I attended a tribute to the late great Jessye Norman on 9/15/20, in honor of what would have been her 75th birthday. It was presented by Black Opera Film dot com. I logged in at the stroke of 6:00pm and was tickled to read the running live commentary on YouTube:
“I said to her, ‘Miss Norman, you are fierce!’ She said, ‘Is that goooood?’ “
I should start with a video clip of Miss Norman herself, don't you think? Here's my first exposure to her, as Strauss's Ariadne at the Met:
For those of you who know Met stars of the 90s and beyond, the three nymphs in this performance are played by Barbara Bonney (blue dress), Dawn Upshaw (pink dress), and Gweneth Bean (yellow dress). Bonney and Upshaw both went on to major careers, I don't know what happened to Bean.
They announced at 6:08pm that they’d be starting at 6:15pm and there was some chilly shade in the chat about that. But there was host Kenneth Overden at 6:15pm welcoming us and saying that Miss Norman had a prized place in his heart because she was the first live opera singer he ever heard.
The first performer was baritone Chauncey Packer singing "Sinner, Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass." He sounded fantastic. The piainist for nearly all of the live performances (and I'm not sure they were actually live) was Mary Pinto, who was strong and supportive and solid in every style.
Next was a recording of Miss Norman from 2014. I could paraphrase what she said but you're better off hearing it right from her. The clip concludes with Miss Norman singing the first verse of “Steal Away” a cappella. I was in tears. It was 6:21pm.
Next, a remembrance by one of Miss Norman’s sisters and a childhood friend, both were sweet and touching. Denyce Graves told a funny story about singing in the Marian Anderson competition when she was 15. The story didn’t quite have anything to do with Miss Norman, but it was a treat to see Miss Graves.
Baritone Sidney Outlaw sang “Song to the Dark Virgin” by Florence Price. Gorgeous song and a lovely performance. Overden gave an overview of Norman’s opera career, that was a treat. Michael Tilson Thomas talked about meeting her at Tanglewood when she was just starting her career. Soprano Karen Slack sang a Strauss song ("Befreit") with all of the long line and grandeur that Miss Norman brought to this rep back in her day.
Overden gave an overview of her honors. I didn’t know that she was the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors! Laverne Cox gave a moving tribute to Miss Norman. She had been a powerful and early influence on Cox.
Tenor George Shirley gave a sweet tribute to her. Adina Williams read a tribute by Gloria Steinem (I wonder why Steinem didn’t read it herself). Steinem said that as someone who is nearly a decade older than Norman, she feels a particular sense of injustice that Norman was taken from us so soon.
Laverne Cox did a dramatic reading of an excerpt from Norman’s memoir, *Stand Up Straight & Sing!* It was a hoot. Soprano Brandie Sutton brought the house down with Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Those floated high notes, they were supreme! Anna Deavere Smith did a reading of another excerpt from *Stand Up Straight & Sing!* When I saw Deavere Smithon the lineup, I hoped that she’d be doing the Jessye Norman monologue from her play *Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.* But as my friend Mick would say, you can’t always get what you want.
Soprano Measha Brueggergosman sang “Goin’ up yonder” a cappella - - marvelous, free, full of power. They showed a video of Miss Norman telling the back story to “Amazing Grace.” The words were written by an English slave trader. His ship, full of slaves, was caught in a terrible storm and he, a man with no particular faith, had the words to the hymn come to him during the storm. Norman was one of the participants in a PBS special about “Amazing Grace” in the 1990s, and in that special she said that wouldn’t it be interesting if it had been a tune that he had heard sung by the slaves he was transporting…
J’Nai Bridges sang “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from *Samson et Dalila.* Fabulous, one of the highlights of the program, beautiful singing, delicious. One of the commenters on YouTube said, “Marion Anderson would be so proud of J’Nai’s exquisite poise.” Oh yes!
Laquita Mitchell sang a Strauss song, *Cäcilie.* She sounded good. I might ask for a little more outward flow, a little more line, but I’m not going to quibble. I’d like to mention that her pianist was Myra Huang, who I reviewed in an Open Space Music concert a few weeks ago. Mitchell and Huang will be doing a concert on the Open Space series in December. I’m looking forward to it already!
Damien Sneed played the Strauss song “Morgen!” as a piano solo, without the voice part, or to be precise, with the voice part incorporated into the piano part. It seemed a little odd at first, but I came around to the idea. It’s such a gorgeous song, you can’t really harm it. Unless you try real hard.
They showed a video compilation of students at the Jessye Norman School of the Arts and a pre-recorded performance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell shared a memory of Miss Norman, how Norman had been an inspiration to her. The two of them worked together on a show about Sissieretta Jones, an African-American opera singer from the late 19th century who was billed as “The Black Patti.” Now listen here, people, that name is a reference to the 19th century opera diva Adelina Patti. NOT Patti LaBelle. Or Patti LuPone!
Audrey DuBois-Harris sang a stunning gospel song, she totally delivered the vocalism. PREACH! But I was a little put off by the lip-synched video of her allegedly singing it in some kind of rooftop patio situation. I’d like to hear her in person someday!
The evening concluded with Overden giving a plug for the *Black Opera* documentary film project he’s producing. I’m interested in that, oh yes! And a montage of people saying “Happy birthday” to Miss Norman. Happy birthday, Miss Norman.