Tag 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.


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

catching up with soprano Julia Katherine Walsh on Singer Sunday

Soprano Julia Katherine Walsh

Soprano Julia Katherine Walsh grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where I was also born and raised. In fact, the first time I met Julia, she had come home to Reading to sing at historic Trinity Church last summer, a program I reviewed here.

She sings Richard Strauss as if she was born to it. She is also known for her interpretations of Mozart and Rossini, which showcase her characterization and her voice. This young singer is bubbling over with talent and personality.

Once you connect with Julia, she’ll reach across the globe to stay in touch, as she has with me. She graciously offered to provide a singing review of my opera-themed backstage comedy DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA, which you can view here.

So, it is a great pleasure for me personally, to welcome Julia back to Operatoonity.com, and find out how she is faring, transplanted halfway around the world in Dortmund, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood? How did you grow up and how did it affect your decision to sing opera?
As a child I was always singing, my Mother tells me.  Even when I was a year to two years of age, apparently I could already sing children’s songs that she sang to me (maybe not with perfect words but . . . ) that all to say- my Mom noticed that I had a musical talent.  I actually decided to sing opera, funnily enough, without first knowing what it really was.  I was in third grade and in spelling class and my teacher kept yelling at me for humming.  Eventually it got to the point where she had to call my Mom about it, because every time she yelled at me, I wasn’t aware I was doing it, so I just started up again and the problem persisted.  Well, from this phone call my Mom realized that 1) I was bored or else I wouldn’t be unconsciously humming only in spelling class, and 2) my musical talent needed to be nurtured in a more structured way.

So, it was my mom who discovered the Berks Classical Children’s Chorus and its director at the time, Donald Hinkle, and got me to audition for participation in the choir and also for his church’s children’s choir at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Reading.  She also was instrumental in getting the school district to find and supply a tutor for me during spelling class, so that I could work on harder words while the rest of the class learned the normal spelling words.  So, I actually decided I wanted to be an ‘opera singer’ after hearing someone say it once when we were (with BCCC) performing the St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and I thought, “Being paid to sing for the rest of my life? Sounds like the job for me!” So, that was pretty much how I decided. Only once I was in my junior year of high school and preparing for my upcoming college auditions, did it really dawn on me how much work and how much MONEY it took to actually become an opera singer.  (Money actually more than work, sometimes- much to my dismay and frustration.)

Dortmund, Germany, where Julia now lives

Have you liked being in Germany? How long will you stay in Germany? Why did you relocate there?
I like Germany a lot.  I plan on staying here indefinitely until I receive my next engagement, and then, I’ll go where that happens to be.  At this point, I still have to remain very flexible and not ‘settle down’ too much anywhere really, because I never know where I’ll be for the next year, few months, and even the coming week, sometimes.  I actually decided to make Germany my home base for a while now because I am at a transitional point in my life (my formal education is finished, I worked and lived in New York for a while, my boyfriend lives here) and I thought simply, “This might be the best time to do something like this, and if nothing else, at least I’ll be fluent in German and have experienced a totally different way of living than what I was used to in the USA, and that can never be a bad thing.”

Julia Katherine

Any updates on new roles/achievements that have you excited?
I am excited to be singing this July the role of Konstanze with Oper Schloss Laubach in Mozart’s Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail.  It will be my first time singing the role, my second professional engagement in Germany, and the people who direct the program and with whom I get to work have thus far been really lovely and have extraordinary credentials musically speaking, so I am really excited to work on the role with them this summer!

What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
The biggest thrill thus far for me actually happened last summer when I realized that my career as an opera singer is finally something that I believe can really happen- 100%, and that I am ready for the challenges it presents and that I am capable enough to overcome them and be successful in this field.  That feeling was simply amazing and I actually experienced it through my participation in Joan Dornemann’s IVAI in Virginia and through singing my first leading role as Rosine in Der Barbier von Sevilla in Bad Orb, Germany.  Those two experiences were the greatest thrills thus far, and also the greatest challenges.  They required so much of me physically, mentally and personally, but in the end those were the most rewarding things that I could have given to make both experiences as successful as they were.

Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
My favorite composer- ha!  Hard to choose between so many good ones.  I’ll give you the short list: of the composers whose works I have sung, I like Mozart and Strauss best, and of the composers whose works I haven’t yet sung I like Janacek, Rachmaninoff and Britten best.  Since I’m a huge opera fan as well as singer, I love so many operas- off the top of my head my favorites I’ve seen are: Ariadne auf Naxos (actually that’s my VERY favorite one of all-time), Peter Grimes, Die Zauberfloete, Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail, Susannah, Vanessa, Jenufa, Simon Boccanegra, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (especially the new Bart Sher production at the Met with the orange trees!), Lucia di Lammermoor, From the House of the Dead, War and Peace and Thais.

Do you miss the US? When are you coming back to States?
I do miss the USA, but perhaps because I miss the people there more than anything. I’ll be coming back to the States in the middle of May of this year and staying until the end of June.

Julia as Rosine

Are you *now*  fluent in German? What’s your favorite repertoire?
I am now fluent in German- yay!  My favorite German repertoire- definitely everything Strauss, Richard and Johann- both are wonderful.  Also Schubert is simply superb. And who can forget the Bach cantatas and Mozart’s art songs? They are also wonderful, in addition to his great German Singspiel pieces- Magic Flute and Entfuehrung.

Where would you like to be in five years? In ten years?
In five years I’d like to be married and singing at major opera houses.  In ten years I’d like to have children, some pets, still be singing internationally, have written some books, started a television network and done something to bring back the world focus to how important the arts are to everyone, and not just for those who can ‘afford’ them.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
Hmm….that’s a tough one.  I love all animals, especially dogs and frogs, and if I weren’t an opera singer I think I’d open my own zoo, or simply have a ton of pets.  I also love to write, but if you read my blog, you could have already guessed that one!

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Julia blogs at Opera Singing in Germany and Other Adventures. You can follow her on Twitter @operadventuress or friend her on Facebook. More information about Julia is available at her website.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Performers, profiles, Q&A, Singer Sunday, sopranos

Julia Katherine Walsh is celebrated for celebrating song

Reading, Pennsylvania native Julia Katherine Walsh came home Memorial Day weekend to sing for a friendly gathering at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Reading, the perfect venue for an evening of intimate music performance.

Currently, she resides in New York and holds a master’s in music from Hunter College. However, since she was raised in Berks County and is an alumna of the Berks Classical Children’s Choir, in every respect Miss Walsh is the quintessential hometown girl-made-good. As such, her homecoming was celebrated robustly, on billboards around the county, on local television programs such as “Backstage” on bctv.org and radio shows in advance of the concert, and in the many personalized ads appearing in the event program, one of which said, “Thank you, Julia Katherine Walsh, for sharing your angelic voice with Berks County.” (From her friends at Performance Toyota–and if she doesn’t drive a Toyota, I think she should think about it.)

Indeed, her recital called “A Celebration of Song,” was something to celebrate. Well planned, well performed, very warmly received.

As far as classical music goes, I prefer a program that stretches me as an audience member and doesn’t indulge all my musical whims. Sure, a recital can contain a potboiler or two, but how much richer will the concert experience be if it introduces you to a new piece of music or several? Miss Walsh’s selections included some accessible pieces such as “America the Beautiful”–it was Memorial Day weekend after all–and “Caro nome” from Rigoletto. However, it also included four lesser known Baroque pieces by Handel, four Lieder by Richard Strauss, and a piece totally unfamiliar to me as a musical work, James Agee’s  “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” set to music by Samuel Barber, which turned out to be my favorite selection in the concert because of Miss Walsh’s performance of it.

Her particular gifts for interpreting Mozart, German Lieder, and operas centered on American Realism were well showcased in this program. She sings with intelligence and sensitivity. She has a strong, agile voice with a crystal clear ring to it, pleasing like a shiny silver bell–a tone I happen to be partial to. Her voice seemed to suit her. She is petite and effervescent and somehow, a dark, dramatic timbre would not have been nearly as fitting a vocal quality based on her stature and personality.

