PRINT January 2020



Jessye Norman performing at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, November 30, 1991. Photo: Frans Schellekens/Redferns.

1. I REMEMBER driving away from Tanglewood one summer night in 1987 after having heard Jessye Norman sing a concert performance of Salome’s last scene, a soprano’s autoerotic orgy with the head of John the Baptist. (Long ago, I wrote about that pivotal night, but the memory of the performance and its aftermath rises up now, untainted by the sentences with which I once clothed the experience.) I remember driving into the night and wondering what on earth I would do with my life. My life, struck by Norman’s artistry, had become a thing worth interrogating. My life had become, suddenly, very very small, and in its smallness, glimmering with possibilities.

2. I’m test-driving my Jessye Norman–honoring voice, to see if it sounds forced. 

3. I never met Norman. I wrote to her once. The New Yorker had authorized me to compose a profile of her. Through her manager, I sent the soprano a letter, doubtless on letterhead, doubtless obsequious, doubtless genuine.

4. She wrote back, at some length, in a style I remember as florid. She spoke of needing to continue with her life and not interrupt its routines by permitting the ingress of a reporter, spying on her, pinning her down. Those were not her words. Her letter is in my archive.

5. The last time I saw her in person was in 2011, at Shirley Verrett’s memorial at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater. I noted, as I always noted every time I beheld Norman, her fashion acumen, her haute fabrics, her physical composure, her mien of needing to keep attention fixed on higher matters. 

6. If memory, that failing sieve, serves: The first time I saw her in person—mid-1970s, Flint Center, De Anza College, Cupertino, California—she sang Wagner’s “Liebestod” with the San Francisco Symphony. I attended the concert with a girl whose mother reminded me of Seiji Ozawa, who might have been the conductor that afternoon. A frequent collaborator of Norman’s, Ozawa himself had an impeccable sense of fabric, carriage, uprightness. I continue to relish, with emulative glee, the spectacle of classical musicians keenly measuring their surroundings and then reshaping them, with Circean willfulness, toward ends obedient to the trained ear’s accounting, fastidious as Thoreau’s, as if it were possible to mold the stubborn world by honing one’s sensitivity to harmonic partials.

Jessye Norman performing at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, October 3, 2002. Photo: Pierre-Franck Colombier/AFP via Getty.

7. My friend and I—my friend was a girl, but not my girlfriend, a distinction important to me at that time—held hands during the concert, most fervently and perhaps moistly at those climactic moments when the sound Norman made was unlike (in power, resplendence, shimmer, support) any I had ever heard. My friend and I afterward remarked on how widely Norman opened her mouth when she sang. If you watch footage of Norman singing you will notice her mouth opening wide, wider, forming a pertinent o. You will notice how expertly she enunciates, how carefully and extravagantly she adjusts her mouth, jaw, tongue, lips, nose, and eyes to match and enhance vowel and consonant—those exacting morsels. 

8. This manner of singing, of overtly and conspicuously torquing the face to produce the requisite, desired sound, is common among opera singers, but Norman took this necessity to extremes, never in the process disturbing or compromising the beauty of her face, its expressiveness, its appearance of controlled munificence, disbursing to the audience the treasures that were hers alone to bestow.

9. Jessye Norman had several voices, joined seamlessly into the kaleidoscopic whole, but each having its own savor and appeal, each retaining the capacity to prod the listener to reevaluate extant definitions of the sublime, the worthy, the entire.

10. Norman had a high voice, its roof opened like Rome’s Pantheon—or like a church bombed in war, or left for time itself to ruin, with rafters freely giving onto the sky, not unlike what Emily Dickinson said poetry made her feel: mind’s lid removed. When Norman sang at the summit of her range she sounded exiled from her more comfortable self. The contralto contained (as its latent anti-self) the soprano, as a low mood contains higher-pitched sighs and exclamations.

11. Norman’s middle range, at its uppermost and bottom-most corners, and in its capable middle, was the core of her tonal accomplishment. The sound’s magnitude beggared belief. Never merely piercing, the sound created circles that environed the listener; the aim of this ampleness, if sheer volume has an intention, seemed to be the bestowal of awe and consolation, and the wish to shake us to our foundations and remind us of ethical principles we had mislaid.

12. Her lower voice went on for ages. It exceeded prior measure and wrested into existence a new prosody, a new ferocity of vibration. Philosophers and scientists might call this vibration resonance. Resonance occupies your listening body and enlarges your capacity for opening yourself to what can come through the doors of the senses. Norman contained all that resonance and made it happen for you, too. You stand, listening, on a ground that she built, a terrain, now shared, now momentarily yours, that she forged with no help from you.

Jessye Norman performing in Leoš Janáček’s 1925 The Makropulos Case, Metropolitan Opera, New York, January 1996. Photo: Johan Elbers/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty.

