Jessye Norman: Grace Befitting Royalty

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

by Susan Platts

Jessye Norman: where can one possibly begin? Be it the soprano, mezzo or alto repertoire, the music of Strauss, Wagner, Berg, Berlioz or Cage, the list goes on and on. Not to mention the spirituals. She always had a commitment to the music and texts that was incomparable, embodying a palette of emotions that reached deep into the soul of the listener.

My heart and soul are filled with an abundance of memories. It is deeply moving to have a platform to share them, as a tribute to this most amazing human being, who was a singer, performer and interpreter like no other.

My relationship with Jessye began in 2004 as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.  I was one of four finalists for the program who were chosen by a panel of musicians to meet and perform for Jessye, leaving her with the final decision as to whom she would mentor.

It was a cold February day. I remember waiting at the front of a church in the Upper East Side of New York City. Her arrival was, like every other time I met her, filled with a grace befitting royalty, a broad smile, warmth and undeniable connection to “you.” She walked up the aisle of the church, extended her hand to mine and said in her elegant voice, “Susan, how wonderful to meet you.” A grand, wooden chair had been placed halfway down the aisle. She seated herself and my “audition” began.

The repertoire was my choice. Instead of a mixed bag of tricks, I performed a song cycle: Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. She smiled as I sang and I could sense that she was silently singing along, feeling every breath and phrase, and every emotion of the text.  After I finished, there was a beautiful silence.  I looked at Jessye and, smiling radiantly, she said, “Thank you for sharing that exquisite music so profoundly.”  Whether she chose me or not, in that moment, I was over the moon!

Weeks passed before I received the news that I was to be her protégée for 2004-2005. That is a phone call I will never forget. My musical life that day was changed forever.

Our collaboration was “officially” for one year, but we shared 15 beautiful years of music and friendship. When life and schedules permitted, we would meet. We attended concerts, worked, talked or sometimes simply enjoyed a cup of tea together. Whether in Europe or North America, we grew our relationship and she made me feel like family. She always cared about me and took the time to ask about those close to my heart.

“What I am working on with Susan is to let that incredible voice, that is inside of her, live free.” 

Our first work session was at her home in upstate New York. The sessions together would typically last three or four hours. Over the years we covered a lot of repertoire including works of Mahler, Strauss, Brahms and Ravel, to name but a few. She guided me in such a way that my voice was able to really open up, become one voice and cut through an orchestra’s sound without ever feeling I needed to push.

Jessye Norman And Susan Platts- New York, 2005 Photo : Rolex / Tomas Bertelsen

During our sessions she would usually be sitting 10 to 15 feet from me. As I sang, her arms would often be animated, indicting a spinning and forward motion, as if pulling the sound out of me. To this day, I feel that image burned in my mind and voice. It propels my sound forward and is a profound inspiration when I practice, perform or teach. The interpretive and diction side of our work was incredibly moving. We would often sit and talk for hours about the poetry, the emotions involved and the intricacies of the language, always finding a deeper meaning in whatever music we were discussing.

As well as the technical and interpretive aspects that we covered in our time together, Jessye also offered me, on countless occasions, advice and comfort about the ups and downs of this career.

Not long after we began to work together, I was having a tough time with a conductor.  I was young and far from home. It was an emotional time. No matter how hard I tried I simply could not please the conductor. I reached out to Jessye via email and asked if we could talk. Almost immediately my phone rang. We chatted for over an hour, discussing the situation. At one point she said, “This is simply unacceptable, dear Susan. Would you like me to call this person and give them a piece of my mind?” A vision flashed before my eyes: Jessye Norman reprimanding the conductor. I smiled and my heart felt full and strong again. Just the thought of her offer had given me a renewed energy.

Then there was the time in 2012 that I had a BBC Proms performance at Royal Albert Hall. It was John Adams’s Nixon in China and I was the Third Secretary. No part is insignificant, but this was the smallest role. I will never forget that evening. After the concert, Jessye and her friend Jane came backstage looking for me, with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.

The three Secretaries shared a dressing room at the far end of the hall. To reach me, Jessye and Jane had to pass by the other dressing rooms. There were countless people milling about, as is usual, with a post-concert buzz. Then, in walks, or perhaps I should say arrives, Jessye Norman, with that regal manner I mentioned earlier. There was a definite feeling in the air of, “Oh, Ms. Norman, what are you doing here? Ms. Norman, how wonderful to have you here. May I have a photograph with you?”

As an aside, Jessye was always perplexed when people asked why she was attending a concert. She said to me once, “I am a musician and I love to attend concerts when I can. Why would people question why a musician would attend a concert?”

Back to that hallway in Royal Albert Hall. There she was, creating a stir. I could hear her calling, “Where’s Susan…where’s Susan…?” I had THE biggest grin on my face as she approached with the bubbly! She handed me the champagne, embraced me and said, “simply marvelous, my dear Susan. What an exceptional evening.” Her compliments were for the performance as a whole, but I knew she had come to see, hear and support me.

One of my last and strongest memories of Jessye was an evening in December 2018. I was with her at National Sawdust, a performance space in Brooklyn, to sing at an event in her honour. There were a handful of performers. My contribution was Richard Strauss’ Zueignung. Jessye sat but 10 feet from me and her smile when I sang was one of love, support, pride and joy. I know that she was with me every step of the way.

In Zueignung, each verse ends with the words, “Habe Dank” (“have thanks”). I am eternally thankful for the countless ways Jessye Norman has blessed my life.

During that evening in Brooklyn, we heard a recording of Jessye singing “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Her undeniable presence filled the room. I cried then and I cry now. Jessye’s voice will always be a balm for the world. She has departed this earth too soon but will grace it endlessly.

 

 

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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