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Jessye Norman's grand time as a grande dame

The soprano will perform Ellington, Gershwin and Bernstein songs in Muse/ique's debut concert Saturday at Caltech. But first, let's talk about that whole 'diva' thing.

July 27, 2011|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)

With an international career that spans four decades, Jessye Norman is a long way from her childhood in a supportive, education-minded family in Augusta, Ga., singing in the church choir. It's much easier to envision the statuesque star as the reported inspiration for the 1982 French film thriller "Diva," whose title character embodies all the excess the word implies.

One reason the stereotype lives on: In recent years, Norman has avoided the press. The reason, she says, is that many who show up to question her might as easily hail from the sports department or the gardening section as the classical music beat. "They ask me, what is it you do? That is not interesting," she observes, with withering understatement.

But there's a new venture on the table that is interesting enough for the 65-year-old Norman to want to talk about: The singer is eager to help promote Muse/ique, a new orchestra with a musical mix that's being promoted as "for the iPod era," directed by her friend and collaborator Rachael Worby, who resigned last August from her 11-year post as artistic director of the Pasadena Pops orchestra. Norman will perform in Muse/ique's debut concert on Saturday outdoors at Caltech's Beckman Mall, in a program including the music of Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. Also on the eclectic program: Caltech physicist and pianist Julia Greer, who raps on nanomechanics while playing Bach.

Concert attendees will not be getting Norman the opera singer. In recent years she has reinvented herself as an interpreter of the work of great American composers, and last year released the album "Roots: My Life, My Song," including jazz, pop, spirituals and classical music. The midlife move has met with mixed critical reviews, but the grande dame — she much prefers this moniker to "diva" — is not one to lose sleep over any resistance to accept her need to grow as an artist.

"I feel that those people have a right to their opinion, but they don't have a right to my life," she declares. "It would never occur to me to say to anyone in another discipline, and certainly not in this one, 'This is what you should be doing because this is what you did 20 years ago.'"

Worby admits that her first phone call from Norman — whom she always refers to as "Miss Norman" — came as a surprise. "She heard about me from a mutual friend and called me from Paris where she was doing 'Bluebeard's Castle' with [Pierre] Boulez and said: 'I hear you are a force of nature,'" Worby recalls. "It was the summer of 2006, and she said, 'What are doing in October?' I said, 'Uh … whatever you need for me to do.'"

"Miss Norman" — also a force of nature — needed Worby to accompany her to China to conduct her concerts in Shanghai and Beijing. For her part, Norman agreed to make a stop in Pasadena on the way from New York for a fundraiser for educational outreach programs in which Worby is involved. That ended up being not a pricey gala but a free concert for 1,400 Pasadena public school students in the gymnasium of Blair High School. The idea so pleased potential donors, Worby says, "we raised more money than we would have at a black-tie event."

Worby adds that it was equally easy to persuade Norman to be on hand for the launch of Muse/ique. "I said I couldn't imagine doing it without her, and she said, 'Nor should you,'" Worby says.

And while she laughs off the diva label, she becomes serious — to the point of being unable to speak for several seconds — about the need for young women to stand up for themselves, as she has done throughout her career. Her body is her instrument, and she believes in caring for it like a Stradivarius violin, even if her needs seem demanding. Few men, she adds, worry about being called a "divo."

"It is still more likely that a woman's power would be seen as aggression, and a man's power would be seen as assertion," Norman says. "A person has the right, and I think the responsibility, to develop all of their talents. And if part of that talent is leadership, then I think that should be applauded, rather than questioned — or have it be said, 'That person is acting too much like a man.'"

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