Stand Up Straight and Sing!

spacer By Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 336 pp. $27

Books Norman Cover 714

If there is one overriding but unspoken message to Jessye Norman's memoir, it is that your career is not your life. Norman clearly made the decision that this was her book, and she was going to write about the things that are important to her — and many of these things don't have to do with performing. Although there is a rough chronological arc to the book, she has organized it by subject. The chapter "Church, Spirituals and Spirit" encompasses her group of childhood friends ("it seemed completely normal to us to move in a pack"); her mother's management of her church's finances; two women, Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs, who made indelible impressions singing in services; why "Amazing Grace" is not a spiritual; the story of her first Christmas television special; and what it was like to sing at the funerals of Thurgood Marshall and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Gratitude, by name and by implication, is everywhere — gratitude for the way she was raised ("I was never told that I should 'be quiet,'" but she was never given reason to believe that she was more special than anyone else either); gratitude that she never had to unlearn any wrong technique of singing; gratitude that she found the courage to turn down a long-term contract offered by Deutsche Oper Berlin after she had sung precisely one-half of one performance in her professional career.

The centerpiece chapter is called "Racism as It Lives and Breathes," and Norman seizes her chance to lay things on the line. "Racism is so pervasive in this country and in the world at large that it has, in many instances, become unconscious," she writes. She grew up under Jim Crow in Georgia, attended a segregated school and was active in the Augusta Youth Chapter of the NAACP. She was not amused to be offered a role in a situation-comedy pilot in which she would play one of three maids who ride the bus to work together. Much in Norman's book is discreet in the extreme. At one point, she may, possibly, be making a comment about her connection to the movie Diva, and she may have had an aristocratic marriage proposal, but these passages are so oblique that we can't be certain. But she has no qualms about identifying by name two hotels where staff members challenged her about whether she was allowed on the premises. 

This, then, is not the and-then-I-sang story of a career. Anyone who wants details about what happens when James Levine coaches you through an operatic role or a song recital at the piano, or the sorts of ideas that Robert Wilson tries out in a rehearsal room, or even what Norman was thinking about on the night she made her Met debut, opening the house's centennial season opposite Plácido Domingo, will not find much along those lines. (The two directors who receive the most attention, Julie Taymor and Bill T. Jones, are cited for the way they were able to get her to do things that she was certain she couldn't do.) The memorable stories are about something else — a little girl with eleven aunts, tomboyish tendencies (she campaigned to take shop class instead of home economics) and the curiosity to read about Hinduism in the Childcraft encyclopedia and then present it to the family as an enticing option. If this book doesn't offer what we expected to hear about a career, we can't help thinking that we really did get something about, well, a life. spacer 


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