JESSYE NORMAN--DIVA ON THE GO
Jessye Norman is on the phone in her suite at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. “I ordered room service 30 minutes ago. I think that’s a rather long time to wait for a pot of tea,” she says with an operatic gravity that makes the words quiver.
Moments later a cart rolls in, and Norman, mollified, cheerily bustles about, serving the tea and passing a platter of sandwiches.
The inspiration for the spirited, independent singer of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film, “Diva,” the 40-year-old soprano not only orders her own food, she tips hotel porters, does her own packing, plans her recitals, oversees her itineraries--in a word, takes charge of her professional life.
In the heady ether of operatic stardom, in which Norman’s ascent has been a dominant event, she has also managed to retain the simple grace of a person who was raised in the South to have a strong faith, genteel manners and to eat all of the peas on her dinner plate.
This afternoon she has flown in from Boston, where she performed a recital program of Handel, Brahms, Mahler, Berg, Ravel and Strauss at Symphony Hall. Curtain calls and four encores lasted 25 minutes, and backstage a stream of stylish patrons, a few of them with moistened eyes, regaled her with adulation.
The Boston Globe’s Richard Dyer noted in the morning paper that Norman had brought to the performance “the sincerity of her art, the warmth and grandeur of her personality, and a voice unequalled today for tonal splendor.”
Indeed, Norman’s public has continually responded to her person as well as to her vocal virtuosity. Last spring, the French named an orchid for her, and in her Japanese debut in the fall, a Tokyo audience kept her returning to the stage for nearly an hour.
Norman, however, generally does not reveal the inner sources that inspire her art, and informs the press that she does not talk about her private life. She feels affronted by critics who have cited her large size as an impediment to singing roles requiring realistic operatic acting.
Norman rebuts: “It’s people like that who give me enormous energy, because I’m here to prove them wrong. It’s quite impossible for some people who are on the periphery of this profession to think that you could say ‘no’ to an opera role that seems like it would open doors, for reasons that are personal and private and have nothing to do with the fact that you think, I can’t act. I know that I can, so I’ve never been confused about it.”
As for press comments that Norman, who lives in London, has a British accent, she says, “People don’t know what a British accent is if they think that I have one. My speech is certainly clear and obviously I spent a great deal of time educating myself. But that’s all there is.”
Then, easing back in a well-stuffed chair, she talks more comfortably about her guiding thoughts, her sense of self and the emotions that animate her music-making.
She is simple, she declares, “boringly so,” she says with a laugh.
“I have to make an effort to make people realize that that is the way that I am.
“They are amazed that I don’t travel with four or five people looking after me.” Norman places her hand on her chest and mimics hauteur , “Perhaps at another stage of my career.”
Having doffed the flowing mink coat which she wore on the day’s trip, Norman is dressed in a casual knit pants suit, her hair coifed in corn rows. Her large, luminous eyes widen with frequent humor and she laughs with a generous booming from the great orifice of her mouth.
“I hope that it comes across that I take my work very seriously,” she says, “but I can’t be bothered with taking myself very seriously. That would be too silly.”
Before a performance in Cleveland, she recounts, one of her brothers dropped by her hotel room and asked her to iron a shirt, which she did. “It’s a relief to be treated like a sister,” she says.
“It’s very important that people can feel that they can just be themselves around you and that you can be yourself around them, when you know you’re with a group of friends and nobody’s expecting you to pose. I don’t think I’ve ever articulated that before. But it’s terrible when you’re invited somewhere and everybody is waiting to see how do you behave really. Awful, awful, awful feeling!
“After a performance you’d really like to just relax a little, and then you go to a situation where people are sort of waiting to see, ‘Well, what does she do now? She takes off her shoes.’ ” Norman adopts a stage whisper. “ ‘Did you see? She takes off her shoes.’ It’s horrible!”
Yet, on- and off-stage, Norman’s presence is undeniably grand. Raised in a middle-class family in Augusta, Ga., she has spent her adult life in Europe and is polished and fashionable. She speaks French and German, and her circle of friends includes the Arthur Hartmans (the American ambassador to the Soviet Union), the Pierre Salingers in Paris, and New York arts patrons, the Fred Eberstadts. She unabashedly loves life’s finest luxuries-- cepes (the prized French champignons), the Hotel Ritz and mink.
Since the fall of 1983, when she opened the New York Metropolitan Opera’s centennial season as Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” she has received the kind of attention in the United States reserved for opera greats. Says a business associate, “She can be a prima donna. But that’s to be expected.”
Still, Norman has steered a willful course past the major dangers of fame. “Once or twice I’ve allowed other people to suggest to me the kinds of things that I should do socially and professionally, because that would be the ‘in’ way to do it,” she says. “I went along with that for a bit. And then I told them, ‘Well, that’s enough.’ I don’t see any reason for going to a party unless I’m going with friends, or for the benefactors of the orchestra. But just to stand around at a party so somebody can photograph me with somebody else--sorry, I just have no time.”
Norman similarly controls all of the elements of her career. “One has to be very conscious of the fact that this is my voice, this is my life, this is my career,” she says. “And if I want to go the whole term, which I hope is a number of years from now, then I have to be responsible for my own longevity.
