Music » Music Features

A diva takes action


Grammy Award-winning Jessye Norman flies to Rochester this week to sing a benefit concert for Action for a Better Community, a non-profit agency which helps local people in poverty. (It's headed by her brother, James Norman.) In an interview, Ms. Norman reflected on the Grammys, her family, and Saturday chores with the Metropolitan Opera.

City:Congratulations on receiving The Lifetime Achievement Award for Classical Music at the Grammys last month. You're in rarified air with only three other opera singers: Enrico Caruso, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price. Where will you keep your statuette?

Norman: Of course, I am so very proud to be in such illustrious company in having been awarded this special Grammy. It lives, with the other four that I have been awarded for various recordings, on a shelf in the library of my home.

City:Rochester's Ying Quartet also won a Grammy this year. Unfortunately, Philip Ying complained, organizers kept the celebrities safely separated from the classical riffraff. Were you able to rub shoulders with Kelly Clarkson?

Norman: I am not sure that you wish, truly, to use the word riffraff here, even in jest. I was able to greet several popular music personalities whom I know and adore, as Ashford and Simpson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sting. I was also so happy to greet Reba McIntyre, particularly as she had lost her father, whom I had also had the pleasure of meeting with her on an occasion, in New York.

City:Your brother James, who lives in Rochester, said that when you were a teenager, your father refused permission for you to make a record for a kind of mini-American idol TV show in Augusta, Georgia. I suppose you have no regrets.

Norman: Our parents were wise beyond their years, and were amazingly insightful as to what was useful and good for their children. Indeed, I have no regrets that my father did not so much as entertain the idea of my being involved in what could have become a diversion and exploitation of what was, at the time, simply a child's voice. An enthusiastic child, but nonetheless, an adolescent.

City:How did you become an opera lover?

Norman: When I was very young, I was given my very own radio and loved to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturdays as a kind of accompaniment to my chores. I was not bothered at all that I was not familiar with the languages in which the operas were sung, as Milton Cross explained everything down to the last detail, and my imagination took over all the rest. It was a great time of learning for me. I enjoyed the music completely and even came to participate more enthusiastically in my Saturday chores with such magic pouring into my bedroom through my little radio.

City:Which was most influential in your development as a singer: family, church, or school?

Norman: It truly does take a village to raise a child. My siblings and I are where we are in our lives due to influences beginning in our own home, of course, but through the interest of neighbors, our school teachers, our church and the self-motivation that we acquired through the happiness that it seemed to give our parents from our doing well.

City:What is your best tip for caring for one's singing voice?

Norman: Unlike other instruments, as the voice resides in one's own body, one has to take care of the body, to be nourished properly, not only with proper food, but with the support of good friends and family with continuous curiosity and study, with a good understanding of the anatomy of singing, as well as the technical and musical knowledge that are essential components of a healthy and satisfying performance life.

City:The late singer Marian Anderson was well loved in Rochester. What are your feelings about her?

Norman: My feelings about Marian Anderson are much too broad and deep to be given full expression here. The grace and majesty of this great singer, the voice of one in a hundred years, as stated by Toscanni, will live in our hearts forever. And thanks to the recordings of this singular voice, generations yet to come will be able to experience her extraordinary art.

City:In 1984 the NationalMuseum of Natural History in Paris named an orchid for you. What color is it?

Norman: The orchid named for me in France is of the phalaeonopsis variety and is white with a hint of pink at the base of the flower petal. A real beauty that took seven years to develop!

City:Besides singing and seeing your younger brother, James, what are you looking forward to doing in Rochester?

Norman: Our siblings and some of our nephews will also be in Rochester, so again, there will time for hugs and laughter, major components of our family get-togethers!

Singer Jessye Norman performs, with pianist Mark Markham, music by Handel, Bach, Gershwin, R. Strauss, and others Sunday, March 12, in the Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs Street, at 5 p.m. $25-$100.,, or any Wegmans video department.All ages.

Radio producer Brenda Tremblay reports on the arts for WXXI and hosts broadcast concerts by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on Classical 91.5.