Jessye Norman doesn’t give interviews. She gets irritated by the sports journalists who arrive knowing nothing about her or her music,
“They ask me, what is it you do? That is not interesting.”
But the Los Angeles Times got her to speak about a new project that 65 year-old Norman is passionate 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. 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.'”
… 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. 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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Photo: Jessye Norman by Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles Times