Guest DJ Jessye Norman: From Augusta To Valhalla

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Soprano Jessye Norman leaves the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on Thursday after taping the Late Show with David Letterman. (WireImage)
Soprano Jessye Norman leaves the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on Thursday after taping the Late Show with David Letterman. (WireImage)

When it comes to sheer vocal opulence, it's tough to top Jessye Norman. There's a majesty and intimacy in her voice — immense as the Grand Canyon yet warm and confidential. The five-time Grammy winner is one of the most celebrated opera singers of our time. This year she published a memoir called Stand Up Straight and Sing! Last week she sang "Midnight Special" on David Letterman's Late Show and was feted like royalty at the Metropolitan Opera Guild's annual luncheon.

In this informal session of music and conversation, the soprano recalls her childhood in Augusta, Ga., where she found inspiration in an old 78 by the legendary Marian Anderson, whom she later befriended. Norman would go on to launch her career in Germany in the early 1970s, only to take a self-imposed hiatus from the stage to let her young voice mature, then return to triumph in opera houses around the world.

She voices equal enthusiasm for Wagner and Ellington, praises colleagues such as the "delicious" Yo-Yo Ma and describes the act of singing as an out-of-body experience. She has collaborated with choreographers, avant-garde producers and, when pressed, flirts with the idea of trying hip-hop.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos:

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach.

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach.

Duke Ellington: Centennial Edition.

Duke Ellington: Centennial Edition.

Alfred Brendel plays Beethoven.

Alfred Brendel plays Beethoven.

Marian Anderson sings Brahms.

Marian Anderson sings Brahms.

Jessye Norman sings Strauss.

Jessye Norman sings Strauss.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Journalists are supposed to be hard-headed, but recently NPR's Tom Huizenga may have gotten a little light-headed - you decide. He had a chance to interview one of his idols - the soprano Jessye Norman - who's one of the great opera singers of her generation - of all time. She stopped by our New York studio for a guest DJ session while she was in town to accept an award from the Met Opera Guild.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: As Jessye Norman was settling in behind the microphone before our session began, I thought now's my chance to make a confession.

You know, great art is like old friends...

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes.

HUIZENGA: ...That you grow old with and you find...

NORMAN: Yes.

HUIZENGA: ...New discoveries with and that's how I feel about your art.

NORMAN: Well, thank you. That's really...

HUIZENGA: So it's really terrific to meet you.

NORMAN: I really appreciate that. Thank you so very much.

HUIZENGA: We began by talking about her childhood in Augusta, Georgia. There were no professional musicians in her family, but lots of music.

NORMAN: Church music, of course, and spirituals. And then songs that children sing, like "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam" and "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." And so these were my sort of big numbers at the time that I was about 5 years old.

HUIZENGA: You know, I'd like to play you something - I don't want to surprise you, but I think you'll know what it is and it might bring back some memories...

NORMAN: OK.

HUIZENGA: So...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHAPSODY FOR ALTO")

MARIAN ANDERSON: (Singing).

NORMAN: (Laughter).

HUIZENGA: Recognize that?

NORMAN: I certainly recognize that. I still get the same chill that I felt as a very young child sort of sitting on the floor of our next-door neighbor playing a '78 of the great Marian Anderson singing the "Alto Rhapsody" of Brahms. I remember what the living room looked like and where the stereo system was. I guess one called it a phonograph at the time. And listening to that voice for the first time was incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHAPSODY FOR ALTO")

ANDERSON: (Singing).

HUIZENGA: Jessye Norman said that Marian Anderson was something of a beacon in her career. She told the story of how they eventually met and became good friends. Another one of her favorites, one she never got to meet, was Duke Ellington...

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE")

HUIZENGA: ...And his great band, including the likes of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

NORMAN: There isn't - certainly to my knowledge - a jazz musician who doesn't pay honor and tribute to Duke Ellington. The way he put his orchestrations together, that was all completely new. And having Hodges and the rest of these wonderful soloists in his orchestras provided an opportunity for people that were on their own soloists to play together in the big band, and my goodness, what a noise they made.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE")

NORMAN: It's crazy good.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON SONG, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANYMORE")

HUIZENGA: I was struck by something that you said in your book - and I hope I'm getting this right - singing for me is actually life itself. It's communication person to person and soul to soul, a physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual expression carried by the breath.

NORMAN: Yes, I do believe that. We can all sing and we should all try because it is a wonderful thing for the body to be filled with all of that oxygen that you've got to take into your body in order to have it come out again as sound. It makes you feel good, and it makes the person listening to you feel good as well.

HUIZENGA: I want to just slip something in here a minute.

NORMAN: Yes.

HUIZENGA: Speaking of breath coming out of the body and all of that, let's hear a little bit of your breath in I think what is a breathtaking recording. Let's hear it.

NORMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSYE NORMAN SINGING)

HUIZENGA: And here's where something extraordinary happened. Holding her headphones tight to her ears, eyes closed, Jessye Norman started to sing in a whisper, as if in a trance. I just sat and watched totally mesmerized, the 69-year-old singing along to the record she made thirty years ago.

That is spectacular singing, let's just face it. And - especially on the words they love when your voice just takes off in flight. And getting back to that quote from the book that we were talking about a while back about the singing for me is actually life itself. Will there be a day when you don't sing anymore?

NORMAN: I don't think so. I want to sing for as long as I have breath. I mean, my parents told me that I started singing about the same time I started speaking, so I don't have any memory of not trying to sing, so I certainly don't have any plans to stop singing. And certainly it will come a time when it doesn't make sense anymore to try to do it publicly, but I can still sing for myself.

HUIZENGA: Sure.

NORMAN: And sing for my friends and sing for my family.

HUIZENGA: And fortunately for her fans and her friends, Jessye Norman still sings. These days, she's even leaning toward her old favorite, Duke Ellington. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT DON'T MEAN A THING - IF IT AIN'T GOT THAT SWING")

SIMON: You can hear the entire conversation with Jessye Norman at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.