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The gift of song

By Soprano Jessye NormanIn the 10 years that Jessye Norman has been performing professionally, she has become one of the most highly acclaimed concert singers of the day. Miss Norman, who hails from Augusta, Ga., studied voice first with Carolyn Grant at Howard University in Washington, D.C., then with Alice Duschak at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and with Pierre Bernac and Alice Mannion at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She spends her time mostly in Europe, singing recitals, orchestral concerts, and opera with today's most prestigious organizations and musicians. Her most recent recording is devoted to spirituals. Monitor music critic Thor Eckert spoke with Miss Norman the day after her New York recital at Avery Fisher Hall. / June 9, 1980

When did you first start singing? Oh, I started singing when I was a very young child. I sang in the church probably before I was even of school age. It was really something that I enjoyed -- my hobby. A group of us were the musical kids, you know. We studied piano and we were asked to perform if there was a place for it. IT was something I could do and not get into trouble.

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When did it occur to you that you might sing as a career?

I certainly went to college with the intention of studying voice, but even after those four years of training, a career simply did not seem a possibility. It was so remote I couldn't see how to proceed further.

Why was that?

It's a problem to work out the amount of training and experience which would qualify one as a professional singer. If one goes to university and to law school, one expects to be a lawyer at the end of it. But at what point of study and preparation is a person meant to be a singer? Where do you stop and say, "OK, now I'm ready for a job?" It shouldn't mean the end of study. But it's a very difficult thing to assess. So I simply followed my instincts and listened to those close to me.

When I worked with Carolyn Grant at Howard University, she insisted that one be able to identify all the apparatus involved in producing sound in the body and that one understand how the voice functions. This function is a very natural process. It's only when we begin to interfere with the natural process that it begins to sound funny, or constricted, or one gets a wobble or shake in the jaw. It was wonderful to get this kind of training. At the same time it was interesting to work with a teacher who had actually sung on stage and knew that even though one could learn something theoretically, it was a different demand under the pressure of an actual performance.

Were you always interested in song?

From the very beginning. I don't really know why. But even as a young child , I remember my choral director -- with whom I learned my "repertoire," everything imaginable, from the "Chocolate Soldier" to "HMS Pinafore" -- saying that I had to widen my choices. I had a record of Rise Stevens singing, and it was from these records that I learned my "impeccable" French at age 12! Of course if I had really understood what the aria was all about I would have been really embarrassed. I noticed even then that after singing an aria with a big high note, I somehow got more applause than after one of my quiet songs. But I continued to prefer the quiet songs.

Once you decided that voice was going to be your profession, did you ever lay out a master plan?

No. I spent my time working on material and trying to learn how to vocalize. When I went to Europe for the first time I was 22 and it seemed by voice was changing weekly. Some weeks I could sing Bach and Handel without any apparent difficulty, and then a month later the Bach arias would seem just impossible. I felt that I needed much more work and study, Yet I just wasn't clear how to handle it all. It was very good to be involved in so many auditions and contests.

In a certain sense you do some skipping around between soprano and mezzo-soprano. Is this something you enjoy?

I sing the music that I feel comfortable with. If it's designated, by whoever edited the score, for alto or dramatic soprano -- if I can sing it I'm not concerned. This idea of pigeonholing is a very recent one. In earlier times singers were expected to have facility and agility in their voices. I mean it was not unusual 70, 80 years ago for a singer to do Donizetti and Wagner. Nowadays if a person does both, it's front-page news. When someone asks if I am a soprano or a contralto, a lyric soprano, a contralto with a top or a soprano with a bottom, I say that I'm just a singer doing the best I can.

What appeals to you specifically about opera, and concert and orchestra work?