Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jessye Norman: Standing and Singing for over 50 years

Jessye Norman is one of several internationally acclaimed African American opera singers: Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves,  Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Leontyne Price. Like them all, she acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the legendary Marian Anderson, whose historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial, (after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall) was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights struggle.

Like Anderson, Norman is a pioneer;  the only African American woman to sing the great Wagner roles on the international opera circuit. Her 1969 operatic debut, as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser was highly significant, since it challenged Wagnerian ideals of female "purity". Although Grace Bumbry had earlier played the sultry seductive "bad girl" Venus in the opera, the notion of a black woman as Wagner's Teutonic, virginal heroine was harder for some to accept. Yet Norman triumphed in the role both in Europe and nearly 20 years later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Norman is not one to dwell on past slights, (although an incident with CBS' Morley Safer still rankles). Her memoir Stand up Straight and Sing! reveals a consummate artist with a staggering work ethic: she never arrives for a performance less than several hours in advance, and she rarely sings in a language she has not intensively studied and learned to speak fluently. And although she rarely refers to politics, it is clear that she views her role as an ambassador for American and specifically African American culture with great pride

Join us as we discuss this fascinating artist and activist at this month's African American Lit discussions, Tuesday April 21st, 7:00 pm. in the Small Meeting Room of Evanston Public Library. Copies are available at the 2nd floor desk: call 847-448-8620.