Jessye Norman: Stand Up Straight and Sing!-A Memoir

By Nicholas, Jeremy | Gramophone, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Jessye Norman: Stand Up Straight and Sing!-A Memoir


Nicholas, Jeremy, Gramophone


Jessye Norman

Stand Up Straight and Sing!--A Memoir

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HB, 336pp, [pounds sterling] 20

ISBN 978-0-544-00340-8

Jessye Norman was born in into a class that was, to America's eternal shame, subject to the Jim Crow laws that existed until 1965. A proud African American, she was keenly aware from an early age of the social and economic disadvantages to which her race was subject. Much of this memoir is concerned with racial discrimination--how it affected her and her family--and the singer's involvement with the Civil Rights movement. It was, paradoxically, her African American heritage that instilled in her the need to work and study diligently, and which introduced her to the church. 'The training ground of my community was as crucial to my performance life as to my spiritual journey. Music has always been an essential part of the African American worship service.'

Her chosen career path was a brave choice. Few African Americans had succeeded as opera singers. Norman's great hero Marian Anderson (whom she met and befriended) was not allowed to sing at the Met until 1955. Norman herself did not make her debut there until 1983, having spent much of the previous 15 years carving out a spectacular career in Europe, where racial stereotyping was not such a hindrance. With her extraordinary range from contralto to dramatic soprano, she became one of the finest recitalists and operatic singers of her generation, noted for the breadth of her repertoire, her linguistic versatility, assiduous preparation and attention to detail.

I'm not entirely sure at whom this book is aimed. Family? Friends? Fans? At times it reads like a life guide for young musicians (it contains much valuable advice), at others a heartfelt litany of thanks to all those who were most influential in her development as an artist and human being. Of the singer's private life we learn precisely nothing. 'It is private,' is the blunt explanation. 'It is personal. May it ever be so.' There again, parts of the memoir seem to be a self-congratulatory celebration of the author's achievements, a record of the many important national events at which she has sung, and of the famous people at whose invitation she has performed. 'I am the recipient of more than 30 honorary doctorate degrees from a number of colleges, universities, and conservatories around the world,' we read. She sits next to the Duke of Edinburgh ('a marvellous luncheon companion') at a degree ceremony and was 'quite amused when His Highness [tit] proceeded to advise me as to which route I should have the driver take from Cambridge to Heathrow Airport in order to join the M25, which was all the rage among drivers, who believed that this new motorway would save travel time in this southern part of Britain. …

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