LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
It's not often a world-renowned opera diva performs in a high school gymnasium, but last Friday 1800 students from five schools saw and heard Jessye Norman with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra.
From member station KPCC in Pasadena, Rachael Myrow reports.
(Soundbite orchestra tuning up)
RACHAEL MYROW: The Pasadena Pops Orchestra warmed up under the scoreboard in the Blair High School gym. High up on the walls, green and gold banners commemorated past basketball victories, but when the orchestra's music director, Rachael Worby, picked up her baton...
(Soundbite of baton striking podium)
MYROW: ...she deftly transformed the gym into a performance space fit to host an international celebrity - such as Jessye Norman.
(Soundbite of song "Somewhere")
Ms. JESSYE NORMAN (Opera Diva): (Singing) There's a place for us...
(Soundbite of applause)
MYROW: Worby led the orchestra into Somewhere, a song from Leonard Bernstein's classical musical West Side Story. Norman entered the gym singing.
(Soundbite of song "Somewhere")
Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) Peace and quiet and open air, wait for us, somewhere.
Ms. RACHAEL WORBY (Music Director, Blair High School): She has sung for presidents. She has sung for kings and queens. She has sung in the greatest concert halls in the world and all of the greatest opera houses in the world.
MYROW: Music director Rachael Worby. When she first contacted Jessye Norman, it wasn't initially with the idea of bringing the opera great to a school. But as they talked, Worby said, Blair bubbled to the surface.
Ms. WORBY: We had a long and passionate conversation about the perils of being a public school student in most places in the United States of America now, because of the disintegration of the arts programs.
MYROW: Norman added that all adults are responsible for ensuring students get exposed to the arts for the educational value, if nothing else.
Ms. NORMAN: If you do something over and over again, my goodness, you become better at it. And this is as true for doing a geometry puzzle, or mathematics, or history, or geography, as it is in studying a Bach partita.
(Soundbite of song "Summertime")
Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) Summertime and the living is easy...
MYROW: There was a time when Summertime, from the Gershwins' musical Porgy and Bess, was considered popular music. But a lot of years have passed and the students attending this concert giggled, whispered and fidgeted under the stern gaze of their teachers.
The pops orchestra is no stranger to this campus. The arts organization runs an outreach program with Blair and a couple other schools in Pasadena and L.A. Norman herself has launched an arts school in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.
Blair students Teresa Orta(ph), Ariel Almazan(ph) and Serno Vlajo(ph) said Norman lived up to the pre-concert publicity campaign generated by their teachers.
Unidentified Woman #1: It was amazing.
Unidentified Woman #2: Wow.
Unidentified Woman #1: I could not believe it. Even when she spoke, the way she spoke was amazing. I was blown away.
Unidentified Woman #3: I had chills...
Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman #3: ...going down my spine, literally.
Unidentified Woman #2: (unintelligible) I was amazed at the different tones her voice had, how it could be tranquil and then uplifting like at the same time. Like she had so much like diversity to herself. Like it was like just something to see. It was amazing.
MYROW: Norman addressed that very point during the concert.
Ms. NORMAN: I choose to be limited only by my own imagination. And I have been blessed with a voice that has low notes and middle notes and high notes. So I use them all.
MYROW: Norman has no immediate plans to perform at another high school, but she and the orchestra's music director will continue collaborating with each other. They performed together next month in China.
For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in Pasadena.