Cher Public

“Need I say more?”

Thanks to a serendipitous online copy-editing kerfuffle, Miss Jessye Norman (not pictured!) grants to the Financial Times what can only be described as the definitively definitive Diva Interview .

(In fact, the unabridged version is even funnier.)

  • That editing error is hilarious. Not sure why La Cieca thinks that interview is.

    And I disagree with the author that Jessye’s memoir “bristles with name-dropping”. If anything, there’s far too little name-dropping. The book is just too vague on details of her career. It was interesting to read (in the interview) that, in her early days in Berlin, she sang Second Norn in a cast with Nilsson as Brünnhilde. There are precious few details like that in her disappointing book.

    • Though this is pretty funny:

      Moments later, the heavy velvet curtains in the doorway part theatrically and the diva makes her entrance.

    • armerjacquino

      I have looked and looked and I can’t find the error. Am I being unbelievably stupid?

      • That is, in the image reproduced here, which is the form in which the article appears at first online, the entire interview appears to consist of the word “I…”

        • armerjacquino

          Oh, I see! I just assumed it was a clickthrough. *blushes*

  • Patrick Mack

    She’s so home spun. So down to earth.

    Why does she always sound like Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Austen’s P&P when she speaks?

    Thank goodness the Financial Times was picking up the tab because I can only imagine how dear an avocado/shrimp salad is in Britain. Here we trip avocados on the street corner. They must have to import from Spain.

    Her crowing about being the only African-American woman to sing Wagner seems sadly true and should be rectified.

    • Mare Lichter

      Back in the early 90s, I attended a concert given by Jessye Norman at a church in her home town of Augusta, Georgia. At the reception, I could hear her talking with either family members, or people she’d known from her youth, and she was indeed down home, using a completely different, natural, Southern speaking voice. It was a delight to hear.

    • steveac10

      There’s some misremembering by Ms. Norman on this point. In descending order of renown: Venus put Grace Bumbry on the map early in her career. Gail Gilmore sang Kundry, both Frickas and Venus at the Met, And Lorna Myers also dabbled in Wagner back in the 80’s. And technically, Kathleen Battle made her Met debut in Wagner (in a performance that also included Ms. Bumbry).

      • In her book and in other interviews, she acknowledges Bubmry’s Bayreuth Venus. I don’t think she means that no black singer has ever sung Wagner. Rather, her point is that black sopranos aren’t invited to portray Wagner’s virginal heroines, like Elsa, Elisabeth and Sieglinde.

        • Krunoslav

          Yes, but her statement here is still too categorical:

          “It isn’t with pride that I say that still, after all this time, I don’t know another African-American woman who has sung the roles of Wagner,”’

          Martina Arroyo sang Elsa--internationally broadcast-- at the Met in 1968 and later Senta in, as I recall. Detroit and Toronto.

          Gwendolyn Killebrew filmed Fricka and Waltraute for Chereau and Boulez at Bayreuth.

          Florence Quivar sang an extraordinary Brangaene in Los Angeles for the “Hockney” TRISTAN.

          Grace Bumbry of course eventually added Elisabeth to her gallery of heroines as well.

          These were not low profile castings and Norman should be aware of them.

          BTW, I believe Betty Jones at NYCO was the first African-American Eva Pogner, in the late 1970s ( alternating with Johanna Meier and Eleanor Bergquist)

          • Buster

            We can add Mattiwilda Dobbs and Reri Grist, who both sang the Woodbird.

          • PCally

            Krunoslav, Gwendolyn Killebrew sing Waltraute and one of the Valkyries (and she’s lovely in both roles). Fricka is Hanna Schwarz (who is extraordinary).

            • Krunoslav

              Pcally-- indeed you are right. Killebrew did sing Fricka, and also Erda, elsewhere--maybe at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein?

              Vera Little and Annabelle Bernard are two more fine African-American singers who sang Norns and Valkyries at major European centers including Berlin and Vienna/Salzburg in the 1960s and 1970s; surely Little, such a terrific recorded Gaea for the Nazi-est Dr. Boehm, sang Erda as well?

