Category Archives: sopranos

Jessye Norman’s ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing!’ {book review}

Operatoonity.com book review: Stand Up Straight and Sing!
A memoir by Soprano Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
316 pages with index
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Stand up Straight and Sing
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.

My review:
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):

YouTube Preview Image

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.

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Filed under memoir, Performers, Reviews, Singer Sunday, sopranos

most popular posts on Operatoonity…

What posts have people come to Operatoonity.com to read most? Since Operatoonity.com just passed its four-year anniversary, I thought it was time to trot out some sexy stats for y’all.

In the last four years, I’ve created 388 posts and logged more than 3.4 million visitors on this site! Not too shabby, eh?

Since I use WordPress, I can also corroborate the most popular posts using my analytics plugin and a nifty report that WordPress sends me each year.

One of the world's best tenors

Roberto Alagna, one of the world’s best tenors

#1 best opera singers in the world today – male persuasion 42 COMMENTS
#2 best opera singers in the world today – female persuasion 45 COMMENTS
#3 today’s top tenors 48 COMMENTS
#4 100 greatest operas . . . really? 7 COMMENTS
#5 Puccini’s best opera? 21 COMMENTS

(Funny thing about the “Best Opera Singers” lists. I created them because I couldn’t find any up-to-date lists online to blog about.)

A goal for 2015 is to update some of my “Best Singers” lists, taking into account all the suggestions in readers’ comments. A lot can change in five years, even in the opera world though I can say, categorically, Roberto Alagna belonged on my original list.

Not convinced? Then you need to watch this aria:

YouTube Preview Image

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Filed under artists, Baritones, Best of Operatoonity, blog stats, Favorite arias, lists, opera star power, Performers, sopranos, tenors

happy anniversary, ‘Tosca,’ and an aria to celebrate!

Sondra Radvanovsky in Tosca

Sondra as Tosca in the Metropolitan Opera production

Today marks the anniversary of a beloved, and I do mean a beloved, opera–Tosca, which premiered in on January 14, 1900in Rome, Italy. One stunning aria after another. A bad guy who is so utterly evil he makes your blood run cold. A flawed but valiant heroine who lives and dies for love.

It is my favorite Puccini opera–bar none.

Two years ago this month, I saw Tosca at the Met, and it was a life-changing performance for me. (You can read my Bachtrack review here. )

While some of the “regie” directorial choices were clearly questionable, the performances were nothing short of stunning. I fell in love with Marcelo Álvarez as Cavaradossi. German baritone Falk Struckmann gave a chilling performance as the villain Scarpia, one of the best I’ve ever seen on stage in the U.S.

But it was American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky who would seal my fate as a Tosca devotee for the rest of my life.

As it turned out, I was lucky to escape that performance with my life intact. See, during her second art aria, “Vissi d’arte,” which was absolutely breathtaking, Sondra hit that high note around 3:11 on the video below, and it took my breath away–literally. I gulped in air and began coughing.

Just my luck, that gorgeous high note at 3:11 resolves sotto voce in the next few measures. I thought the people sitting around me were going to kill me. Because the end of the song is so quiet, I couldn’t scrounge around in the my purse for a lozenge to stop the coughing. I almost died trying to hold my breath until the end of the song.

But death would have been a noble end if Sondra’s voice were the last thing I’d heard before expiring.

Thank you, Sondra Radvanovsky, for your peerless artistry, and for teaching me a lesson. Never sit through a live performance of opera without a lozenge clenched in your fist.

Here is Sondra’s stellar, gorgeous, captivating aria, for you to enjoy, too:

YouTube Preview Image

 

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Filed under anniversary, Performers, sopranos

top ten posts on ‘operatoonity’ in 2012

Operatoonity's Top TenWhy did viewers stop in on this blog in 2012? What posts did they read most in the past year?

Would it surprise you to know of the nearly 111,000 visitors to this blog in 2012, that, far and away, most were seeking a definitive list of top classical singers in the world today? Divas, then divos?

Frankly, I am not in the least bit startled by this news.

There are so few definitive “talent” lists around. And I should know. I searched feverishly for such a list not too long ago. That’s why I compiled  mine –I couldn’t find any good/current list of opera singers myself.

Not surprisingly, people continue to chime in on who should and shouldn’t have made these lists.  I knew each was an imperfect instrument when I compiled it, and I honestly think it’s time to upgrade each one, since the best talents in the operasphere can change or fade in a matter of only years. We are talking about the most delicate and sometimes most frail of instruments–the human voice–after all.

Other top topics were top tenors, best operas, and the beloved composers Puccini and Mozart.

Here then, according to my site stats, are the titles of the most-viewed posts and their visit numbers in 2012:

Title Views
best opera singers in the world today – female 29,375
best opera singers in the world today – male 22,212
today’s top tenors 9,829
get with it, NYC, says M.C. Hammer-bee 1,469
on Carmen’s anniversary, we celebrate its arias 726
100 greatest operas . . . really? 686
don’t quote me . . . 650
Puccini’s best opera? 524
what makes a great tenor? 514
Mozart, the ultimate cross-trainer 464
contemporary opera? modern opera? define, please 464

 

How about you? Why did you stop in on “Operatoonity”? Did you find what you were looking for this year?

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Baritones, Best of Operatoonity, blog stats, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Modern opera, Mozart, opera lists, Opera Stats, sopranos, tenors

Singer Sunday: an operatic family on a Germanic quest

Opera family: Ross, Jenny and kids

Tenor Ross David Crutchlow is a 6’2” red-headed baritone turned Heldentenor with a booming voice, an infectious laugh, and a huge presence.  Soprano Jenny Millsap is his graceful, demure wife, who is anything but demure when popping off high Fs in her dramatic coloratura roles.

