Jessye Norman, Still a Diva Beyond the Classical Canon

Norman sang Duke Ellington at the Clarice Smith Center.
Norman sang Duke Ellington at the Clarice Smith Center.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

Jessye Norman has long ceased to be a soprano: She is now simply a Figure. And for some years now, Norman appears to have been searching for the best way to display that figure -- looking for some outlet that the conventional presentation formats of classical music do not offer.

Her most successful venture was a collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones in 1999. Among her least was a valiant commission in 2000 of a song cycle celebrating women, with music by Judith Weir and poetry by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. What remains in mind is the image of Estes intoning, "Breasts! Breasts!" Since neither she nor Norman was at all deficient in that regard, the evening moved quickly from high hopes to high farce.

To say that Norman, who opened the Clarice Smith Center's fall season Friday night at the University of Maryland, is less of a figure than she once was is merely the literal truth. Even at her heaviest, Norman always seemed less large and more an inexorable force of nature; but there used to be an awful lot of her, and now there is an awful lot less.

Weight loss has done nothing to diminish her stage presence, or even to alter it. Swathed in wraps of brightly colored fabric, she still projected the outsize personality and signature diva mannerisms, directing the music, the band and the audience with gestures of eyebrows and eyes, hands and mouth. Flinging back her head, baring her teeth in a fierce frozen smile around a floating note, she seemed as much a force of nature as ever.

It is pointless to speculate on the vocal effects of slimming down; Norman is in any case no longer in her prime. Her sound is not always on pitch; her voice does not sustain a lot of pressure. But the outlines of it are still there. She knows how to manipulate timbre and tonal color like nobody's business, she can float a pianissimo with the best of them, and she certainly puts on a show. Friday's program might not have been to the taste of everyone who loved Norman in her heyday, but it was by no means a tragic snapshot of a singer in her decline.

The program was called "The Duke and the Diva," a jazz evening devoted to the songs of Duke Ellington, and it was both symptomatic of Norman's ongoing search beyond the limits of the classical canon and indicative of the direction her own season will take. Next spring, she is curating a festival at Carnegie Hall, called "Honor!" and intended to celebrate "the African American cultural legacy" -- certainly a project that could lead her outside conventional classical boundaries, but one that will depend, like so many of her projects, on finding the right collaborators.

Norman brings to whatever she does a sense of theater that seems over the top but that she is able to make convincing. From the opening notes -- projected in a pitch-black auditorium from overhead speakers -- to her final exit, walking off at the end of her last encore with a languid over-the-shoulder wave of her hand, the concert was a self-conscious construction. She had uphill work in the first half, too, devoted to Ellington's sacred songs: Her singing veered from a kind of echolalia ("In the Beginning God") to ecstatic ululation ("Praise God and Dance"), and the audience -- the lifeblood of this kind of event -- seemed reserved. It was the second, secular half that came alive, fueled by the interplay between Norman and a four-man jazz combo including her regular pianist, Mark Markham. Ira Coleman, on string bass, was particularly articulate.

On some counts, the evening was kind of a mess, but it offered a lot of moments to like -- echoing how Ellington's songs threw up little lyrical passages and then quickly tugged them into another, unexpected key. There was Norman's husky, whiskey-sounding "Sophisticated Lady," and the way that even in full vocal cry she could draw on a girlish freshness to the sound in "Heaven." And there was the fact that, even in her twilight, she could conclude with a second encore of Gershwin's "Summertime," a piece that relies on pure beauty of voice, and still get away with it.

I have always maintained that Norman would be willing to go quite a bit more in an experimental direction, artistically, if she found the right people to work with. I think it is a shame that more avant-garde choreographers, directors, composers have not found more ways to capitalize on her abilities. She still has a tremendous amount to offer, as long as pure classical singing is not what you are looking for. Ten years ago, I might have panned this evening. Today, I'm glad I heard it.

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