Her voice pours out like warm honey onto clear amber. Or it floats in an impossibly sustained pianissimo, suspended like filigree in ether. Or, like a force of nature, it surges forward in a mighty volcanic flow, with the glow of embers banked in a quiet fire. But enough with the swooping poetic analogies. Jessye Norman simply has one of the great voices of our time‹of any era, for that matter.
Singing is one of the most physical things one can do‹a matter of muscle and sinew and breath control that any deep-sea diver would envy‹yet as Norman does it, the result transcends physicality. What makes Norman particularly compelling, however, is not just that she is the possessor of a once-in-a-generation instrument but that her adventurous intelligence has led her to tackle surprising repertoire. Norman has forged a substantial career performing important roles at leading opera houses and has sung in recital and with major orchestras around the world, but the soprano has also consistently championed new music, contemporary composers, and fresh collaborations. Norman goes boldly where few singers have gone before.
Next month, Kennedy Center audiences can catch up with Jessye Norman when she appears with the National Symphony Orchestra at the NSO's Season Opening Concert. The festive September 20 gala, led by NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin, will feature Berlioz's Overture to The Roman Carnival, Fauré's Pavane, Suppé's Light Calvary Overture, and orchestral miniatures by Leroy Anderson. Norman will sing Wagner's moving Wesendonck-Lieder and will close with a selection of Gershwin's best-loved songs.
The soprano is no stranger to the Kennedy Center. In 1997 she became the youngest individual ever to be awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. The other Honorees that year were screen siren Lauren Bacall, folk-rock balladeer Bob Dylan, film icon Charlton Heston, and ballet legend Edward Villella. The Honors saluted her for a "musical reach that has been and continues to be breathtaking. No matter what the language, she makes every word matter, every note tell."
Norman's portion of the September 20 NSO program demonstrates some of the range of her interests by juxtaposing Wagner's echt-German intensity with Gershwin's sunnier spirit. The singer brings worlds of meaning to the Wesendonck-Lieder, which she has sung for many years. These are some of Wagner's few art songs, intimate works far from the magisterial scale of his operas (Parsifal, The Ring Cycle, et al.), written to the poems of Mathilde Wesendonck, a married poet who was Wagner's patron and, it is widely rumored, his lover. Deeply saturated with the ethos of German Romanticism, the texts deal with dreams and angels and ecstatic love. Wesendonck was one of Wagner's great passions, which is saying a lot, for he was a passionate man. And in many ways their romance was the template for the impossible, sublime romance at the heart of Wagner's subsequent Tristan und Isolde. In fact, two of the lieder contain what one critic has called Tristan's musical DNA‹themes developed fully in the opera.
The Gershwin songs Norman will perform with the NSO are American classics, so much a part of the culture of the country that it seems they have always existed. Although their works are now canonical, at one time George and Ira Gershwin were just another couple of young guys selling their songs to Tin Pan Alley. When the two arrived in Hollywood to work in film, one columnist, clearly faking it, wrote that a glittering party was attended by "George Gershwin and his lovely wife, Ira." Now, of course, "Love Walked In" and "Love Is Here to Stay" are standards. Norman makes these songs sound not like some sort of nervous operatic experiment in "crossover," but delivers them with the ease and insight that have also marked her performances of spirituals, certain popular music, and jazz. Internationally acclaimed prima donna she may be, but Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, and the Gershwins and Duke Ellington and gospel are her birthright, too, and equally deserving of her attention.
In 2001 Norman even released a jazz album, I Was Born in Love with You, devoted to the music of Michel Legrand, with stellar backup: the composer himself at the piano and jazz greats Ron Carter on bass and Grady Tate on percussion. A fascinating experiment, the album featured Norman working her wiles on such familiar tunes as "The Summer Knows" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"
Of course, it is in classical music that Norman has made her mark. Following a musical childhood, Norman focused on vocal studies at Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Michigan. Her operatic debut, in 1969 as Elizabeth in Tannhäuser at Deutsche Oper Berlin, created a sensation, and she was soon in demand worldwide. One measure of Norman's international appeal is that for years a larger-than-life photograph of the singer was proudly displayed at the Deutsche Oper's U-bahn stop; everyone claims the American soprano as their own. She has sung some of opera's most challenging roles at London's Royal Opera House, La Scala, the Paris Opera, Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Music Festival, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, among many others. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut on opening night of the company's 100th season in 1983, in Berlioz's Les Troyens. Many appearances later, in 1996 the Met staged its first production of Janácek's The Makropulos Case for Norman. The set featured a billboard the size of a Cinerama movie screen, with Norman's mesmerizing eyes gazing out at us. On a multidisc compilation of just some of her work, the composers range from Bartók, Beethoven, Gluck, and Haydn to Mahler, Mozart, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Verdi, and Wagner.
At this stage in her career, the singer has become something of a cultural ambassador-at-large, the kind of person whose dignity and sophistication guarantee gravitas. The French invited this American in Paris to sing "La Marseillaise" at the Place de la Concorde during the ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. In 2002 Norman performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and Celebrational Peace Concert in honor of that year's recipient, former President Jimmy Carter. Norman is as likely to turn up in Tokyo and Tel Aviv as in Moscow and Amsterdam. She also makes time to appear at performing arts centers in Columbus, Ga., Baltimore, Md., and her hometown of Augusta. All that, and she is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts, reputed to be a tireless seller of their fabled cookies.
Norman always looks for the unexpected. In 1999 she collaborated with hard-hitting post-modern choreographer Bill T. Jones on the exclamatory How! Do! We! Do!, a deliberately free-wheeling work in which the two friends danced, recited poems of Frank O'Hara, and sauntered elegantly to a Duke Ellington tune; Norman sang music that ranged from classical to cabaret. In 2000 Norman performed the world premiere of woman.life.song, commissioned for her by Carnegie Hall with music by Judith Weir and texts by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In 2001 she gave the world premiere of avant-garde director Robert Wilson's staged production of Schubert's Winterreise at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. And last month she collaborated with visual artist Steve McQueen on a video, live music, and spoken text performance at London's Tate Britain museum.
Norman is willing to go out on a limb to learn and study and perform fresh work. She could stick to concerts and recitals of the tried and true, but instead she seeks out the next, the new, in ways that defy categorization. "Pigeonholing," she has famously said, "is only interesting to pigeons."
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.