Jessye Norman and The Struggle for Black Pathos

Jessye Norman: In Conversation with Tom Hall, Photo by Jati Lindsay (Flickr: Walters Art Museum)

soll ich lauschen?                        Shall I listen?

Soll ich schlürfen,                       Shall I drink,

untertauchen?                             immerse?

Süß in Düften                            Sweetly in fragrances

mich verhauchen?                          melt away?

In dem wogenden Schwall,                  In the billowing  torrent,

in dem tönenden Schall,                   in the resonating sound,

in des Welt-Atems wehendem All —        in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath —

ertrinken,                               drown,

versinken —                             be engulfed —

unbewußt —                             unconscious —

höchste Lust!                             supreme delight!

-Isolde’s “Liebestod” from Tristan Und Isolde by Richard Wagner

Upon hearing that Jessye Norman was no longer with us, I dashed to YouTube and re-experienced her performance of the Liebestod. Norman performed this most-famous aria from Wagner’s tragic opera Tristan Und Isolde to great acclaim throughout her career. In the opera, Isolde has just lost her lover, Tristan, to an untimely death. Their love was literally chemical, as Isolde’s maid dosed the title characters with a love potion midway through Act 1. Isolde had been promised to a Cornish King, and Tristan had been the King’s best friend and loyal soldier. Worse, both characters knew their love was artificial, a product of betrayal and witchcraft — but no matter. They were possessed by love, an external force that can only channel through the interior subject, blinding its host to all other concerns, ravaging experiences like loyalty and betrayal in turn, and leaving nothing but ecstasy in its wake. Even death — for Isolde does die — is reduced (or expanded) to another site of culmination. As Isolde’s music climaxes, wave after wave of orchestral music crashes over the audience, and eventually quiets into a blissful rapture that could be the post-orgasmic refractory or the relief from, at long last, surrendering our endless performance of “I” to the inevitability of death and transcendenceShall I … drown, be engulfed, unconscious, supreme delight!

Jessye Norman performed the Liebestod hundreds of times, and made the piece her own. I encourage listeners to consider the poetry (find a full translation) as you watch and listen to Norman’s performance. Somehow, her voice combines an awareness of the tremulous anticipation of love, its blooming rapture, its endless sexual ecstasy with an acceptance of death. This she does while manufacturing enough sound to be heard over a Wagnerian orchestra, one of the loudest and most complex accompaniments in classical music. Her achievement stands out among sopranos in general, but also speaks to the idiosyncratic — dare I say queer — character of her classical music career.

While the Liebestod is well-known among opera-aficionados, it is not the sort of piece most Americans would recognize from the soundtrack of The Fifth Element or a commercial for Volkswagen or pasta sauce. Yet, with the exceptions of Negro Spirituals, the Liebestod is about as “popular” a piece that Jessye Norman sang in her professional life. She did not reproduce the formula for Black soprano success forged by contemporaries Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, or Martina Arroyo — all of whom sang more recognizable Italian roles like Madama Butterfly and Carmen. If you have listened to — let’s say under two dozen — Jessye Norman performances before this reading, it is highly unlikely you have heard her sing O Patria Mia,” the most famous aria from Verdi’s Aida, and a staple for Black sopranos all over the globe. She sang the role for a season or two in the early 1970s and never took it up again. One might say that Norman’s voice wasn’t well-suited to Aida’s high, floating, Verdian line (and one would have a point), but her prodigious talent for German music did not grant automatic access to starring roles like Ariadne, Elisabeth, Kundry, or Siegliende. As she told the New York Times in 1973, “People look at me and they see Aida.”1  She insisted though, on being heard as much as seen; in doing so, Jessye Norman directly confronted the pseudoscientific assumptions about the “nature” of the human, which still undergird casting decisions in the opera and classical voice industry.