In addition, she showcased her voice to its full potential, including skill with coloratura, and most impressively, a knack for selecting pieces well-suited to her particular blend of singing and acting talents.

Backstage at New York Lyric Opera's Artist in Residence concert

Her aria from The Tales of Hoffmann, “Les Oiseaux dans le charmille,”  was utterly charming, capturing the requisite comic nuances such as the doll being thoroughly entertained and pleased by her own exploits as well as running out of oomph and needing to be wound up again to go on. I was likewise impressed with her facility with the “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute, not listed in the program, performed almost as an encore.

Skillfully accompanied on piano by Rebecca Grass Butler, a professor of music at Albright College, the combined talents of Miss Walsh and Miss Butler, in addition to the pleasing venue on a comfortable just-summer evening, made  “A Celebration In Song”  a delightful event, which earned her a standing ovation. Her star is rising quickly, and the next time she comes to town, a recital by Julia Katherine Walsh may not be nearly as accessible or affordable.

I caught up with Miss Walsh via email after the concert, and she graciously agreed to answer some questions about her program.

How did you select the program (who selected the program)? I selected the program after considering these few parameters:

  1. What do I know that I can sing well, but still feel comfortable enough to perform in an intimate setting after a shortened rehearsal period;
  2. I wanted to sing some familiar pieces to the audience (hence why the Doll Song, “Queen of the Night,” and “Caro nome” made the list); and
  3. I wanted to have a good mix of different styles in the songs that weren’t familiar (which is why the Handel pieces were mostly Italian and simple harmonically, the Strauss were super-late in his compositional period and in German, and the Knoxville was a very authentic piece of musical ‘Americana’).

Did you translate what you were singing? Yes. It is absolutely imperative to translate what you sing as a singer, but I also want to say that the translations on the “Aria and Art Song Database” are sometimes 99.9% the same as my own translations, so I use those too, if I don’t have my own already typed up.

How long did you rehearse for this? Three months. I got back to the United States from my audition time in Germany on March 3rd, and practice for this began on March 5th.

Did you have a favorite piece that you performed? My favorite piece of the evening (talking about the whole piece, not just a section of it) was the third song of the Strauss set, “Saeusle, liebe Myrte.”  But, my favorite section of a piece from that evening was the line in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” where the text is “By some chance, here they are, all on this Earth.  And who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this Earth? Lying on quilts, on the grass in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.” I think that that is the best part of that piece, without a doubt.

I really liked the Barber piece on you? Tell me more about how long you’ve been singing that piece and why it made the program. I actually began working on the Barber piece in 2007 for about 6 months, but at that point it was a bit too big of a sing for me (in terms of stamina vocally-speaking) so then I put it aside and didn’t work on it again until just at the beginning of March of this year.  It seems to have become much more of a fit for me; the diction and vocalism are much easier to get across to the audience clearly (which before were a problem because of the sometimes difficult words in awkward places in the vocal tessitura), and the message of the text (so superbly written by James Agee from his book A Death in the Family) means more to me now that I have lived longer in the world since I last sang this piece.  It made the program simply because I think it’s a wonderful piece which is written in English and not nearly performed as often as it should be.  Plus, it was a big challenge to the audience too, I think, because of its length and form.

a photo from her website

I am sure not many people that evening had heard something that is almost a mini-opera unto itself like that, and I wanted to stretch the listeners’ ears so that they will be open to hearing it again (hopefully with orchestra in the future!).

One thing I’d like to add is that I really appreciated everyone coming out on a Friday night before Memorial Day Weekend to listen to classical singing. That was  a wonderfully heartening show of support by the community not only of my singing, but also of classical music in general, and I really can’t thank everyone enough for attending such a meaningful and transformative art form.

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You can follow Julia on Twitter at @operadventuress and friend her on her Facebook page at Julia Katherine Walsh. You can find out more about her musical background here. For audio clips and other goodies, you can visit her website at http://juliakatherinewalsh.weebly.com/. Visit her blog “Opera Adventuress” at http://operaadventuress.blogspot.com/, especially if you want to read about how she chose her gowns for this recital. (You chose well, Miss Walsh!)


Filed under Classical Music, Concerts, Recitals, Reviews, sopranos