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Opera soprano star Jessye Norman recalls her early support

Saturday, January 17, 2004

By Robert Croan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Money and morale: Even the most talented young artist has moments when these are in short supply. Opera diva Jessye Norman, who had her share of joys and tribulations on the way to the top, recalls Abraham Lincoln's remark, "A tree is best measured when it is down."

Tonight, the superstar soprano will pay homage to a Pittsburgh native who helped her overcome some of the obstacles. She'll be attending a black-tie dinner at the Duquesne Club honoring Howard Hook, co-founder of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Program, which began 50 years ago. It was Hook who organized the auditions into 16 regions, each with its own sponsors and volunteers. The chairmanship of the Great Lakes regional auditions moved to Pittsburgh four years ago, when Anita and Ross Dacal took over administrative responsibilities.

Contestants begin with district auditions, then, if successful, receive prize money and go on to the regionals and national semi-finals. Approximately 10 finalists get to perform in the Grand Finals Concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on the Met stage on March 21. Early auditions winners included Eleanor Steber, Rise Stevens and Robert Merrill and more recently, Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson and Deborah Voigt. Among Pittsburgh district winners who went on to the Met are Marianne Cornetti, Mimi Lerner and Sebastian Catana.

Norman, who will be 59 on Sept. 15, was a winner of these auditions early in her career. She took time earlier this week to answer these questions:

Q: What role did the Metropolitan Opera Auditions play in establishing your career?

A: The principal result of my association with Howard Hook and the Met Opera Auditions was that of much-needed moral support and financial assistance. There were instances when a kind word was of enormous help, or when a letter arrived with a check, just in the nick of time.

Q: What role have you played as an established artist in the Met auditions or other auditions involving young singers?

A: I made a firm decision some years ago never to serve as a judge in a competition or present my ideas as to the career possibilities of young, evolving performers. I have given master classes [and] I am involved in a wonderful arts initiative [a program of the Rolex Corporation] that requires that I act as mentor to an already professional singer for one year.

Some of my happiest moments are spent with plans and dreams for my own school, which opened its doors in my hometown of Augusta, Ga., this past September. It is a free after-school program for talented middle school children. With education in the arts disappearing from our public schools at an alarming and disappointing rate, programs of this kind are needed more now than ever.

Q: What do you look for when listening to other singers? What do you strive for in your own singing?

A: I believe that good singing is a communication from the spirit and soul of the performer to that of the listener. I am not speaking of anything as subjective as beautiful sounds, or even what some might refer to as "musicality." I believe that communication is the principal requirement in singing. I listen for this and applaud it when I experience true and honest communication, whether from a singer of classical music or from one in the popular arena. Naturally, this is what I strive for in my own work.

Q: Who were the biggest influences on your career and artistic philosophy? Who are the people you most admire?

A: The greatest influence on my professional life, I feel, has been the early experience and teachings at home with my family. This may seem strange, but if one learns early that hard work yields good results and that if one is lucky enough to enjoy one's chosen work, that this is a special gift, then I believe the rest follows more easily.

My artistic philosophy is simple: Give the best that there is in you at each and every performance. I admire those who are willing to give the time, training and commitment to excellence -- people like the dancer Margie Gillis. I adore the work of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. I could listen to Yo-Yo Ma play anything at any time.

Q: What are some of your current projects and how have your thoughts on music changed since the last time we spoke?

A: My most challenging project of the moment is the presentation of two one-person operas on the same evening: Poulenc's "La voix humaine" and Schoenberg's "Erwartung." To my knowledge, no other singer has performed these two works on the same evening. This is a mighty challenge and I love every minute of it.

Another thing that gives me great pleasure is my production of the sacred music of Duke Ellington, a staged presentation called "Sacred Ellington." I use a gospel choir, a jazz combo and jazz band, a string quartet, a pianist and dancer. Rather different from Poulenc and Schoenberg, wouldn't you say?

My ideas and thoughts about music have not changed essentially, but have surely developed. I know now how extremely important it is to seek to work with like-minded souls in this field. The achievement of excellence has to be the goal.

Nothing less is required, nothing more can be expected of us.

The Pittsburgh District Metropolitan Opera Auditions, open to the public, will be held at 10 a.m. today in Carnegie Mellon University's Kresge Theater. The Great Lakes Regionals will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow in Carnegie Music Hall. Judges for both will be singers Elaine Bonazzi and Richard Best and artistic consultant Edward Purrington.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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