Before Jessye Norman took the stage at the Library of Congress on Thursday, the audience was treated to a video of her career. A look at a few of her performances, accolades from others in classical music and a brief look at her life offstage was all taken in by Norman’s fans.
The audience was more than ready to hear from the legendary singer herself, who grandly appeared as the movie screen was raised. A standing ovation was necessary because she was more than worthy.
Norman’s ensuing conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, part of the Music Division’s “Concerts from the Library of Congress” series, was a blend of her being in awe of her highly successful career while being clear about how she wanted to be seen and accepted in her life.
Growing up in Augusta, Ga., Norman was exposed to segregation in everything her family did.
“As a very young child, I understood it was wrong and it is still wrong,” she said.
Exposure to strong women such as her mother, grandmother and aunts allowed Norman to understand how she should conduct herself in order to command dignity and respect. She talked about how these women helped her understand how to be treated as a full citizen.
“I have to acknowledge the things that my ancestors had gone through to make it possible for me and others,” she said. “It’s a legacy of people who decided not to bow down.”
When Hayden asked about how she started her professional career, Norman told the audience about being in Berlin to audition and she sang a portion of an aria. The director heard her sing and offered a long-term performance opportunity.
“I’ve been very lucky to have people a few generations before me to tell me what to do,” Norman said of how she has navigated her career. “They would tell me ‘do that’ or ‘don’t do that.'”
When asked about what she wanted to pass on to the next generation of classical vocalists, Norman simply said, “Preparation and opportunity equals success.”
In Augusta, she opened the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free after-school program for middle and high school students in that offers academic tutoring and arts education. The school also encourages young people with disabilities to participate.
“Because public school has decreased funding for arts programs, we need to have a place for people who cannot afford to attend arts education programs,” Norman said. “We are now in our 15th academic season.”
The Library of Congress used the occasion to announce that Norman is donating her papers to the library, including thousands of items documenting her illustrious 50-year career. The collection of about 29,000 items consists of musical arrangements written specifically for Norman, including orchestrations of songs by George and Ira Gershwin and the sacred music of Duke Ellington.
There also are business papers related to Norman’s opera and concert performance, publicity materials, concert and opera programs, mockups of album artwork, fan mail, recordings and professional and amateur photographs, providing a visual record of her legacy as a performer.
Several of the items were on display outside of the auditorium where the Hayden and Norman conversation took place.
“When a freshman at Howard University, having found my way to the Library of Congress, I could never have imagined that years later this august building would store papers from my professional life, which at that time, was not imaginable either,” Norman said. “I am honored beyond.”