            • PCally

              Tbh I know nothing about Killebrew other then that was in the Chereau ring. She’s wonderful so I’d love to here her in something else.

            • armerjacquino

              I only know the name from the recording of EDGAR with Scotto, where Killebrew is suitably fire-snorting as the brilliantly named villain Tigrana.

          • phoenix

            kruno, Betty Jones has also wrote a book. She sang Eva and Senta.
            -- I remember seeing Simon Estes as der Holländer, Wotan, King Marke and Amfortas. Ditto for Willard White, though I saw most of his performances in Germany. Were they any better or any worse than the other singers in these same roles? Depends on who you are comparing them to. Personally, I preferred Estes’ intensity & his anchored, steely tone, but that’s just me.
            -- Indra Thomas has sung at least one ‘blonde’ Wagner role (Senta in 2 different productions that I know of).
            -- Is La Norman forgetting the much more prolific (but less commercially & artistically successful) Gail Gilmore, who sang not only Kundry, but Adriano in Rienzi (how about doing that one, Jyess) Ortrud, Fricka, Venus & Brangaene? Gilmore was no vocal seductress but she worked her job.
            -- Thanks to the person who mentioned my favorite American tenor, Lawrence Brownlee.
            -- Is it more advantageous to promote yourself as member of a specific genetic racial identity (with all the cultural & social baggage that comes along with it)? To be turned down for a job is something we all had to get used to -- and the reasons (or justification) for rejection usually masqueraded more considerations than the ‘official’ one given. I salute the more and more of the population admitting to be DNA mixed race on census & official forms, but we must try to live according to social and cultural identities and not worry about DNA.

            • To be fair, Jessye was only talking about female black singers, not all black singers. And her main point (though she doesn’t do enough to specify or it could be that the writer doesn’t go into detail) is about the *heroines* who are, for the most part, associated with white singers, not necessarily Fricka and Brangäne (the former decidedly not a heroine and the latter a servant). I think that, even with her spotty research (missing Bumbry’s Elisabeth and Arroyo’s Elsa), Jessye would be aware of the significant amount of Wagner that Estes and White have sung.

            • luvtennis


              I appreciate your perspective, but I think you are really missing the forest for the trees.

              Jessye’s larger point was that she was the first AA singer to be largely identified with the heroic German rep. Although this is somewhat debatable, I think she is on to something.

              There was a time in the 80s when Estes might have felt himself the leading heldenbariton. Despite that, he was denied the opportunity (according to him) to sing these roles in some houses because of that pesky little DNA issue. (I too would like to live in a world where such things to don’t matter, but I think any criticism in that regard should be directed to the excluders not those poor souls with the courage to point out the exclusion).

              Bumbry’s Venus was a sensation because of her color, and as I understand it, there was real controversy over her casting. (Which I think is despicable and heinous). In any event, the shitheads had little to fear as La Bumbry’s career went in an entirely different direction after that initial groundbreaking debut.

              Jessy, by contrast, could have sung the star-making German repthose roles in most of the major houses (had she been suited to them vocally) because she was identified with the German rep. Indeed, her recording of the VLL was at the time (rightly) considered one of the great vocal recordings of the day. And her Elisabeth and Ariadne were also greatly admired. I don’t think you could say any of these things about Arroyo or Bumbry or even Lee (who had sung the VLL and Ariadne and other Strauss bits as well as German lied throughout her career).

              So while I think that Jessye was being self-aggrandizing (spoiler alert -- she’s JESSYE!!!!), I think she is right to point out the some rep has been more resistant to integration than others.

            • luvtennis

              And Estes claims that racism kept him from being chosen as Wotan on a number of occasions.

              I think he would totally “get” what Jessye was trying to communicate through all the Jessyisms.

            • mia apulia

              sh, phoenix, I remember Ella Lee very well from a wonderful recital, but I never got to hear her in live opera, too bad

          • Very true. I wondered about Arroyo (but didn’t look it up) because she had a voice that was congenial to some Wagner roles, IMO. Thanks for the detail.