13. She sang, at her career’s outset, Verdi. Her athletic, galloping recording of his early opera Il Corsaro, with a young José Carreras and the formidable Montserrat Caballé as costars, is a document of vocal strength I beg you not to go your whole life without hearing. Caballé plus Norman equals a new threshold of the marvelous. Caballé, usually unsurpassable (in delicacy of line, in breath control), meets stiff competition in Norman, whose sound is more gorgeous, generous, muscular, suggestive of histories beyond bel canto’s wilting ken. Looking at a photo of Norman and Caballé and their obedient hairdos, 1970s, I’m reminded that “opera singer” used to be a vocation with fixed procedures for public deportment. Caballé and Norman obey the decorum and they upend it. To acknowledge and greet a rule is, sometimes, to abolish it. Dickinson, again: “Yet interdict – my Blossom – / And abrogate – my Bee.” Norman was in the business of interdiction and abrogation. She showered the listener with precedent-abrogating volume, doxa-interdicting opulence.

14. She loved obscurities. She sang Fauré’s Pénélope, a poème lyrique apotheosizing the stationary and the riverine. She flourished in the gender-indifferent parlors of Duparc, Satie, Chausson, Ravel. She sang, later in her career, an opinionated Carmen. She seemed to take pleasure in being a star who could finally claim the freedom of “doing” Bizet’s wonder woman, even if only in the studio, remote from the dreary literalness of staged enactment. Carmen was neither her most simpatico impersonation nor her most characteristic. I recall going to Tanglewood to hear Norman sing excerpts from Carmen, but the program at the last minute was changed, and she sang some other repertoire instead. When she ventured into music that danced, that leaned toward operetta or Broadway, she liked to go microscopic with diction nuances. Archness she could ladle on, and we could enjoy with her how a word and a phrase could be segmented, minced, the bits strung together by a legato that liked to stretch toward the inaudible, the faintest of tethers linking the syllables.

15. To assume a role is to enact a profane Assumption. A sense of assumption arises when I recall Norman’s enrapturing Wagner and Strauss performances—her Four Last Songs beating Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at a game the Teutonic maven invented. Myth came naturally to Norman: On Ariadne’s rock, or in Sieglinde’s hovel, the soprano could unwind. No Sieglinde responds to Siegmund pulling the sword out of the tree with a cry of pleasure-in-pain more veristic and voracious than Norman’s. Sieglinde, at that moment, is sister to the tree, and her half-sung, half-declaimed love-peal, as Norman rendered it, was convulsive—as beauty, to qualify as revolutionary, must always aspire to be, even within an art form (opera) that no one has recently accused of insurrection. 

Jessye Norman performing in Richard Strauss’s 1916 Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60, Metropolitan Opera, New York, March 1993. Photo: Beatriz Schiller/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty.

16. She undid the tidiness of the individual song. She tumbled into Schumann’s firefly-quick “Widmung” and “Frühlingsnacht” with an impetuousness that knocked over any earlier ideas we might have had about the lied as a walled structure. Norman shoved more sound into these finite containers than anyone else could; the partitions around the art song trembled, as if a happiness-producing whirlwind had passed through a small room and changed forever the expectations of its inhabitants. 

17. To complicate what I said about Norman’s sometime archness: Let us honor her knack for French irony, French bittersweetness, French morbidity. Hear Norman’s voice puncture and console as the churchly Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites; and hear Norman’s droll, louche amplitudes of velvet in “Les chemins de l’amour,” a salon or boulevard number, throwaway yet divine, that she, by singing it at half speed, turns into a combination of a dirge and an attempt to seduce the void with a carnality Machiavellian yet touched by the melancholy pith of Marguerite Duras, if her perverse Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein had been converted to oceanic Gesamtkunstwerk. Norman’s voice sails into the sea of itself; she takes time, with each phrase, to marvel at the Acropolis that each of her vowels calls forth. She must have been overwhelmed by the experience of what she could, through gift and training, produce—overwhelmed, too, by the shattering effect it had on others.

18. At the Met, I heard her sing Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and I remember the ease with which she dominated the latter, a monodrama whose atonal, Expressionistic unmoorings, strictly plotted, suited her affection for sonorous psychological cul-de-sacs. I think too of her Alban Berg songs, where her talent for lengthening a phrase and almost tormenting it with an abundance of timbral precisions and consonantal fine-tunings conveyed a Caligari-like confidence. 

Jessye Norman had several voices, joined seamlessly into the kaleidoscopic whole, but each having its own savor and appeal.

19. Norman sang spirituals. Her spirituals were (to invoke a place where accommodationist language must give way) something else: the root, the summit, the context, the reminder, the rapprochement, the wellspring, the return. She performed spirituals in a dual concert in 1990 at Carnegie Hall with the temperamental and pure-voiced Kathleen Battle, a soubrette with a saber; Marian Anderson was in the audience. In a video broadcast of the event, after “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” the camera pans to Anderson watching, Anderson (we presume) understanding that without a Marian there would not be a Jessye, a Jessye who seemed to revere and uphold this legacy, and who could pursue a vocation that racism and the doctrine of white supremacy, entangled with all too many aspects of the civilization that has nourished opera, had precluded for earlier generations. Norman, as a woman of color in a white-dominated opera world, knew more than I could ever imagine about what each step of the way toward her own divination felt like, and how each of those steps resonated with the work of predecessors—Mattiwilda Dobbs and Leontyne Price, Betty Allen and Camilla Williams. Jazz, too: Norman cited Mabel Mercer, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan as influences. “I don’t like the idea that classical music should be over here and jazz should be someplace else,” she said in a 2013 interview. Norman’s triumphant comfort with the high European, Norman’s imperial-seeming ease with being truly royal, truly a queen, Norman’s German and French better than anyone’s German and French, express a pride and satisfaction that she had taken the oppressors’ languages, made them her own, and done them better than any oppressor or oppressor’s child ever had.