Singing emerges from the body. The beauty of a sound is determined by the shape of the vocal cords, a function of genetics. Opera houses do not use microphone amplification, so singers must control the flow of air through their torsos, throats, and heads to create sufficient resonance to fill the hall. From the beginning of opera in the 17th century through the mid-19th century, sopranos mostly sang roles they were physically capable of singing. In turn, vocal pedagogy was anything but systematized. Instead, teachers formed one-to-one relationships with singers and passed down their knowledge to teaching-protégés. Demands for ethnically specific vocal performance emerged from the bottom up in the mid-19th century European “repertory house.”2 These small opera companies exclusively perform works by national composers and hire singers who can produce an “authentic” Italianate, French, or Germanic “sound.” Casting non-authentic singers risked the audience’s ire, especially in Italy where Verdi’s work became part of the unified nation’s cultural propaganda. By contrast, large houses, like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, performed a global repertoire but appeased their audiences by translating every opera into English. There, singers were valued for their “vocal glamour” and cosmopolitan style.

The popularization of Social Darwinism at the turn of the 20th century — by which I mean its increased circulation among a global urban elite — increased audience demand for accurate and authentic performances at major houses. In order to truly compare Italian, German, or French opera, the cognoscenti declared that opera must be performed in the original language and vocal style. It was German vocal pedagogues who then translated the ethnic localism of the repertory house into a pseudoscientific criterion for the evaluation of the human voice, called the “fach” system.

Fach, in German, means “category” or “specialty,” and experts established close to 25 “vocal fachs” that purport to capture any potential classical voice. Conductors and teachers determine fach by measuring each singer’s “voice” or the physical vocal cords, the “range” or how many notes a singer can securely hit on the scale, the “size” or maximum amplification and resonance, and the “timbre” or the “color” of the sound. Fach may remind readers of racial categorization because “the voice” (as experts call it) is both objectified and reduced to physical characteristics like “size” and “color.” Scholars need not search through the archives to find evidence for the persistent racialization of vocal type. In The Opera Singer’s Career Guide: Understanding the European Fach System, published in 2010, the authors write, “opera roles were developed to correspond to this connection between physical build and vocal sound. The young characters in an opera, a son or daughter are sung by younger, lighter voices. Kings, fathers, counts, devils and apparitions, will have the darker voices.”3 Fach also extends to assumptions about the singer’s intelligence and dramatic personality. Here is how Pearl Yeadon McGinnis describes the Dramatischer Sopran or Dramatic Soprano: “This soprano must have a voice that can cut through heavy orchestrations and the ability to sing effectively for long periods while always commanding the attention of the audience. A powerful and electric actress with the ability to portray changing moods and character, this Fach specialist revels in Character studies.” While Dramatic Sopranos can be found in a wide range of roles, the hochdramatischer sopran or High Dramatic Soprano is exclusively reserved for German roles composed by Richard Wagner, and Jessye Norman sang those roles.

When Black women first burst into major global operatic stages after the end of World War II, they were not cast in High Dramatic Soprano roles. Marian Anderson broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954 in the contralto role of Ulrica. Leontyne Price became the first Black Prima Donna Assoulta,4 but skirted away from most Germanic work (though not all). Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry blazed trails as superstar mezzo sopranos in mostly Italian literature. Reri Grist was our first major “soubrette,” a smaller yet ravishing voice cast in comedic secondary roles.5 Still, they were Black women, and their success within an art form steeped in eugenicism yielded fetishization. Many critics pointed to Leontyne Price’s “non-Italianate” vowels but thrilled to her “dusky” tone.6 Though Italian audiences were enraptured by Shirley Verrett, they undermined her mastery of Italian pronunciation and style with the backhanded honorific, La Nera Callas, or the Black Callas. When Grace Bumbry broke the color barrier at the Wagnerian Bayreuth Festival, she sang Venus, one of those “devils or apparitions” associated with “dark” voices.

In a testament to her genius, Jessye Norman exceeded all of these categorical limitations. Her vocal range sits somewhere between a dramatic mezzo-soprano and a traditional soprano. The latter category must have secure access to a high C. Norman didn’t, yet she also did not seem to mind much. In turn, few singers who sang high Germanic rep could boast the rich organ-like sound of her bottom range. Her elocution was impeccable in every language (she spoke fluent French and German), and she never left a text alone. Compare the opening recitative (sort of like the prelude) of her performance of Mozart’s “Dove Sono” to other singers. If you listen with a copy of the translated text (as I did so often when Jessye drew me into opera 25 years ago), you will marvel at the ways she communicates subtle shadings of emotion with her rhythmic and vocal choices.

