Jessye Norman, one of today’s greatest opera singers, tells the story of her life, from her childhood in the segregated South to her triumphs on the world’s opera stages. Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in a close-knit community with a loving family. Her mother and grandmother taught her to sing spirituals, and she sang in the church choir from a very early age. She writes about her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and her experiences of racism, including two incidents when, after she had become famous, hotel staff questioned her right to be on the premises. In one chapter she writes of her admiration for Marian Anderson, the pioneering African American singer. As a teenager, Norman entered a voice competition named after Anderson, and, although, she didn’t win, she gained valuable experience. She studied at Howard University as an undergraduate, and in the graduate program at the University of Michigan. (Although I should say, she does not write much about her years here.) While still a student, she won a voice competition in Munich, and her career took off after that. Much of Norman’s early career was spent in Europe, especially in Berlin, which was still divided by the Berlin Wall. Later, she left Europe, where she had a secure contract at a major opera house, to pursue her own path. She has since become world-famous, singing in opera and song recitals and at major events such as the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, Jacqueline Kennedy’s funeral, and two presidential inaugurations.
Norman’s memoir is not told chronologically, but organized around themes such as racism, her faith and spirituality, her family, her role models, and the places she has sung. Each chapter ends with the text of a song or aria she sings, in both the original language and English translation; each of these texts relates to the chapter. You don’t have to know much about opera to appreciate this memoir by an extraordinary artist and an extraordinary person.
Stand Up Straight and Sing! is available from the Music Library.