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If you like Jessye Norman's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Maya Angelou,
Johnnetta Cole,
Suzanne Farrell,
Whoopi Goldberg,
James Earl Jones,
Wynton Marsalis,
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Esperanza Spalding,
Julie Taymor,
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and Oprah Winfrey

Jessye Norman can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Jessye Norman's recommended reading: The Story of Ferdinand

Related Links:
Norman School
Decca Classics
Metropolitan Opera

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Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman
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Jessye Norman Interview

Legendary Opera Soprano

July 22, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  Jessye Norman

How did you first discover your voice, and find out you could become a singer?

Jessye Norman: My parents told me that I started singing at the same time that I started speaking. So I have absolutely no memory of not singing, and it was -- and remains, thank goodness! -- a very natural thing for me to do, because I've always done it. I was in the children's choir at the church, and the choir at the school in first grade, and all the rest of it. And it wasn't that I had such an interesting voice, it was just a very loud voice, and so for a five-year-old or a six-year-old, I could always sing on my own and be heard, you see, so that was the interesting part of that time. I hope that things have changed over time.

Many Americans do not hear operatic music when they're growing up. You started listening to opera at an early age. How did that come about?

Jessye Norman: I was given my very own radio. I know that most kids sort of listening to this right now would just burst out laughing, but it was the greatest thing in the world. I was given my very own radio in my very own bedroom, which meant I could listen to anything that I wanted to. I didn't have to invite my brothers. I could close the door, and if I wanted to listen to Gunsmoke or to Elvis Presley or to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturdays, I could do that. And I would listen to the Metropolitan Opera because they had the most wonderful announcer. His name was Milton Cross, and Milton Cross would tell you everything you needed to know about the opera. Of course I didn't understand Italian or French or German or any of these things, but I didn't need to, because Milton Cross told you everything you needed to know. He told you what Joan Sutherland was wearing, that she was very tall, that she was wearing a very beautiful blond wig and that her costume for Lucia di Lammermoor was this beautiful teal blue color. So I could see all of this in my mind, and however long the opera lasted on a Saturday afternoon, that's how long it took me to clean my room, which was my job on the Saturday. So if it was a long opera, it went on for a bit, my cleaning.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Jessye Norman Interview Photo
Jessye Norman Interview Photo

Did you share your excitement about the opera with your friends? Were they interested?

Jessye Norman: I had the luck of having a teacher, several teachers already in the fourth grade, a Mrs. Printup, and then in the fifth grade a Mrs. Hughes, in the sixth grade -- by the time I'm 11 -- a Mrs. Williams, and they knew that I was interested in this and they also knew that my classmates were not, so on a Monday, if I had listened to the opera that Saturday, I would be asked by my various teachers, "Now would you like to tell us what it was you heard on the radio on Saturday?" I was happy to. The kids were bored to tears. You can just imagine it, you know, sort of 10-year-old boys sort of sitting there listening to some girl go on about Leontyne Price singing Aïda. I mean really, what is Aïda anyway? And I would tell the story, because I'd make notes when Milton Cross was telling us what was going on, so that I would be prepared. So I had my little sort of shtick every Monday morning, you know, during the course of the year when the opera was on, that I might be called upon to talk about the opera. So I arrived with my notes and bored the class to absolute tears for these 15 minutes. One of the operas -- a wonderful septet from an opera of Donizetti, the one that I mentioned earlier, Lucia di Lammermoor, it has such a beautiful, beautiful ensemble, and I memorized the tune because it was so pretty for my ears, and I had remembered it by the time Monday turned around, and I could talk about it to the class, and that was the one time that I think the boys in the class actually listened to what I was saying.

Interviewer: Can you hum it? What is it?

Jessye Norman: (Humming). I mean just the most beautiful tune imaginable.

Many people play musical instruments, but your instrument, your voice, is a part of you. How do you feel about that?

Jessye Norman: It is a responsibility, I'm very grateful for it, but at the same time, it can really get on other people's nerves, you know, saying, "Well, we have to turn off the air conditioning," and "I mustn't be in a draft," and all the rest of it. Everybody else is sort of fanning themselves because it's so hot, and I'm sitting there saying, "But I can't be in air conditioning, because it'll give me sinusitis," and all the rest of it. Sometimes, particularly the little people in my family will say, "Can't you just take your voice out and put it on the table so that we can sit in the car in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer with the air conditioning on, please?"

People could mistake that for being temperamental, being a diva. Do they get it?

Jessye Norman: They don't get it. They don't understand that all you're doing is trying to preserve your work activity. This is your profession, and people would prefer that you not show up hoarse, and with sinusitis, and everything else that could happen from having a cold.

What was the role of music in your house when you were growing up?

Jessye Norman: There was music all the time. The boys in my family played instruments in the bands at schools, because my father was the president of the PTA and my mother was the secretary of the PTA. Parents in those days would not have allowed the kind of things that are happening with the schools' curriculum these days, all over the country and all over the world, that the arts are simply dropping out of the curriculum. They wouldn't have allowed it. They knew how much being a member of the chorus -- or a member of the movement group, or a member of the poetry society, or a member of the band -- they realized how much this influenced everything else in our lives, and that it was a part of education that really is just too important to be left aside. So music was in my house all the time. My mother played piano, and one of the things that I talk about all the time is at Christmastime, we do a version -- if you can imagine it -- of The Messiah's "Hallelujah Chorus." Now with my mother playing the piano, and I'm singing all of the parts of the chorus, and one of my brothers is playing the tuba, somebody else is playing the trumpet, and somebody else is playing the trombone, we would simply look at the music and choose a line of it to play. And there we were, sort of doing this thing that really calls for a chorus and an orchestra, not five people in the hallway on the upright piano. I always say, if we hadn't known where Handel was buried at the time, (we would have known) from the Norman rendition of "Hallelujah Chorus," because he was certainly spinning in his grave!

Was this interest in music unique to your family?

Jessye Norman: There were a lot of musical children around. I mean there were a lot of us that studied piano. I studied piano from the time I was very young, and all of us were sent out to piano whether you wanted to or not. I mean, the boys in my family -- my three brothers -- had to study piano along with my sister and myself, and cousins and everybody at school went to study piano lessons, and to participate in various sort of musical things at the churches and schools. It was a very normal thing to have music in the house, to come in on a Sunday afternoon -- which was one of the great things of growing up -- to come in on a Sunday afternoon from church, and there was Leonard Bernstein doing the Young People's Concerts on television. It was one of the few things that we were allowed to watch in television, and it was on Sunday in the afternoon, and it was incredible. It was almost as good as going to a concert, because he spoke directly into the camera. He told you everything you needed to know about the music and then the music was played. It was astounding, really wonderful.

You were lucky to have parents who understood the power of music and the arts.

Jessye Norman: Yes, they understood that.

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