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Jessye Norman The American

Jessye Norman is indisputably one of the top opera singers of our times, but she’s equally well known for her forthright, strong opinions and her ability to put them cohesively and powerfully into words. These two defining aspects of her life are interwoven throughout her memoir, Stand Up Straight And Sing! (now published in the UK by Robson Press), as she tells The American. Reading your memoir, I was sure that it is written in your own words - you’re not the kind of celebrity who knocks out a book with the aid of a hired hand? No, I don’t have ghost writer or anything like that. I’ve been typing away! Each chapter of the book begins with the lyrics to a spiritual, and ends with a classical song in its original language with an English translation. It’s effective, bracketing your life experiences with the music that has informed and defined them. I wanted something at the beginning of each chapter that was part of my own heritage, and at the end something that I perform - something from my professional life that I have learned to do. It was a way of incorporating the music into each chapter, even though it is not sung. It’s easy to find the music, and when I do the audio book, which we’re planning, I hope we will have me singing the music as part if it. The title also refers to two parts of your life. You’ve consistently

24 August 2014

stood up straight, for yourself and for others, against injustice and prejudice, as well as the more literal meaning. Originally it came from my mother who, when I was very young, would whisper in my ear as I went on stage to sing “Stand up straight, darling.” And it is also about standing up for yourself when obstacles arise. Not only for me, but for all of us. Would either of these aspects have been as successful without the other? I’m glad I haven’t had to choose. If I hadn’t studied singing, just sung as I did as a child, could I have done it professionally? I haven’t given much thought to it. From the beginning of my singing life the understanding was that the training was paramount to the long life of a singer. You have to learn to take care of your voice and yourself to withstand the rigors of the profession. If I had not studied singing I’m sure I would have gone into medicine. When I was a teenager it seemed a good thing to do to earn a living, and it wasn’t a very clear

path, when I was a child, to becoming a professional singer. There were no professional musicians around in your childhood, but music was all around you. We had a piano and all my siblings and I studied it. My grandmother was a wonderful singer, as was my mother and her sisters - they used to have a little group and sing in various places. My grandparents had a harmonium in their home and I used to crouch down below and pump the pedals so my brothers could play it. Of course when it was my turn to play, and theirs to pump, they always had something else they just had to do! Perhaps that was an early indication to you that life can be unfair? That, and the occasions at school when the teacher made the girls sew, and cook for the boys, when you would rather have learned to make a table? I just thought that would have been a more interesting thing to do. As a child, seeing your mother and aunts cooking and sewing, you think you’ll pick that up as you go

The American August 2014 Issue 735  

The American has been published for Americans in Britain since 1976. It's also for Brits who like American culture.

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