Opera Diva Norman Brings the Arts Back to Schools

Farai Chideya follows opera legend Jessye Norman to a Southern California high school, where the singer talks about her passion for arts education. A few years ago, Norman opened a school of the arts in her home town of Augusta, Ga., to emphasize the importance of arts for schoolchildren.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We just heard about one man's efforts to combine music and sports. Now here's a look at how to combine music and education. Yes it can be done, but you need the passion of special individuals.

Ms. RACHEL WORBY (Conductor): That is when I turned to music. Because it's through music that I'm able to recapture the wonder of life and the gloriousness of what it means to really be alive.

CHIDEYA: This is the gymnasium at Blair High School in Pasadena, California. Conductor Rachel Worby is trying to communicate the joy of classic American music to about 1,500 restless teenagers. She's backed by the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, but that's no guarantee that these mostly black and Latino kids will be wowed by the likes of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Kids look on and listen. They're polite but not entirely enthralled. So for this presentation, Worby has a secret weapon. During a George Gershwin medley, a black sedan rolls up to the gymnasium. An African-American woman in a flowing dress steps out. She's the legendary opera singer, soprano Jessye Norman. Norman enters the gymnasium from the rear, takes a microphone and goes up the aisle towards the stage.

Ms. JESSYE NORMAN (Opera Singer): (Singing) There's a time for us, someday a...

CHIDEYA: The kids jump to their feet, look around and try to find the voice. When they do, their eyes light up. Conductor Rachel Worby's eyes light up too.

Ms. WORBY: This is a woman who has sung in every great opera house in the world, who has more statuettes and plaques from kings and queens and presidents and emperors then any 50 people I know.

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) Someday, somewhere...

CHIDEYA: Worby called Norman on the telephone. She was in Paris on tour. Worby was supposed to ask Norman to sing a benefit for her orchestra. Instead, at the last minute, she made a different request.

Ms. WORBY: I said, you know, I work in an inner-city high school. It's 90 percent African-American. It's filled with kids who are pretty tough that don't know who you are, but that's okay. They barely, at this point in their lives, know or care who somebody like Martin Luther King is. They haven't learned passion for life. And from Paris this meek voice came back at me and said, bless you, child.

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) And I'll take you there. Somehow, someday, somewhere...

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: Worby knew arts education would resonate with Norman. A few years ago, the diva opened the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.

Ms. NORMAN: It's important to give back, and I find it really disquieting and disarming for me to see how little we pay attention to arts education for our students these days, that the first thing to be eliminated when a school system feels that they're running sort of short of money is the arts programs. And we wonder why they don't have a kind of spiritual connection one person to the other.

They've never learned this. They never learned to speak from the inside of themselves by either drawing on paper or writing a poem about how they feel about their lives at the moment or just standing up and singing a song. The opportunity isn't even there and this upsets me a great deal.

CHIDEYA: Norman says she came from a community that valued the arts in a time when a village really did raise a child.

Ms. NORMAN: I had a great deal of care and warmth and love as a child growing up. The neighbor across the road, Mrs. Hubert(ph), would say to me, what are you going to sing in church on Sunday? And she was quite old and sort of couldn't really leave her house. And so I said, well, this is what I'm going to sing. She said, well, come over and sing it for me.

It was very simple. I would go over to Mrs. Hubert on her porch and I'd sing Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, or whatever it was, my great number that I was going to do at church on Sunday. And so I had a platform, I had a space in which to grow, at the same time being protected in that growth.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) Ride on King Jesus; no man can hinder me. Ride on King Jesus, ride on, no man can hinder me...

CHIDEYA: Today, Jessye Norman is almost as famous for recording the spirituals she sang as a child as she is for her interpretations of Mozart and Puccini. She valued having a feeling of limitless artistic possibility in her own career, and it's what she wants to give to these kids at the Pasadena high school.

Ms. NORMAN: I have been blessed with a voice that has low notes and middle notes and high notes, so I use them all. And I don't care whether the music is written for an alto or a mezzo-soprano or a soprano or whether the music is written by Leonard Bernstein or Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or Cole Porter. It's all music and I love it all and I sing it all.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) Summertime and the living is easy...

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you, when you visit the school that bears your name in Augusta, what do you see in the children? What do you see them doing, learning, feeling?

Ms. NORMAN: I see children that are connected with their insides. I see a child that comes up to me and says I'm so glad that I go to this school. I'm so glad to be in this after-school program. And my name is Kyla Wright(ph) and I'm a writer. And I say, you're a writer? How old are you, darling? I'm 11. And I say, now what have you been writing? Oh, I write plays. And I say, well, I'll tell the people in New York to watch out for you.

And this is the kind of thing that I encounter. A complete openness, a complete understanding that they have at their young ages something to say and that they have a medium through which to express that something that they have. And it makes me happier than I am able to describe.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) But 'til the morning there's nothing can harm you...

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