Norman also became the first Black soprano to regularly sing Wagnerian High Dramatic Soprano roles, and she was particularly skilled at Siegliende from Wagner’s Die Walkure. Norman’s assumption of the role may represent her most aggressive rejection of operatic eugenicism. The character is one half of a pair of mythological twins who play a pivotal role in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Siegliende and her husband Siegmund are the “Volsung Twins,” human children of head-God Wotan. Separated at birth, they meet as adults and, recognizing the divinity in each other, fall madly in love and marry (much to the other Gods’ chagrin). Wagner devotes his most beautiful romantic music to their duets, and the twins incestuous story arc speak to his obsessive Aryan supremacy. Their incestuous love, preferred over every other possible human, valorizes the Aryan supremacist’s absolute investment in the preservation of “pure” bloodlines.

For some opera goers, Norman’s on-stage Siegliende was a bridge too far. No one, they contended, could pretend that she and her inevitably-white Siegmund were identical twins. The casting was not “realistic” they argued. Yet Leontyne Price often said of the classical voice, “To sing is the most human … art form. More than perhaps an instrument that has to be tuned mechanically, you are the tuner, you are the vessel, everything depends on how you feel as a person … and you should merge those as soon as possible … in order to be a complete entity. And with it comes … the thrill of singing, your own self, the thrill that you have sending yourself out to the public.” Madame Price’s advice seems particularly poignant in Norman’s case. Each time she sang Siegliende on stage, each time she sent herself out to the public, her mere presence disrupted the audience’s implicit racial expectations and the explicit white supremacy of the work’s composer. In “sending herself out,” Jessye demanded that audience goers both see and ignore her Blackness all at-once. Her Blackness, like Love within the Liebestod, became an external entity, acknowledging and obliterating the unstated premises of the performance, yet that external force could only be transmuted by the vessel of her individual Black body. In this way, Norman — as she always did — merged physical performance with vocal art, in a way only accessible to the Black dramatic soprano.

  1. Donal Henahan, “Jessye Norman—‘People Look at Me and Say Aida.’” New York Times, January 21, 1973, A15.
  2. Sandra Cotton, “Voice Classification and Fach: Recent, Historical and Conflicting Systems of Voice Categorization.” MA Thesis, University North Carolina Greensboro (2007).
  3. Pearl Yeadon McGinnis, The Opera Singer’s Career Guide: Understanding the European Fach System (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) 3.
  4. Basically Beyonce, but in Opera.
  5. Grist though, did perform a lot of German music, but never High Dramatic Soprano.
  6. A frustratingly popular description of Ms. Price’s voice, as her youthful tone was one of the “brightest” and “lightest” in history.
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Kwame Holmes

Kwame Holmes is Faculty Advisor with the Bard Prison Initiative. His research engages the intersection of race, sexuality, class identities, and politics within the history of the modern city. He is at work on his book manuscript, Queer Removal: Liberalism and Displacement in the Nation’s Capital, which narrates how the racial, gender and sexual diversification of the middle class in the wake of the civil rights, women’s, and gay liberation struggles in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Follow him on Twitter @KwameHolmes.

Comments on “Jessye Norman and The Struggle for Black Pathos

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    Mr. Holmes: Yours is a most fascinating recitation and meditation on the life of our supreme hochdramatischer sopran in the personage of Dr. Jessye Norman. Thank you for the remembrances and links to her signature performances in the canon. Kudos. Mel Hardy

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      Thank you so much!

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    Many thanks for this brilliant and erudite article! Another marvellous signature performance by Jessye Norman was Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament (When I Am Laid in Earth)”: She mentioned it as one of the most beautiful works of music alongside the Liebestod and a duet (“Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie”) from Berlioz’s opera “Les Troyens” in an interview for the BBC (for the Hardtalk programme): .

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