            I think Jessye is making an attempt at carving a place in history for herself with that distinction. Clearly she hasn’t done the necessary research before making her assertion. And frankly, I think she has accomplished enough in her career that she doesn’t need to say she’s the only one.

            • phoenix

              Perhaps La Norman should have generously included men in her discussion, she was certainly broad enough in other aspects of it. And why should I try to be so “fair” about it? She wasn’t.
              -- You just reminded me of the 1st time I saw Frau ohne Schatten 50 years ago at SFO -- is the Empress supposed to be “white” role? The Empress was Ella Lee and die Färberin was the gorgeous Gladys Kuchta.

            • Phoenix: You’re making a bigger deal out of my “to be fair” turn of phrase than necessary. As for why Norman didn’t include men, it has nothing to do with being generous. That wasn’t the point she was making.

              I think the person making the argument (putting aside inaccuracies of facts for the moment) can decide what the point of their argument is, no?

            • phoenix

              Only trying to have a little fun with pun on word -- no drama intended, only comedy. Sorry you are not amused.
              -- As I have already stated in previous threads over the years, La Norman was probably the greatest singer in her rep during her prime years.
              -- Kash, are they planning on doing Maometto II in Toronto next year?
              -- If anyone doesn’t remember who Ella Lee was:

            • Phoenix: Sorry, I missed your humour. It’s not the first time I’ve missed the humour in an on-line comment (and it won’t be the last!).

              Yes, the COC is mounting Maometto II next season. I’ve had a pretty good system for approaching Rossini’s dramatic works in the past. I’ve kept my expectations fairly low (I much prefer Bellini and Donizetti) and they’ve been exceeded every time. It was like that when I first saw Tancredi (with Ewa Podles). It was the same when I listened to an online broadcast of his Otello. Now, the system doesn’t work so well for me because I’ve come to realise that Rossini’s dramatic works are well worth hearing. I went in with that mind-set for the Torino Guillermo Tell which came through town last year and had a wonderful time.

              There’s also the issue that I’ve quite enjoyed his L’Assedio di Corinto in the past and I understand that it is basically a reworking of Maometto II. By the time I go into to see Maometto II, my expectations will be much higher than usual, so we’ll see what happens

            • phoenix

              I dash these things off now too quickly and fail to read what might be misinterpreted -- on the other hand, I don’t to be too vague or witty since I also don’t get the gist of many of comments that show up on this site either -- my sense of humor is not very good.
              -- I hope to come to Toronto to see Maometto II. Thanks for the info. All the best to you!

            • Phoenix: Ha! I didn’t give you any info, just some self-indulgent stuff about my own experience with Maemetto II. Here’s some actual info:


              The production stars Luca Pisaroni, Leoh Crocetto and Elisabeth DeShong. Directed by David Alden and conducted by Harry Bicket.

              I believe this will be my first time hearing Bicket conduct a 19th century work. My previous experience with him has been limited to Handel, Gluck and Mozart.

    • armerjacquino

      Not just Spain- Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, South Africa and Tanzania. People do grow them indoors here though. They’re not that expensive- about 40p each.

  • phoenix
    -- Sorry to pull up another card, but I am going to slip in a question: Is anyone going or thinking of going to the Don Carlo in Philadelphia?

    • aulus agerius

      Yes. I wi?l be there the 29th. Then I go on to NY for Rake on Friday and either Ballo or Cav/Pag Saturday.

      • phoenix

        Aulus, you are an observant & objective listener. Please give us your take on the performance -- it looks great on paper. Thanks!

    • Krunoslav

      Definitely going, yes. Such a great theater in which to hear 19th century works…

      • phoenix


  • bronzino

    is it at all possible to have a single interview from a minority without the minority card being played? there are no minority artits--there are good artists and there are bad. did she sing well or did she not? period. what an enormous amount of constant effort it must take to see EVERYTHING as an afront to one’s minority status. sing for us, jes, just sing.

