By Susan Meister
Stand Up Straight And Sing!
by Jessye Norman. Houghton-Mifflin, 2014
There are potentially three audiences for this memoir by one of the world’s most honored opera singers: first, her thousands of admirers, second, aspiring singers for whom Norman has plenty of worthy advice, and third, people who live vicariously through the triumphs and honors of others. Jessye Norman arguably has the greatest number of honorary degrees and international awards, perhaps even the most occasions in which she has sung for heads of state, than any of her colleagues. If you like recitations of such, you will love the book.
And you may love it for other reasons: the first five chapters of “Stand Up Straight And Sing” describe an idyllic southern childhood, complete with much-loved parents and siblings, a vast extended family who live on their own contiguous farms, a middle-class lifestyle owing to Norman’s father, an insurance executive with the largest black-owned company in the country at the time, caring teachers and parents who kept her focused. Her vocal talents were discovered early, and her education at Howard University and the University of Michigan superb.
If you didn’t know the other side of her story, you would long for her background and generous family life in Augusta, Georgia. It is a tribute to Norman that she doesn’t even mention the pain of living in the segregated south, the racial slights and actual insults handed to her when traveling abroad as an opera star, until Chapter 6. Below her calm narrative simmers anger, albeit an elegant form of anger, for the clearest note sounded throughout her book is generosity. Jessye Norman, coming from deep family and community love, has a heart as big as the world of admiration that she has earned through discipline, preparation, and just all-out talent.
She was born to be a singer. Over six feet tall, with cheekbones as wide as the Nile, when she opens her mouth you could swear she has the entire Hollywood Bowl in it. For aspiring singers, this natural-born architecture is a Holy Grail, especially when joined with surpassing physical beauty. To her credit, she never makes reference to it.
Yet there is some sanctimony. If you have heard any of Norman’s interviews in connection with the release of her book, you will have heard her very affected mid-Atlantic accent that surely did not originate in Augusta. She makes a point of telling you how many languages she speaks, how many heads of state have requested her presence at their important occasions. The entire artistic world, from singers to dancers to conductors to writers, are Jessye Norman’s friends. She has total self-confidence. She has never been nervous in front of an audience. She does not sing “in any language she has not studied, except Hebrew,” and that includes Hungarian. The interesting thing is you do not doubt it for her self confidence bleeds over from the page to you the reader, to the point where you can imagine yourself standing up in front of Queen Elizabeth on her Jubilee and singing “God Save the Queen” solo in the original English.
Throughout the book, she conveys her reverence for art, sprinkles it in every chapter with the words (in the original language, with English translation) of her favorite songs, which lends it both originality and substance, and is in every way an example of her mother’s favorite admonition, “Just get on with it.” She is careful to be gracious, and the tone in this book is nothing if not that. It is clear that she and not a ghostwriter wrote the book: her linguistic tic, “I was so very fortunate…it was so very beautiful…it was so very important…” makes one wonder where the editor was. But it is in fact pure Norman, and despite it being a trace irritating, it comes across as totally genuine.
I recommend the book to Norman aficionados, and to anyone aspiring to a singing career, not the least because the rules of discipline for vocal performers are written in bold. (Her interviews were actually more helpful to singers, because for some reason she focuses on vocal technique more in them than she does in the book). Although the book is an exercise in self-glory, as all famous people’s memoirs are to some extent, in her case it is justified. Jessye Norman is a physical wonder, a great singer, a humanitarian in her work and her philanthropy, and clearly a genuinely good person. She overcame enormous obstacles that she took on almost casually, for to honor one of her life’s rules, she has simply “gotten on with it.” We, her audience, are far the richer as a result.