Editor’s Note: W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of “Ever is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past,” and is a visiting professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is currently at work on a book on Mississippi’s literary landscape. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If arias are like lyrical prose poems, then each singer who performs one is like a poet who reads their work with a unique timbre and cadence. Whether she was singing the Habanera from Act 1 of Bizet’s “Carmen,” “Lieder” by Richard Strauss or performing in a Wagner opera, Jessye Norman’s voice was pure poetry.
When Norman died Monday at the age of 74, the opera world lost not just a voice but one that cut across the boundaries of her art, whether real or perceived. What allowed Norman to feel accessible as a performer was the same thing that sometimes left her feeling on the periphery of the opera world: her blackness.
Let’s face it: poetry and opera are two art forms that tend to make people feel inadequate. Talk of poetic forms and conventions elicits as much anxiety, defensiveness and accusations of elitism as mentioning overtures, arias and recitatives.
Having been shaped in the world of Jim Crow Georgia in the 1940s, Jessye Norman understood what it felt like to be excluded, which affected her approach to performance. Yes, she was a diva, but she made you feel as if that status was earned, not derived from an ingrained sense of entitlement.
On stage, Jessye Norman used the power of blackness as a bridge to those who might see her art as something they need not engage with. It’s something she makes clear in her 2014 memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” Each chapter begins with a line from a spiritual and closes with a reference to classical opera, an acknowledgment of how she sought to bridge her modest origins – as well as her memory of singing in church – with her standing in the opera world.
Norman wrote of how her parents “dared to dream of and plan for brighter futures for their children – futures they held dear even if they had never experienced anything like them.” After leaving her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, for Howard University in Washington, DC, she continued to navigate a segregated world and her race sometimes led to her being perceived as a lesser performer.
As a young singer in 1968, for example, she refused to let the judges of the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition arbitrarily change the rules on her during the second round in what appears to have been a racially motivated move. She won the fight and the competition. The following year, at the age of 24, she was invited to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
After building her opera career on the stages of Europe, Norman returned to the United States. Her special projects built around African American music were close to her heart, particularly the performance of “Honor: A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy” at Carnegie Hall in 2009. But you need not have been at Carnegie Hall to hear how Jessye Norman bridged classical and black spirituals. Norman’s 1990 collaboration with Kathleen Battle, “Spirituals in Concert,” reveals how Norman blended the structure of her operatic performance with the improvisational style of the spiritual.
On “Spirituals in Concert” you can hear Norman with her powerful soprano in all its glory complementing Battle’s inimitable coloratura style on “In That Great Getting Up Morning” and “Great Day.” The two women signify to each other in a black vernacular and throw shade back and forth while singing “Scandalize My Name.”
And Norman clearly brings the house down with “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass” and “Ride On, King Jesus.” When they sing, both of them place their blackness on full and unapologetic display and combine the classical with the traditional.
After her performance at Carnegie Hall in 1950, gospel great Mahalia Jackson felt somewhat intimidated by the venue and felt she had to hold back on her religious display. “I got carried away,” Jackson acknowledged after the performance. “[I] found myself singing on my knees for them. I had to straighten up and say, ‘Now we’d best remember we’re in Carnegie Hall and if we cut up too much, they might put us out.’”
Norman and Battle never felt they might get “put out” at the Metropolitan Opera Stage that evening. They owned the stage.
When her memoir was released, I had the great privilege of getting to sit and have a brief conversation with Jessye Norman at a small gathering in Washington. She was dressed regally as she held court that evening, and we bonded over our connection with the American South, my Mississippi and her Georgia
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She reminded me that my home state had given Leontyne Price to the world of opera. Did I ever get to hear Price perform, she asked. Then I told her of how my parents had taken my sisters to hear Price in 1967 to a concert in Jackson that benefited Rust College, thinking I would not enjoy it. “But I have always enjoyed hearing you perform and listening to your recordings,” I told her. She smiled with a demure crook of her head and thanked me graciously, like a Southerner, not an internationally known opera star.
Each time I think of that evening, I can see that smile. But most important, the smile makes me think of the voice