As a musician, your bag of professional tricks has to include a keen of sense of timing. But Jessye Norman would probably be the first to admit that she missed her first cue for one of Israel’s most prestigious international award ceremonies.
The 70-year-old American-born iconic opera singer finally made it over here in June to accept the coveted Wolf Prize for Music, which she was due to receive last year, along with Jewish American conductor Murray Perahia. She was unable to attend the 2015 ceremony in the Knesset due to poor health. Unlike the Oscars, the rules of the Wolf Prize demand that laureates receive the award in person, hence the oneyear delay.
In fact, Norman almost missed out this year too, as became immediately apparent when I espied the legendary performer making her way to the entrance of the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA), high school for gifted students, in Jerusalem. Norman always comes across as being of noble stature and demeanor, but I was a little taken aback to see her approaching in an electric wheelchair.
Thankfully, her incapacitation was temporary, due to an ankle fracture.
Norman was clearly not going to miss out on the Wolf ceremony a second time and worked her unfortunate accident into the lecture she delivered to the attentive young IASA audience.
“You can’t always plan for everything in life,” she noted, by way of advising the teenagers that they might have to sidestep some professional and personal minefields in their future careers. “Look at me. I didn’t plan on breaking my ankle,” she said with a wry smile.
All eyes were on Norman, who managed to look regal despite her lack of ambulatory mobility, dressed in smart black and white attire, complete with fetching African-style headdress.
But Norman has always been the most striking of stage performers, eliciting rapturous applause from audiences the world over, as well as a host of official kudos. In 1996, she became the fourth classical singer to receive the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, following on the distinguished heels of Enrico Caruso and the heroines of her youth – African American opera singers Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. In 2010, she received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.
When it comes to role models, the IASA students could do a lot worse than look to Norman. Growing up in segregated Augusta, Georgia, Norman didn’t exactly have the whole world in her infant hands from the outset. But she did have music in her life – lots of it. Her father sang in the church choir, and her mother played piano. The youngster’s remarkably powerful fledgling vocals quickly attracted attention and, by the age of four, she was singing gospel songs at the local Baptist church, followed by leading spots at school events and community functions.
In fact, the world almost missed out on a fabulous singer because, for a while, Norman considered following in the footsteps of two of her siblings into the medical profession.
But her prodigious musical gifts held sway, and she earned a music degree at Howard University in Washington, DC. That followed an impromptu audition there when she was 16. Although she still had a year of high school left, she was offered a full music scholarship. She took her academic musical studies several steps further after graduating from Howard by continuing her studies at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree, consolidating her command of music theory and vocal technique.
Norman is not only blessed with a dazzling vocal delivery, but in her exchanges with the IASA students and teachers she also came across as a generous soul. She also is very much involved in the education sector.
After achieving success across the globe and working in other areas of sonic endeavor, including jazz, Norman returned to her old stomping ground and, in 2003, the Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in Augusta. It runs a free after-school program that gives talented middle school students the opportunity to study music, drama, dance and art. Norman serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall and the New York Public Library, as well as the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Lupus Foundation and the Partnership for the Homeless. She is also a proud lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.
“You have to put your heart and your soul into what you are doing, whether you are playing the piano or singing or writing poetry,” advises Norman who, by virtue of a long sojourn in London in the 1970s, speaks in an accent more reminiscent of the product of an upper crust English public school than someone who hails from southern United States. “You are sharing that with the outside world.”
That, notes the seasoned singer, is not always easy.
“You may feel a little hesitant about expressing everything that you are feeling or to show everything that you are feeling, but it is a wonderful thing to be comfortable with expressing your true feelings,” she says.
Presumably, that message resonated strongly with Norman’s predominantly adolescent audience at the school.
Over the past close to half a century, Norman has constantly produced the goods and wowed audiences at Carnegie Hall, La Scala, Covent Garden and the Berlin Opera, to mention but a few A list venues. That made her the ideal person to answer a question from a student about how to handle the lateral pressures of maintaining such a successful musical career.
Norman was visibly moved by the performance of the school choir conducted by internationally renowned musician and musicologist Michael Wolpe, as well as a piano recital. Although Norman no longer tours the world as a regular working opera singer, her acclaimed recordings of works by the likes of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mozart continue to delight, and her warmth and graciousness left all everyone at the IASA feeling enriched by their encounter with one of the true greats of the opera world.