The gift of song

By , In 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.

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.

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.

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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?

The three things complement each other. There's a lot of repertoire for soprano and orchestra that is not a part of the operatic or normal recital repertoire. And as I find that I can do the songs of Berlioz and Wagner and Mahler, I would hate to miss the opportunity to do them, along with Berg and Schonberg and messiaen. It's a different kind of discipline than, for instance, singing with the piano. I think the kind of emotional content and the dramatic possibilities that are inherent -- or should be -- in opera greatly complement my ability to give a convincing lieder recital. There it's not only necessary to get the words right -- there has to be a communication between the audience and me -- I have to deliver a poem. And I think the experience in opera -- learning to color the voice and learning simply to deliver the meaning of words -- helps me in the other areas as well.

Recitals are a lot more difficult. I remember -- maybe five years ago -- I had been singing a whole tour of recitals in Germany, and it was exhausting. At the end of it i had to go back to the opera house. I felt like I was going on vacation! Truly, doing recitals is harder work for me, but I'm willing to do it.

I think that if one is given a talent one ought to try to cultivate as much of that talent as there is. You certainly can't do everythingm well, it wouldn't be human if you could, but I think that one ought to try. And while it would be very easy to come out and sing a few operatic arias with an orchestra -- I very often am requested to do just that -- there is music that is specifically written, out of the opera context, for opera voice and for orchestra. I would hate to be a singer of just one kind of music. That would be so limiting, and in that way freshness could easily go away.

How do you keep your music sounding fresh interpretively?

The music that I perform I love. I really try to avoid music for which I have no feeling. And because I like it, I'm very anxious that it be liked by my audience. I can't say what keeps it fresh except that I'm anxious that there be communication, and of course one has to work at it a bit differently for each audience. I try to be careful about what I sing where, because I'm certainly interested in having the audience enjoy the concert. And I think it's also the job of the performer to help to educate the audience as well.

You pause between songs in recital, as though in deep thought. Why?

I do it for me as well as the audience . . . and for my accompanist, of course. You have to stop thinking about the song you've just completed and start thinking about the next one. Most of the time it's a different mood, a different feeling, a different form altogether. One of the wonderful things in music and art of any kind is space and time. And this is what I strive for in recitals. I don't want to come out and sing my group of Brahms songs in 19 minutes to see how quickly I can get them done. That means nothing to me. There just has to be a bit of time between the songs -- just to be able to think about something new. And I want the audience to think too. I don't really like people to read the texts while I'm singing. I'd rather they did that before or afterwards. Either one reads or one listens, and I think while the idea of printing program notes is certainly valuable, we have to be careful how we use them as an audience.

How do you keep from getting so immersed in your music that you forget about you the singer and become too emotional on stage?

Well, one has to cause the audience to feel this great emotion. One certainly can't do it without feeling it yourself. But one has to project the feelingm of that emotion, without becoming so involved that technically it becomes an absolute mess. If that happens, the audience becomes completely cold , wondering why that singer on stage is crying. If the audience is to feel this emotion, the singer must deliver the text faithfully. I'm not standing there feeling the emotion for myself, but because the audience is there also and must share in the feeling.

Do you feel the audience reacting?

Well . . . when I came onto the stage yesterday I could feel the expectancy of the audience. And that is the most encouraging and wonderful thing that can happen to a performer. Of course, you can sense hostility, too, the same way animals can. But when you feel that an audience is with you from the beginning, this gives you great encouragement to try all kinds of things.

Do you find that music making sometimes transcends the stage and notes and becomes a spiritual experience?

Absolutely. How could one sing the "Urlicht" from Mahler's Second Symphony, or "O, mensch" from his Third Symphony, or particularly the last part of "Das Lied von der Erde," and not feel moved? If one has any faith at all, I think it would be very hard not to be moved spiritually both by what is singing and how it's set to music. I do sometimes feel as stirred by a performance of the Second, Third, or even Eight Symphonies of Mahler, and certainly "Das Lied von der Erde," as I do going to a beautiful church service. For me, it's the same experience.

How do you protect your expectations and hopes?

I don't tell them. I keep them very close to me because I think that there's an added pressure when hundreds of people know exactly what you intend to do with yourself, or what you hope is going to happen to you. I like having little secrets and I think it's much better to keep plans and hopes a secret until I'm closer to accomplishing them.

Do you ever achieve the ideas you've set for yourself in performance?