    • Krunoslav

      If, bronzino, you would educate yourself or think for a minute ( try) you might realize that many minority performing artists are still placed in positions where it is not THEY who are ‘playing the minority card.

      When Lawrence Brownlee ‘s contract is reneged for Almaviva once a company sees his photo and tells him they are ‘going in a different direction’, or Roberta Alexander is told BY HER AGENT (soon after her ex-agent) in Europe that ‘the Marschallin is a white role” -these two incidents involving superb artists ideal for the assignments they wished to do happened within the last 20 years-- than it is not the artists who are at fault if they don’t “just sing’.

      • bronzino

        blah blah blah--some are too tall, some are too fat, some are too old. fine--let that decision be made, for better or worse, and move on to something else. sing something else or somewhere else--it is a WORLD of possibilities. just don’t sing the race card.

        • armerjacquino

          ‘Racism not a problem’ says white person.

        • Krunoslav

          some are too foolish and ignorant abd you are plainly of that number

          brownlee is one of the world’s leading rossini tenors and had done the roel of almaviva at la scala when this ( southern, big surprise) theatre turned him down.

          alexander is a beautiful woman, great actress, wonderful strauss stylist-- why shouldn’t she have sung the marschallin? we’ve had sophies and octavians of color.

          And who the fuck are you to tell artists of color to ‘move on”? Do you expect them only to appear as Aida, Bess and Carmen jones?

          • armerjacquino

            I can never get my head round how dumb (or, alternatively racist) you have to be to push the ‘merit’ logic.

            If there are things black people don’t do, and you say ‘stop playing the race card, these things are done according to merit’ then you are saying that white people are de facto better at those things.

            • la vociaccia

              I am unflappably impressed at your willingness to interact with such a myopic, racist fuckwad

          • bronzino

            if one resorts to namecalling and foul language instead of focusing on the issue at hand, one is bound to be percieved as juvenile and unstable--and one’s message will be sullied and discounted.

            we have personally seen and heard brownlee and alexander in many roles and at many venues, so i agree with you that they have wonderful voices. however, one gig does not a career make. we have ALL dealt with job application rejection, and we all must move on to apply for another job somewhere else. just.move.on.

            • armerjacquino

              Right. So every black singer who has ever auditioned to play the Marschallin, or Eva, or Elsa, wasn’t good enough and has to move on?

              Or are you still insisting that race will have had nothing to do with it?

              This isn’t just an isolated one-job thing. These are roles which are NEVER given to singers of colour, except in very, very rare circumstances. And when someone points out what a shame that is, you bleat about the ‘race card’. I repeat: either dumb or racist.

            • Krunoslav

              If one is a fucking idiot in public on such an evident and divisive issue one is bound to be termed a fucking idiot.

              I don’t imagine it is my message that is being discounted in this exchange

              So just move on yourself. Try the late 20th century first, post jim Crow, and then join most of us once you’re acclimatized.

            • If Brownlee were rejected from a gig and the stated reason was “at this time we do not feel Walther von Stolzing is the best fit for your voice” that would be one thing. To be rejected as Count Almaviva (a trademark role) is another thing.

              See the difference? Then again given your dimness and Jim Crow mentality, probably not.

            • DeepSouthSenior

              I found the Live in HD La Cenerentola with Lawrence Brownlee and Elina Garanca to be a little distracting, but not for the reason you might expect. It had absolutely nothing to do with race. I worked with black colleagues and supervisors for nearly thirty years in education. With only a couple of exceptions (that had nothing to do with race, I believe) my experiences were rewarding and delightful, and I hope the friendships are lifelong. Not color, and certainly not vocal ability, broke my concentration in La Cenerentola. It was height, and height alone: She is SO tall, and he is, well, somewhat shorter. I know that shouldn’t have mattered a bit, but it did. Interestingly, I hardly noticed this in the Met with Brownlee and Olga Peretyatko in I Puritani last year. I was looking up at the stage from Orchestra Row F, so the height difference was less apparent.

