Jessye Norman was remembered as a force of nature as thousands filled the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday for a celebration of the soprano, who died Sept. 30 at age 74.
Sopranos Renée Fleming, Latonia Moore, Lise Davidsen and Leah Hawkins sang tributes along with mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and bass-baritone Eric Owens that were mixed among remembrances of family and friends, dance performances of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and video of Norman’s career.
“Yankee Stadium is the house that Babe Ruth built and welcome to this house that Jessye Norman built,” Met general manager Peter Gelb said. “Of course Jessye wasn’t alone in filling this hallowed hall with her glorious voice. She was joined by rather important voices, from Leontyne Price to Luciano Pavarotti, but in her operatic prime in the ’80s and the ’90s, her majestic vocal chords reigned supreme in the dramatic soprano and the mezzo range. Like Babe Ruth, who swung for the fences, Jessye swung for standing room in the family circle, and she always connected.”
Norman’s celebration took place shortly after a memorial to actress Diahann Carroll at the Helen Hayes Theater, about a mile south. On Thursday, author Toni Morrison was memorialized at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, a trio of black Americans who were leaders in their fields.
“Three monumental women who carried through and offered a bounty of gifts to the world,” actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith said.
Smith recalled signing letters “Little Sis” to Norman’s “Big Sis.” She remembered traveling to Norman’s performances around the world, focusing on one at the Festival de Musique de Menton on the French Riviera, near the Italian border. Organizers had arranged to stop traffic to clear the air for Norman but fretted over a train, asking whether Norman preferred they slow it down to lower the noise level in exchange for a lengthier time the noise would be audible.
“When the train came through Menton and Jessye was hitting the high note, I heard Jessye. She sang through it,” Smith said. “Until this morning, this very morning, I thought Jessye’s voice simply overrode that train. I don’t think so anymore. Now I understand that Jessye Norman had the ear, the timing, the love of song, the risk to share and the will to sing through — and with — the roaring train. In the same way, she integrated several musical histories to grace the world with the power of her voice.”
Speakers included Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and Gloria Steinem.
Younger sister Elaine Norman Sturkey and brother James Howard Norman told stories of their youth in Augusta, Georgia, and later travels together.
“Travel with Jessye was no small feat,” Norman Sturkey said with humor in her voice. “These Louis Vuittons that she bought were so heavy before you could even put anything in them. Then she would pack them to capacity, so that when we got to the airport, they were all going to be too heavy. We’re not going to have two maybe big suitcases or even three, we were going to have 10. And she’s not lifting anything. That’s somebody else’s problem. And she’s carrying everything from a humidifier to a teapot. And we’re going to be back in less than two weeks, sometimes a week.”
Carnegie Hall executive director Clive Gillinson spoke of summoning the courage to ask Norman to curate a festival, which she readily agreed to and became “Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy” in March 2009.
“Clive, this is the project I’ve been waiting my entire life to do,” he quoted her as responding.
Former French Culture Minister spoke of the controversy over his decision to hire Norman rather than a French singer to perform “La Marseillaise” at the Place de la Concorde in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. His remembrance was followed by a video of Norman’s iconic, blazing rendition.
Fleming received a huge ovation after “Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep)” from Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” accompanied by pianist Gerald Martin Moore and Met concertmaster David Chan. Hawkins and Moore began and ended the program with traditionals, “Great Day” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.” Bridges sang Duke Ellington’s “Heaven” and Owen performed Wotan’s farewell from “Die Walkuere.” Davidson, who is to make her Met debut Friday, sang Strauss’ “Morgen!”