Once or twice I've come very close. I'm a perfectionist in that I work always toward perfection. But at the same time I'm too realistic not to know that the very nature of a human being makes perfection doubtful. You can only work towardm it. Sometimes I feel as though I'm getting a little closer, or that I have managed to get a little closer at one performance rather than at another. I'm realistic enough to know that perfection is a goal that I'll keep working toward till I stop singing.

What does artistic progress mean to you?

It's artistic progress when I find that I can sing a song and feel a change in the audience. If I feel that somebody really sits up and takes notice, when i can see in their faces tha t they're experiencing what I am singing about, I know I'm growing as an artist. And I can feel artistic progress when someone comes to me and says, "You know, I heard you sing a recital seven years ago in Munich, and I'm telling you this tonight was great." It sounds rude, but when it's true, I can't do anything except say thank you very much, and I'm glad. I think that my audiences, especially in places like Boston and New York, where I sing frequently, are a very good gauge of whether I'm making progress. Because there are some people that I've gotten to know very well around this area and they can be honest without being untactful. I depend on their ears because of course they hear things quite differently from the way I hear them.

How do you go about choosing a program?

I choose it in groups. I decide on a composer, for whatever reason. For instance, two or three years ago i did a good deal of Schubert because it was his birthday. But it depends really on wherem I'm going to sing. I try to sing music that I think will be interesting to specific audiences. I also combine a totally new group of songs with songs I'm very familiar with. I find this much better than to stand before the audience and sing an entire program that's new for the first time. If I don't, there's bound to be a certain preoccupation while I reassure myself that I really remember every single word.

Do you ever leave texts or notes on the piano?

No, no. Either I sing it from memory or I sing it with the music. Anything in between is just a waste of time. A lot of people have great difficulty with memorizing. Thank goodness, if I can find the time to memorize something I'm all right, because memorizing is no problem.

How have you coped with fame?

Fame isn't something that is real to me. What makes a person famous? Am I famous because I've been in magazines and newspapers? Or because there've been films done on my career and life? Or because I'm asked to sing and I have contracts well into the future? What significance does that have, really, in the whole spectrum of things? I don't know. I was asked this question quite recently and I was quite taken aback -- "How does it feel to be a singer at the top?" And I said, "At the top of what?" Whose scale are we using? I don't know. Because I spend so much time working, studying, and practicing, it's very difficult to stand back and look objectively at my series of performances over a nine-year period. I can only measure my accomplishments against someone's else's, and as I know no one else's career as intimately as I know mine, I'm a bit lost.

Do you ever read your own reviews?

Hardly ever. I find that one can get caught up believing all the wonderful things and disbelieving and hating everything that's negative. And I think that can, in its way, be destructive.

So where do you get your constructive criticism from?

From people with whom I work and from friends whom I trust, whose opinions and whose values are the same as mine. I think one has to have other areas.

How crucial is that for you?

I think it's very important. I don't think it's possible for to walk around in one's own ivory tower and say, "Well I know that's bad and that's good and it doesn't really matter what anyone writes," because it doesm matter. Yet at the same time, I have my own standards. I'm always struggling to get somewhere near what I'm trying to do.

Do young singers ever come to you looking for advice?

All the time. I wish I had something to tell them. I can only share what I know from my own experience -- that practicing is so invaluable. Also, nothing can be better for a young singer than the amassing of repertoire. Because there comes a time when one simply doesn't have enough time to study. I would love to work half the year and spend the rest of the year just getting ready for the next half. But it just isn't possible. One gets caught up in the business of making career. One spends too much time traveling and going from place to place , singing far too many concerts, simply because one says yes to too many things. And the quiet time for oneself, one's friends, one's family, and one's studyings come less and less.

Don't you see yourself eventually getting to the point where you will limit your schedule and devote more time to yourself artistically and personally?

Oh yes. Next year is already better than this year. But I still don't have nearly as much time as I'd like. It's crazy when you have to look 18 months hence and cancel some performances because if you don't you'll have had no break for 12 months.

Is your voice a talent or a gift?

What's the difference? I guess there wouldm have to be a difference.

Talent would refer to somebody who woke up one day, and discovered this exceptional voice, and went about improving it with no thought of where it came from. One who faces life with faith in God thinks of the voice as a gift to be nurtured.

Yes, I see what you mean. Then I would have to say that I hope it is a gift from God. I feel that in many ways one is responsible for what happens after that. One has to acknowledge, I think, that the possibility for developing a particular talent has come from something other than one's own self. I've gone to sunday school too long to feel that everything that happens to me happens because I want it to.

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