              I may be running the risk of being labeled “heightest,” but there it is. All in all, it really is a minor issue to me. I’d pay to see Lawrence Brownlee in any repertoire he chooses, any day and with anyone.

            • Krunoslav


              Bear in mind your feelings about short tenors if you ever get the chance to see Alessandro Bonci or Bernardo de Muro. :)

            • LT

              Height discrepancies shouldn’t be an issue in comic operas.

            • DeepSouthSenior

              Krunoslav, thanks for enlightening me regarding a couple of late, great tenors of towering voice, if not stature. A day is never wasted if you learn something new!

              Now, wouldn’t this be fun, but really dangerous in today’s social climate, where it seems that everyone is a member of at least one Aggrieved Class. Perform some digital sampling magic with dead and living tenors to cover this sensitive pop classic:

            • bronzino

              a: do your homework: when you can define the racial profile/percentage of every applicant for these roles of elsa/eva/march/etc and the selection criteria for the winning applicant, then we can talk. to imply that we MUST hire a minority because, well, ‘we need a minority’ smacks of reverse discrimination.

              k: stay on topic--we have in no way said that blacks may only play aida or c jones (although gershwin himself stipulated that only blacks may play bess--do any caucasians take issue with this?) wild rantings are not persuasive to your argument.

              p: in the non-operatic world, an at-will hiring/working situation allows an employee to be hired/fired FOR ANY REASON AT ALL--this is not an uncommon practise. likewise, brownlee may be hired/not hired for any reason at all--employers perogative.

              a, k, p, and lv: name calling does nothing to persuade your argument. when you can conduct yourselves with decorum you may, if you wish, address our person.

            • bronzino, when you decide not to be a racist little fuckhead that needs to play in traffic, you may, if you wish, address our person. Meanwhile have fun boning your own 1″ dick with “I’m white. I’m white. God made me white.”

            • Krunoslav


              why would i --or anyone-- want to address your (laughably plural) person? your tone of reasoned superiority when you are plainly in the wrong does nothing to impress even the most casual reader.

              the gershwins specified that bess be played by african-americans *in the united states*, in the context of the 1930s.

            • DeepSouthSenior

              I tried to inject a little levity into this dismal thread, apparently with no success.

              Talk about spiraling out of control! Accusations, counter charges, tempers at the boiling point, language unworthy of educated men and women, everyone digging in their heels, standing on their rights (or wrongs), refusing to budge an inch and making matters worse in the process. And all this from a few words which, seen in the worst possible light are pretty bad, but given the benefit of the doubt (judgment of charity, and all that) were just poorly worded.

              I’m not setting myself up as judge and jury here. I’ve been in a few of these scraps myself, and sad to say have caused one or two. But please, people, call it a night, sleep on it, and put on a happy face tomorrow to argue about matters of cosmic significance on a neighboring thread, like “Could Musetta’s cart be a scooter?”

            • pirelli

              To DeepSouthSeniuor’s post on the “distracting” height differences in the Met Cenerentola -- well, to each his own. I was not bothered by that in the least. It was the awful staging and design -- that horrid spaghetti dinner, the awkward “does she really have to stand on that wedding cake” ending, the boring bare walls of the castle, those risible (rather than funny) wings Alidoro had to wear, the de facto “stand, sing, and look bored” state of the Met chorus -- THOSE things were distracting. I could care less how tall or short the tenor was, let alone his skin color.

            • pirelli

              There is no specific stipulation about Bess. The stipulation is about ALL the African-American roles (which of course is practically the full company.) I’m not sure why we’re trying to single out one character here (even if we’re just talking lead female roles, this would apply to Serena and Clara as well).

            • stevey


              I’m one of your biggest admirers and followers of your blog, as well as this one, but even I find you comments offensive.

              “racist little fuckhead that needs to play in traffic” is one thing

              “have fun boning your own 1? dick” is another matter altogether, and bears NO place in any forum of any respectability whatsoever.

