Operatoonity.com book review: Stand Up Straight and Sing!
A memoir by Soprano Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
316 pages with index
Author Event/National Author Tour: The Free Library of Philadelphia; Tuesday, May 27; 7:30 pm
From the publisher: Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, a descendant of many generations of hardworking slave and free ancestors, she grew up amid the challenges of Jim Crow racism with the civil rights movement just beginning to awaken. Nurtured by a close family and tight-knit community centered on the local church, Jessye sang songs and spirituals constantly, never dreaming that it might lead to a career. Only when she watched a documentary about the legendary Marian Anderson did she first realize that singing could be a profession. Decades later, after a meteoric rise at the Berlin Opera, a long-delayed debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and forays into spirituals, blues, jazz, and other roots music, she has become one of America’s cultural treasures. Stand Up Straight and Sing! is an inspiring woman’s account of an astonishing life.
If human beings can be born to greatness, then Jessye Norman was, without a doubt, born to be a great person. Despite growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s, when African Americans were judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, Norman would not allow racial prejudice (or any other type of discrimination) deter her from her ambition to let her God-given gifts carry her as far as they would take her.
She grew up in a loving, well-ordered family with parents who were neither too strict nor indulgent. They were devoted servants to their church and their community, and Norman witnessed the example of selfless service the entire time she was growing up, which undoubtedly informs the person she is today. The name of her memoir is taken from her mother’s admonition to “Stand Up Straight” whenever she performed in public, and because Norman knew she wanted to make more out of her life, even from a very early age, she seized every chance she could to let her light shine.
If you have seen Jessye Norman perform on stage, you might expect that her writing would be grand and gracious, and it is. She writes with elegance and care, whether she is describing being cheated out of a deserving wage as a young woman performing in Europe or being discriminated against in a Bavarian Radio International Music Competition, presumably because she was a black woman trying to make her mark in a field during a time where the performers were predominantly white.
She tells a few tales out of school, like when she was insulted by a hotel security guard only a few years ago, who saw her swimming in the hotel pool and demanded to know if she was a registered guest. That tale is from a chapter aptly entitled “Racism as It Lives and Breathes.”
But this is no gritty expose of the hardships and injustices she *surely* suffered en route to a glittering career as an international opera star. But make no mistake, she has suffered almost as much as she has been feted. For instance, perhaps because of her heritage, she has been asked to sing “Amazing Grace,” many times and at some very high profile events, even though, she explains, the song was written by a British man who made his fortune in the slave trade, who might even have lifted the tune from the African slaves packed into the hull of his ship.
Stand Up Straight and Sing! is equal parts reflection and inspiration, as if to say, I have made something of myself in a world replete with flaws but also one that is laden with opportunity, and surely you can, too. Besides, how many of us will be fortunate enough to have an introduction written by Metropolitan Opera conductor of renown James Levine, who is so full of praise and adoration for Norman that he uses more exclamation points than most family holiday letters do.
Throughout the book, Norman does drop a number of names. She’s sung at Jackie Onassis’s funeral, and also at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s. Yet, she’s earned that privilege. She endured oppression as a person of color and another level of discrimination which she herself realized she’d been forced to suffer again as a woman striving for independence.
Sexism is still very much a part of our culture, to say nothing of sexual and domestic violence against women and the current backlash against long-fought-for and hard-won civil liberties for women. Oh, yes, a great deal has been accomplished, but much work remains.” –Jessye Norman, Stand Up Straight and Sing!
As a rule, I am not a great fan of memoir because it’s remarkably difficult to strip your life bare and be completely candid as the one chronicling your own story. While Norman’s life experiences and talents have accorded her some fantastic experiences, this memoir suffers a bit from the overarching feeling that everything is just a bit too rosy all the time. Perhaps I have misinterpreted her uncanny ability to detach herself from some very painful episodes or perhaps it is that selfsame ability to detach that has enabled her to endure and persevere in a demanding profession.
Also, organization is a challenge in memoir too. Though the organization is somewhat chronological, it is not purely so. While that may be realistic, i.e., while you are remembering your childhood, your mind drifts to a performance at one of the world’s greatest and most prestigious venues, it does contribute to a less than seamless quality to the writing.
Jessye Norman need not have written her memoir in order to take her rightful place in the pantheon of opera greats. Just listen to her singing “Ave Maria,” in German, a language she also speaks (because she doesn’t sing in any language she can’t speak):
And yet, she somehow looms even greater for writing and daring to share her own story. You can almost hear her parents saying, ” Well, Jessye, if you can write this book, then you should write it. Do everything you are able to do.”
Brave, Jessye Norman. You are a marvelous writer, a remarkable singer, and a truly great human being.
Editor’s note: A copy of this memoir was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.