Jessye Norman performing in Hector Berlioz’s 1858 Les Troyens, Metropolitan Opera, New York, September 26, 1983. Photo: Robert R. McElroy/Getty.

20. Jessye Norman, in a televised 60 Minutes interview during which she must endure the patronizing questions of Morley Safer, who asks her why she isn’t married, to which unwelcome, bigoted question Norman gamely replies that just because she’s not married doesn’t mean she’s lonely, and that she “could never be in love with just a mere man,” says that audiences everywhere like to hear spirituals; and, she adds, in a striking turn of phrase, audiences like to hear spirituals “out of a black mouth.” She did not impugn the wish—even the wish of white audiences—to see and hear a black singer sing spirituals as well as Strauss. Norman’s early absorption of church singing—of gospel—made her performances of spirituals a site of home. Home is an ideology, but it is also, when Norman is singing home in the form of “Deep River,” a navigational device, a necessity, an invocation, a spark of upsurging intentionality, an impetus for social movements. Her spirituals rocked and shook and took luster and risk from every believing corner of her imagination and her instrument. The vibrations and resonances signified over my head and left me, leave me, grateful to have been permitted to overhear (my position in this signifying scene necessarily an interloper’s) her righteousness, her strength. After singing, Norman sometimes kept her hands raised in the air—to savor the remnant of the torrent she had produced, and to signal that she was proud to hail herself as the author of this engulfing sonic wave.

21. From reading Norman’s autobiography, Stand Up Straight and Sing! (2014), I remember how resolutely she maintained the inflections of someone for whom bitterness would never come naturally, someone for whom rancor was not a luxury in which she would indulge, someone whose intimate life she would not reveal or consider anyone’s business. Regal impersonality governed the tone of everything she declaimed. Step out of the way, she seemed to declare, so that the tonalities of outcry, address, lament—of bird, wind, waterfall—of every unnameable underlying magnetism—can flow unhindered. Let the planet speak through me; I will not dominate it by embroidering its moltenness with my own acquired personal traits.

22. Our responsibility, now and always, is to try and find a way of behaving, listening, speaking, performing or not performing, walking, cooperating or not cooperating, rebelling—to try and find a way to accomplish these necessary acts in a fashion that responds and pays deliberate homage to Norman’s example. How can we, how can I, use voice, body, fortitude, self-belief, doubt, physical and cognitive capacities, paltry or middling or more—how can I use this position to shine as clear and poulticing a light as possible on any incomprehension or ignorance that crosses my path, even the ignorance that is my own?

23. Like a scholar, you must study Norman’s recordings. (Consider them midrash.) Bar from your life any condescension, half-heartedness, or meagerness of outlook, of energy, that hampers your progress forward. Borrow from the strength of Norman’s voice and the valor with which she formed for herself an original life. Use that mettle to shape your styles of looking around you for what needs to be found, tended, left behind.

24. Think of all the barricades that might have made Norman exhausted, that might have made Norman quit, that might have made Norman feel negative.

25. Today, I sang “Beau soir” (Debussy) and “Glad to Be Unhappy” (Rodgers and Hart). To say I sang them doesn’t mean I sang them well. I wanted to feel vibrations in my head and chest—behind my eyes and nose, between my ribs—and to turn vicariousness into corporeal experience (though I won’t deny vicariousness its dignity as a valid mode of receiving sensations). On the piano, I played Schumann’s “Arabesque” and two Poulenc morceaux that he called “Improvisations,” though they don’t sound improvised; they sound carefully planned. Their music-hall sweetness and sincerity—clouded by wise gay guile, and dissonances that could only be Poulenc’s, though he borrowed them from jazz, Debussy, and Ravel—remind us that improvisation and careful preparation are not antithetical. No one invented dissonance. It arose from many cultures at once. 

26. In videos of Norman singing, watch her breathing. Observe her complete bodily vessel accepting inspiration. Note how decisively she admits air: She must seize oxygen to sing the phrase we are waiting to hear. No one else but Norman can take in those invisible molecules. She must now, even with you watching, admit material to propel the breath that will unleash and uphold the upcoming phrase. She opens her mouth. Her shoulders rise as her lungs expand. She sings. She sang—and now your responsibilities begin. She is finished with her portion of the work. 

Wayne Koestenbaum is a poet, critic, painter, and performer. His twentieth book, Figure It Out, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press.