishment before in a voice the entire auditorium could hear exclaimed, “But ‘I’ am the Queen!”

    That concert took place only a few months after the terrible events in Tiananmen Square. For her first encore, she chose “Amazing Grace”. When she started singing pianissimo, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. As she gently increased the volume she ever so slowly turned a full 360 degrees as though to sing directly to each individual member of the audience. At the end she merely dropped her head. Many in that audience were openly in tears.

    May she rest in peace.

    • Dear Nick,
      I was Concertmaster of the Hong Kong Philharmonic when Jessye Norman came to Hong Kong for an opening concert at the newly built Hong Kong Cultural Center in 1989. I still remember so clearly after 30 years when she stood next me and sang “Amazing Grace”. What a life time experience I had just listening to her right next to me. The world has lost a great musician and a humanitarian.

    • There`s a video of Amazing Grace, which only gives a hint of the said live event, I`m sure.

      https://youtu.be/dneH1XPT4z8?t=14

      I have experienced the proverbial pin drop in Kathleen Battle`s recital in Finland 1997. She closed with Spirituals, singing “Hush” a cappella. The immediate response: the whole audience stood up to standing ovation as one. To this day, I have never seen anything remotely like it again. Once in a lifetime, I suppose.

  • She incarnated an entire country, at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, draped in the French flag, and electrified TV viewers all over the world.

    How many singers, opera or otherwise, could or can today do this?

    She was larger than life.

  • What a mean spirited memoriam. Tacking a few ambiguous kind words at the end cannot justify the tactless reference to an ‘insipid’ Ariadne which may have been in the ear of the listener. And as to your dig at her discomfort moving about the stage, why don’t you just come out and say what you actually mean? The memory of Ms Norman deserves better.

    • I wholeheartedly agree. This “tribute” reeks of disdain. When the time comes, in lieu of Mr. Lebrecht’s biography, would he be comfortable with this reprinted as the sort of man he’d become?

      This tone mars the newsletter increasing and the only reason I continue to receive it are for the news it contains.

      • Agreed, Mike Z. Arrongance. Mean-spiritedness. Disdain. It reveals more about the critic and less about Ms. Norman.

  • As stated above, she had a remarkable voice and was a truly great recitalist. It does not subtract from that to note her limitations on stage: grimacing and her size limited her in opera.

  • Does anyone know more about her spinal cord injury and why she was in a wheelchair? I was kinda shocked when I saw an interview with her and thought it was a temporary situation with e.g. a sprained ankle or something.

  • Kaddish means ‘sanctification’ in Aramaic and it is related to the Hebrew word kadosh, which means ‘holy. ‘ Of the five variations of the Kaddish; the best known is the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer never mentions death or dying, but instead proclaims the greatness of God.

    However Jessye Norman was a great soprano and will always be revered and remembered.

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