“One also has to understand, which is very difficult, that there’s a great deal of commercialism involved in music and that if you’re spent out, people simply move on to the next available person. So, I have to be conscious of the fact that the only person that’s going to look after these two things that vibrate and produce what one hopes is a pleasant noise in the throat is the person who owns them.”
Since the start of her career, Norman has sung only those roles that she finds both vocally and emotionally appropriate. Following training at Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan, Norman was offered a three-year contract with the Berlin Opera. With the exception of Aida, she refused roles in the big Italian operas, specifically the Verdi soprano heroines, saying that they did not suit her voice.
“A lot of people were determined to make me into a mini-version of the great (Leontyne) Price, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, my voice is different,’ ” she says. When, in 1975, Norman settled in London, she stopped operatic appearances for five years to develop her voice. After an initial U.S. operatic appearance in 1972, she concentrated on recitals in this country, returning to the American opera stage only in 1982, when the Opera Company of Philadelphia gave her carte blanche to choose her own program.
Norman’s repertory is marked by variety rather than by mainstream signature roles, with a mixing of romantic French and German compositions and contemporary music. She has worked with avant-garde director Robert Wilson in “Great Day in the Morning” and was slated to sing music created for her by Philip Glass in the Olympic presentation of “The CIVIL WarS.” She recorded Negro spirituals as part of “Sacred Songs” and Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” She has also recorded Broadway show tunes with the Boston Pops in “With a Song in My Heart.”
But for the most part Norman favors heroines of Greek mythology--Ariadne, Alceste, Medea, Phaedra, Cassandra, Dido and Helen of Troy. “These women have more depth as far as I’m concerned and this is what I like,” she says.
Norman is well-known for her dramatic empathy with her text, a prime criterion for her musical selections, and she jokes, “being a romantic it’s easy for me to get carried away at such things.”
As a child, her favorite author was Edgar Allan Poe and, already attracted to an element of poignancy, she would write gothic romances about heroines abandoned in towers.
“I like being able to have emotions and not be ashamed,” she says. “And the thing that appeals to me in men is to be able to find a man who is not embarrassed about having emotions.”
Norman also likes a certain civility. “I earn my own living. I take care of things. I have an office of people I direct, but at the same time I like it very much if a gentleman opens the door for me,” she says.
Clearly, Norman is of two worlds. The practical, assertive Norman fills out hotel questionnaires (“How else would they know what I think?”), rigorously swims two miles a day in hotel pools and travels with 10 suitcases--carrying concert dresses, sheet music, humidifier, coffee pot and a case of paperback books. The intimate, dreamy side likes country walks, visits with friends and her Belgravia mews filled with old things.
She addresses her friends with a homespun “honey,” and wears fanciful concert dresses of hand-painted silk. She hosted a recent New York theater event to raise money for AIDS research, sings at anti-nuclear concerts and is a staunch Democrat who believes that one should “help the down-and-out really, not send them to the classified ads.”
Both of Norman’s natures seem to have evolved in a measure from the South. One of five children, raised in a warm, carefree home, Norman nevertheless came of age at a time when racism and civil rights were at loggerheads. “I might have thought that the whole world was just waiting for me to appear,” she says. “As it turns out, I learned at a very early age exactly what was going on.”
She also learned from the continuity of a proud female lineage. “I tell myself that I’m not just me,” she says, “that I’m the result of things that happened long before I was born. I like to feel I have a connection with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I see these photographs of these beautiful women and I wonder, how did they have such nice clothes, where did they get these things and how did they have such a sense of self--out on a farm working hard day and night. I’d like to think I’m a part of this somehow, to feel that what my forebears have gone through can somehow help to form me as well.”
Norman jokes about her often twice-weekly flights as “going to work,” but there have been obvious sacrifices--among them, forgoing children and a husband. “I know too well what it takes out of people being in this kind of job,” she says, speaking of the possibility of marriage, “and being separated puts a great strain on any kind of relationship.”
Why does she continue in what is at times a back-to-back recital schedule? Says Norman, “I really do believe--and my grandmother always said--that one is here for a reason, and that it’s a complete accident that one is born with a certain talent given by somebody up there.
“I feel that aside from its being my profession and my joy, singing is my responsibility.”
Future enticements include singing the Marschalin in Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” and a desire to do serious acting. “I’d love to do a straight piece,” Norman says, specifying Eugene O’Neill’s plays.
The following evening Norman would sing for the first time at the White House, at a dinner given by President and Mrs. Reagan for the President of Ecuador, and in early February she would make her recital debut at the Metropolitan Opera. This Thursday, Friday and Sunday she will sing Berlioz’s “La Mort de Cleopatre” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The telephone rings and the White House social secretary, here to discuss arrangements, is asked to come up to the suite.
Norman laughs about governmental jargon; the place where she will change her clothes is called “the holding room.” “I feel like an airplane,” she says. She is typically earnest, however, about the job of putting herself into her music.
“I think what touches people is one’s own emotion,” she says. “There are songs I sing that I like so much that sometimes I want to say after I’m finished, ‘Don’t you think that is a wonderful song!’ ” Grinning, Norman leans forward in her chair. “And wouldn’t people think I was absolutely mad!”
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