Writers & Company

Opera superstar Jessye Norman reflects on political activism and her 50-year career in music

The gifted soprano spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her life and work at the Toronto Reference Library in early 2019. Norman died on Sept. 30, 2019.
American opera singer and recitalist Jessye Norman spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (George Panayotou)

This interview originally aired on Feb. 24, 2019.

Legendary opera singer Jessye Norman died on Sept. 30, 2019. She was 74 years old.

On Feb. 20, 2019, Norman became the first woman to win the international $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize, presented for exceptional artistic and humanitarian achievement.

Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1945, Jessye Norman grew up in the segregated American South, in both a musical and politically engaged family. She participated in sit-ins and demonstrations. She also sang every chance she got, in churches, at school — even at a grocery store opening.

With her extraordinary voice and its remarkable range — soprano, mezzo, alto — she became one of the world's greatest singers, performing for Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Rosa Parks and the Queen. She is the author of the memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing.

When Norman was in Toronto for the Glenn Gould Prize, she participated in an all-day program on Black opera at the Toronto Reference Library. She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel on stage as part of the 2019 event. 

A magical childhood

"My childhood in Augusta, Georgia was magical in the sense that, even though I grew up in the Jim Crow South with segregation everywhere, I could have been in a situation where it would have been easy to have worn that differently.

"I was lucky to grow up in a loving community — around the corner from our church and down the road from my elementary school — with parents who were incredibly interested in education and in ensuring it would envelope the the minds and bodies of their five children.

"Going to a segregated school was actually kind of a blessing. I say this without wanting people to think we should go back to 'separate but equal' — Plessy v. Ferguson was not a good idea then, and it certainly wouldn't be a good idea now.

We were the first generation of children born after the Second World War and they wanted us to have a better life than they had.

"But I grew up with teachers in my school who wanted us to do well. We were the first generation of children born after the Second World War and they wanted us to have a better life than they had."

Power of the arts

"My father was the manager of an insurance company. He would still somehow arrange his day to drive me wherever I had to sing — and I was singing all the time. I sang more as a child than I do as a professional. Our parents at that time would not have stood for a public school education that did not include the arts.

"There would have been no discussion of taking away the arts because it was too expensive or not necessary.

I grew up in a situation that could have made me feel very differently about myself and my place in the world.

"They knew instinctively that it was necessary — that the arts are just as important as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"It was an interesting, happy life in the Deep South for me. I grew up in a situation that could have made me feel very differently about myself and my place in the world. I think it was a lucky break."

Former U.S. president Barack Obama presents the 2009 National Medal of Arts to opera singer Jessye Norman during a ceremony on Feb. 25, 2010 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Growing up with segregation

"I was surrounded by signs of segregation. There would be water fountains: one would have a sign saying 'colored' and the next one would say 'white.' At age five or six, I simply didn't understand what the nonsense was about.

"I would go to the 'white' fountain and turn on the water, and then go to the 'colored' fountain and turn on the water. I would be confused and tell my mother that they were the same. When you're growing up, you haven't the faintest idea that everybody else in the world isn't growing up the same.

When you're growing up, you haven't the faintest idea that everybody else in the world isn't growing up the same.

"As a young child, I was a member of the youth council for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and my older brother was the president of this association. So we were involved in sit-ins and we were given money by the organization to go and actually sit at a lunch counter.

"If we were given food at least you could pay for it. But most of the time we were completely ignored. And I thought that people just didn't know how to behave. I still do."

In this photograph taken on March 23, 1984, US soprano Jessye Norman performs in Purcell's 'Dido and Aneas' at Opera Comique in Paris. The American soprano died September 30, 2019. She was 74 years old. (STR and Philippe Wojazer/AFP via Getty Images)

The operatic voice

"My voice is well-suited to singing the music of Wagner. I completed my classical vocal training at Howard University and studied with voice teacher Carolyn Grant.  She took my three different voices — my low, middle and upper registers — and helped me understand how to use them all equally.

I have an unusual range. It's a gift. But we have to understand that we are all born with a voice.

"I have an unusual range. It's a gift. But we have to understand that we are all born with a voice.

"What we can do with training is change its colour — and if we are very clever we learn how to support our voices. It's important to understand the physiology of singing and what is going on in your body when you take a breath and make a sound.

"If we're more comfortable with understanding the anatomy of our bodies, then we are more comfortable singing."

Jessye Norman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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