Jessye Norman shares journey as opera star in 'Stand Up Straight and Sing'

As with royalty, the world of Grand Opera is a small world and the life of a diva is much like that of a queen. To enjoy a long and happy reign, each must command the love and respect of her subjects.


In her new memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), soprano Jessye Norman tells the story only she could tell. Some of its most moving and entertaining passages are about her family and growing up in Augusta.

The book’s index is replete with names Augustans will know and recognize – along with heads of state, royalty, famous conductors (James Levine wrote the book’s introduction), great singers and many others who have been principal players in her brilliant career. A generous selection of black-and-white photos documents the sheer magnitude – and altitude – of her accomplishments.

I first became aware of the name Jessye Norman when, as Sunday Editor of The Augusta Chronicle-Herald, I received word that she was making her first trip to Europe to participate in an international music competition in Munich. When she won first place, I knew then that she had graduated from my Sunday tabloid to above-the-fold front page.

What I did not know until I read her memoir was how unfair the judges had attempted to be, placing hurdles in her path that none of the other competitors had to clear.

This is why I think the title of her book is so apt. Though taken from her mother’s oft-repeated admonition, “Stand up straight and sing,” the book is as much about standing up as it is about singing – standing up for yourself in the face of injustice.

Those Munich judges remind me of the posturing chowder heads who sometimes judge events at the Olympics. But this particular gaggle had never encountered Jessye Norman. As ever, she had done her homework and could recite their own rules so clearly that even they could understand them. The hurdles mysteriously vanished and the playing field became even.

Germans respect authority. They also recognize and adore genuine talent, but the Norman Conquest would truly begin in Berlin, where Norman “grew up.” From that period on, her life story sounds like a Randy Newman lyric (Boom goes London! Boom Paris!).

Norman tells her story in a breezy, conversational style that any reader who is not an editor should find delightful. As with every really good raconteur, she digresses occasionally, and the book’s primary attempt at structure is its musical program format. But it is this memoir’s life-affirming richness that most readers will take away – its hard-won wisdom and magnanimity.

The special relationship Jessye Norman shared with her remarkable mother is reason enough to recommend this book to the general reader, not merely fans and music scholars. Had it not been for Janie King Norman’s saying just the right thing at just the right moment, her famous daughter might well have taken a different career path altogether.

Perhaps the most iconic moment in this diva’s reign is captured in the photo that bleeds off the back of the book jacket. It was taken on the evening of July 14, 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Norman is standing in the Place de la Concorde. She is draped in the French tri-color (a silk gown by Azzedine Alaia), singing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, for the throngs in Paris and being broadcast to a billion others around the globe. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a diva from a queen, but in this photo, I think we might agree on empress. I feel sure Napoleon would.