Ross and Jenny have worked in opera, operetta, and musical theater in New York and across the United States.  They have two children – a very active two year old and a perpetually happy eight  month old.

Not every American family would cross the Atlantic to German-speaking Europe to sing there. But then Ross and Jenny aren’t your typical American family.  They are highly enterprising, too, and are using the very popular Kickstarter to fund-raise for their audition trip.

That’s why I’ve invited Ross and Jenny to stop in at Operatoonity today: to tell you more about their dreams and inspire you to support their project. Welcome Ross and Jenny!

How did you meet?

Jenny: We were doing Gilbert & Sullivan in NYC together.  I had been in the company for a couple of years and already knew everyone.  Ross was new.  I wanted to make him feel comfortable, so I made a point of being friendly and talkative with him.  It didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes!

Ross: Yeah, she kept following me around, so I figured I’d ask her out.

Jenny: And the fairy tale began!

Is it hard being married to another opera singer?

Jenny: In some ways yes, in some no.  The financial instability is hard.  But that’s true for any freelancer in the United States, really.  It’s an entrepreneurial way of living, which of course is a lot tougher in the arts than probably any other business.  We’ve been lucky enough to be able to work together from time to time, but we’ve also been separated due to gigs.  That’s always hard.

Ross: What’s really great about being married to another singer, though, is the support we give each other.  She knows my voice inside and out and I know hers.  We can say to each other, hey – that phrase sounded a little off, try this.  And it’s better.  We also get what the other one is going through as far as the psychological demands of auditioning and performing.  We can help each other in ways in which non-singers just wouldn’t be able to.

What’s it like having kids while being professional singers?

Soprano Jenny Millsap

Jenny:  Ha!  Well, there’s not much sleep, that’s for sure!  I remember that I used to make a point of getting a lot of sleep before big performances or auditions in my pre-kids days.  Now I just make sure I get a lot of coffee!

Ross: I think I worry a lot more.  Before Jenny and I became parents, I didn’t think about the future so much or the long-term implications of my decisions professionally.  Now I do.  I have to.

Jenny: But the kids are really great.  We used to take Ewan (our two year old) with us to our rehearsals and coachings.  He would crawl around on the floor, watching and listening.  His first time in a green room at a performance was when he was five months old!  He still loves to hear us practice, and sometimes he conducts us!  Nathaniel (our baby) is not as big a fan of opera as Ewan is.  He cries when we sing loudly, so we try to practice when he’s sleeping!

Ross: It’s a lot to juggle, honestly, but both our singing and are kids are vital parts of our lives.  I can’t imagine life without both.

Germany seems like a big step.  What made you decide to head to Europe?

Heldontenor Ross David Crutchlow

Ross: Partly, it’s the repertoire we sing.  I sing primarily Wagner.  Jenny sings mainly Mozart.  We both feel if we want to really do justice to this music, we need to immerse ourselves in the language and culture that made it.  I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we truly understand these two composers as long as we are on this side of the ocean.  We really need to be in Germany.

Jenny: And part of it is very practical – it’s easier for two singing parents to sing and still raise a family over there than here.  It’s a smaller geographical area with a lot more productions –

Ross: And a lot more Wagner!

Jenny: Yeah, no kidding.  About 300 performances to the 30 that are done in the US.  And the German culture is just a lot more artist- and family-friendly.

So, you would stay over there?

Jenny: Initially, yes.  If one or both of us are fortunate enough to get a contract, we’d stay for 5-10 years.  We want a long enough stay to really feel like we soaked up as much as we can musically.

Ross: Long-term, we would like to come back to the US and use what we learn from the Germans about how they program, promote and perform opera to help revitalize interest in the art form here – particularly German opera.

Jenny: Mozart has always been seen as accessible even for people who don’t speak German or Italian.  But Wagner – well, unless you’re an opera aficionado, chances are you’ve never heard or seen a Wagner opera.  We’d like to change that.

Ross: I mean, seriously – The Avengers is popular.  Wagner is not that far away!

Jenny as Kathie in "The Student Prince"

What do you do when you’re not onstage or wrangling your two boys?

Jenny: I cook.  For me, it’s a no pressure artistic pursuit that ends in eating.  What could be a better hobby for a singer?

Ross: I hate to admit it, but video games.  It’s my down time and it keeps me sane.

Where can people go if they want to contribute to your Kickstarter campaign?

Jenny:  Our campaign is “Jenny & Ross: To Sing in Germany”.  Just click!  We’ve got some nice rewards for our backers, and we’re open to suggestions for new rewards, too.

Ross as the Pirate King in "The Pirates of Penzance"

Ross:  If you want to find out more about us as singers, Jenny has a website, and so do I.

Jenny:  We also have Facebook fan pages, if you want the latest updates about our singing:  Here’s mine.  And here’s Ross’s.

Ross: And if you can’t contribute financially, we would still very much appreciate everyone spreading the word!

* * *

So there you have it. With a point and click, you can help this talented family immerse themselves in the artistic field they love and in which they were born to succeed. But you better hurry. Their Kickstarter deadline is June 28.

Good luck, Jenny and Ross! We look forward to an update someday from across the pond.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Best of Operatoonity, fund-raising in opera, profiles, Q&A, Singer Sunday, sopranos, tenors, Uncategorized