              For whatever it’s worth, I am on your side in terms of where you are coming from, but to express yourself thusly brings you- and us all- down a notch.

              Forgive me for saying such… I just think that you’re better than that.

              And with my continued best regards…

              S. :-)

            • Krunoslav

              i don’t this anyone was saying that the gershwins’ stipulation only applied to bess- that just was the role being discussed

            • Okay, I think this discussion has run its useful course, so let’s give it a rest for a while, okay?

            • stevey

              And DSS (‘Deep South Senior’), THANK YOU for, as you said, trying to “inject a little levity into this dismal thread, apparently with no success.” You’re a class act, and I can only hope that me expressing myself thusly won’t be greeted with the kind of vituperation with which this thread has been filled with and- as you’ve acknowledged- needs some semblance of alleviation.

              Regardless of opinion, still:

              Can’t we all just get along??? :-)

            • luvtennis

              please. just. crawl. up. your. own. ass. and. rescue. your. head.

            • bronzino

              polarizing? provocateur? moi?

              sure, la circa, we’ll give it a rest--and now it is time for a post-mortem on this thread so that we.just.can.move.on

              every thread will present views/ideas that may or may not be held by other viewers. it is the role of a respondent to persuade, with facts/data, a differing view, sticking to the topic at hand. to this end, name calling and abusive language does nothing to support a thesis--it would never be admissible in, say, a debate club or court of law.

              the idea that the output of art (the painting, the aria, the symphony) is the only thing that ultimately matters in history’s judgment of said art is not a singular view--we would suggest rereading the beginning chapter of clark’s ‘civilization’ to get a good overview. and rereading the epilogue chapters of tolstoys war and peace describes beautifully the ultimate role of dispassionate History in the weighing of human events--it matters not if the outcome of these events was easy or difficult, painful or pleasant: rather it is the stringing together of one decision/circumstance after another that brings about fate. and therein lies judgement.

              La cieca, thank you for allowing this forum for the free exchange of differing views by (hopefully) intelligent, persuasive and non-abusive combatants. we look forward to the next exchange.

    • Check out Haglund Heel’s many rants against Misty Copeland and get back to me on that one.

    • mia apulia

      it is inspiring bronzino, that there are no “minority artists” for you--or perhaps you are just blind, for you cannot see that that is not true for everyone else……

  • javier

    play whatever cards you have. if you have a race card or a gay card it’s fair game. don’t be a hater.

  • maxe

    Just a thought: why is race such an overwhelming subject in that wretched country called the US of A? Heck, even Bayreuth featured black singers when there were still segregated drinking fountains in parts of the US…

  • Rudolf

    @ armerjacquino
    @ PCally
    Concerning Gwendolyn Killebrew … aside from Puccini’s “Edgar”, the following recordings should still be around:
    Haydn masses, Bernstein conducting;
    a live “Rusalka” from Holland where she sings both, Jezibaba and the Foreign Princess;
    Mahler’s 3rd symphony, Bertini conducting;
    Handel’s “Tamerlano”, title role;
    Madelon in “Andrea Chenier”, Domingo/Scotto;
    Haydn’s “Orlando Paladino”, Dorati conducting;
    “Schwanda the bag piper”, Jerusalem/Popp;
    the Pierre Boulez “Ring”, Schwertleite and Waltraute.

    • phoenix

      I remember seeing Killebrew as Herodias in Strauss’ Salome in Düsseldorf. She breezed through the role, but she was memorable. A subtle & distinguished performance, so different from what I had previously witnessed.

  • olliedawg

    Sheesh…I thought Ms. Jessye sounded thoroughly “normal,” polite, circumspect, and apparently nice to hang with over lunch, at least in this transcript. Can someone point out where Herself sounds over-the-top diva’ish?

  • Constantine A. Papas

    She meant to say that she was the only “pompous” Afro-American soprano to sing Wagner; and the only one demanding a specific-color RR limo to pick her up from the airport.

    • la vociaccia

      I don’t know what’s more depressing; the fact that you don’t realize how racist that sounds or the fact that you likely never will