RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is the sound of an American music legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MARTIN: Jessye Norman is widely hailed as one of this country's most beloved classical singers. For decades, Jessye Norman's her soaring voice has captivated people around the world. She's performed for American presidents, tackled some of the most complicated operatic roles out there, and sung on the world's most elite stages.

But long before Norman became a national treasure, she was a young girl growing up in the segregated American South. In her new memoir, "Stand Up Straight and Sing," Norman writes that racism was just part of the social fabric in her own state of Georgia. But inside the Norman household, music is what held everyone together. And it started with her mother.

JESSYE NORMAN: Yes, very important to her. She played the piano when she and her sisters had a singing group. And my grandparents had this harmonium in their home. And so music was everywhere. And it was simply a part of life. One took it for granted. I didn't think at all as a young child that music would be my profession. It was just something that one did along with going to Brownies or going to church or going to school or anything else that one did in sort of one's very young life.

MARTIN: There's a lovely anecdote in the book that you write, when you are young, your mom makes you stay home on the weekends to get through some chores...

NORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Which is, you know, a kind of a regular thing a kid has to endure. But for you, this is a secret pleasure, because you get to hear this music that you want to hear.

NORMAN: Yes, I had my very own radio. And I would simply close the door and the opera and I were friends. And as long as the opera was running, that's how long it took me to clean my room.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Do you remember what kind of operas you heard?

NORMAN: I remember very well hearing "Lucia di Lammermoor." I remember hearing "Aida." And there were all kinds of wonderful Verdi operas. When you think of the singers that were singing in the late '50s and early '60s - my goodness, what a crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MARTIN: Did you know what was happening in these storylines, though?

NORMAN: I knew very well was happening in the storylines. There was this wonderful man who was the announcer, the voice of the Metropolitan Opera, who was called Milton Cross. And Milton Cross had a wonderful gift because he could describe the stage and what the singers looked like, what they were wearing, how tall they were.

And then, of course, he would tell you the story of the opera. And even though I wasn't looking at this on television, I had this active imagination. And so that worked for me absolutely perfectly.

MARTIN: You went to study music...

NORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And vocal performance at the University of Michigan and Howard University. And you learned how to sing in several different languages, Italian, French, German. Am I missing one?

NORMAN: I sing in Spanish, yes.

MARTIN: Spanish.

NORMAN: I sing in Hungarian. I read Hungarian. I do not pretend to speak Hungarian, but I sing in languages that I have studied as languages. And I find that to be central and very, very helpful. I think if you're not really cognizant of what every single word means, I think that might be a little tricky.

MARTIN: It has been German, though, I take it, that has captivated you in a particular way over the years. Can you talk about how so?

NORMAN: I think that, certainly, most of my operatic roles are in German. I think it happened because, of course, I was lucky in that I was invited to sing, first of all, my operatic debut in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, which was West Berlin at the time. I didn't realize until perhaps some years late how unusual that invitation was and that it should come at such a moment in my very young life and my extreme inexperience.

MARTIN: You write in the book about finding out when the Berlin Wall fell...

NORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And immediately you try to get on the first plane that you could...

NORMAN: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...To go back to Berlin. What was that like to be there to see that history unfold in that immediate aftermath?

NORMAN: In a way, it was surreal because it came sudden to me as a great surprise and a wonderful surprise. And to see people that were taking that wall down practically with their bare hands and to see the joy of people just walking around their own city that was now no longer divided. I shall never forget going with - we had a recording schedule that year, and it just happened that it was Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera.

And of course, the theme of Fidelio is a political one. And it was really marvelous to have the opportunity to record that particular opera just weeks after the wall had come down. And to hear that chorus sing the word freiheit, and to mean it, really mean it.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FIDELIO")

MARTIN: You write in the book about your affinity for certain German composers, including Richard Wagner...

NORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Whose own legacy is complicated because of the way the Nazis appropriated his music.

NORMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And you write, which I found interesting, that you get tired of having to defend or justify your love of Wagner.

NORMAN: Yes. I think that we have to be able to separate the art from the artist. Richard Wagner was simply a channel. He was a channel for music that was coming from somewhere else. And that he was the one that was chosen is something that, you know, maybe we will come to understand.

But I don't think of him as perhaps, the narrow-minded person that it would seem he certainly was from the writings, his own writings. I don't think that he had the most open-hearted attitude towards the world, but his music, of course, is sublime.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MARTIN: Is that how you perceive yourself, then, if you are the instrument, you are the artist? Are you just a channel, then, for the music?

NORMAN: There have been occasions - and I think it's very good for any human being that such occasions would be rare that one would feel that one is a channel - and there have been some occasions when it seemed as though I was standing outside of myself watching and listening to myself sing. And I think that's the closest that I can come to saying that I had experienced this idea of being simply a channel through which something else is happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

MARTIN: Jessye Norman. Her new memoir is called "Stand Up Straight and Sing." She joined us from our studios in New York. Miss Norman, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

NORMAN: I love so much speaking with you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA)

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