An Interview With Opera Great, Jessye Norman

April 9, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015
Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman. (Carol Friedman)

On April 14, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia will be hosting a gala to honor Jessye Norman, a five-time Grammy Award recipient and one of the most celebrated opera singers in America’s history and of our time.

Miss Norman’s American debut began in Philadelphia 30 years ago, with The Philadelphia Opera as Dido in Henry Purcell’s (1659–1695) “Dido and Aeneas” and as Jocasta in Igor Stravinsky’s (1882–1971) “Oedipus Rex.”

Commenting on this award in a press release were Gala chairs, the Chamber Orchestra chairman, and Ms. Norman herself. Gala chairs, Carole and Joseph Shanis, Philadelphia’s renowned art patrons said it is a privilege to chair the gala.

Kenneth M. Jarin, Esq., chairman of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia Board of Directors said the organization is truly fortunate to have the honor of welcoming Ms. Norman back to Philadelphia.

Ms. Norman, on being honored with The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia’s Lifetime Achievement Award: “In these often troubling times in which we live, it is especially gratifying to be reminded that the arts play an essential part, have a special resonance in bringing us back to the beauty of life, the inspiring, the blessing of something as ephemeral as a dance step, as lasting as a sculpture in bronze, as deep in our consciousness as a song that finds its way in the harmony of our minds and stays there.

“I am very pleased indeed that the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia has decided to pause and celebrate music and all that it gives to us, and I could not be happier to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award on this occasion. I happen to agree with the words of Shakespeare that ‘Life without music would be a mistake’ … and am completely joy-filled that music is indeed at the center of my life and that I am given the privilege of sharing its nurturing magic with every ear that will hear and every heart that is open to its pleasures. Thank you, Philadelphia; I look forward to returning to your brotherly and sisterly embrace.”

In an interview with The Epoch Times, Ms. Norman shared fond memories, her influences, her love of singing, as well as her constant sources of inspiration.

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

The Epoch Times: For those of us who live in Philadelphia, the birthplace of this country that proudly boasts many of the nation’s firsts, it is so wonderful to know Philadelphia is also a very meaningful place to you. Tell us about your U.S. operatic debut in Philadelphia in 1982.

Jessye Norman: It was a pleasure to sing “Dido and Aeneas” of Purcell and “Oedipus Rex,” directed by Toby Robertson from London’s Old Vic in 1982. I made friends at that time with whom I am still in contact. It was a happy experience. And what is more, I had a large numbers of relatives in the area at the time.

Epoch Times: It is said that at the age of 9, you heard opera through a radio program and immediately felt in love with it. Do you still remember what pieces you heard, who the singer(s) were, and your initial emotional reactions to it? It must have been a very strong impression that made you pursue opera as your lifelong passion and love.

Ms. Norman: One has to take such information with more than ‘one grain of salt.’ It is true that at a very early age I came across the Saturday afternoon broadcasts live from the Metropolitan Opera on radio, and that I listened regularly to those broadcasts. I recall Lucia with Joan Sutherland, Aida with Leontyne Price, and so much more. I was not disturbed at all with not knowing the languages of the operas as the great broadcaster, Milton Cross told us everything we needed to know about the proceedings.

Epoch Times: Marian Anderson—you have often talked about her in such an inspiring way. Describe the way she has influenced you as a person and an artist.

Ms. Norman: To pay proper homage to the great Miss Anderson would take more space than is possible here. Suffice it to say that her presence, the voice that was like no other, the path that she made so that others of us might enter the world of classical music performance are things for which there are not enough words to say thank you.

Epoch Times: Your quote ‘Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons’ describes your view of artistic freedom. Can you please share your source of strength to maintain that admirable level of artistic freedom, which is at the risk of being lost to commercial interests?

Ms. Norman: My strength comes from the people who made me, from my parents and their parents before them, from supportive friends and colleagues, from the beauty of a sunset, the comfort of a stunning piece of music. There is inspiration around every corner, one has to but allow it to enter one’s spirit.

Epoch Times: Your album “Roots: My Life, My Song” is a tribute to a splendid life and musical journey of an African-American woman. Can you please share with us your roots?

Ms. Norman: I believe the notes on this particular CD explain it all. I am the result of many people’s hopes and dreams, of dedication to task, of recognizing that the strength and courage of my ancestors is there for me, too. I do my best to realize my own hopes and dreams and to make those who made me, happy with my efforts.

Epoch Times: Many people believe music can transport, transform human lives and the human spirit. Can you please share a transcendental experience that you personally have had with music?

Ms. Norman: As a practicing musician, I have the privilege of transformative musical experiences on a regular basis. And I understand completely that this is indeed a privilege. One such moment was surely being in Leipzig, Germany in the same church in which Johann Sebastian Bach labored for years—to be seated near his crypt—during a performance of a Bach oratorio. A privilege indeed.

Epoch Times: What would be your best advice to young students of the arts who want to pursue a meaningful career in music?

Ms. Norman: I am wise enough to understand that each student is an individual, with needs that are unique. Anyone wishing to accomplish anything of merit in life, be it in the arts or any other profession, must understand that the love and respect of that profession are surely two of the elements that can help to ensure the most positive experiences.

Epoch Times: You’ve performed on different continents to people from different cultures. How have you achieved that instant soulful communication with audiences who don’t even speak the language in which you have sung?

Ms. Norman: As I have stated often, we say all that time that music is a universal language, and I believe that to be true. What is also true for me is that ‘Music is the language of the universe.’ Therefore communication is instantaneous!!

Epoch Times: Fifty years from today, how do you want people to remember you and what legacy do you want people to take from your life?

Ms. Norman: Fifty years from today, should anyone wish to recall my work or name, I trust that the thought would be of a person dedicated to spreading joy through the sheer love of singing.