A 2006 Favorite: Opera Diva Jessye Norman Opera legend Jessye Norman describes her work in bringing music education back into schools.

A 2006 Favorite: Opera Diva Jessye Norman

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And here's our very last of our favorites for 2006. This story about two musicians mixing their art with education.

Ms. RACHEL WORBY (Music Director, Pasadena POPS Orchestra): 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 looked 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.

(Soundbite of song, “Somewhere, There's a Place for Us”)

Ms. JESSYE NORMAN (Soprano): (Singing) There's a place for us. Someday a -

CHIDEYA: The kids jumped to their feet, looked around and tried 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 have sung in every great opera house in the world, who has more statuettes and plaques from kings and queens and presidents and emperors than any 50 people I know.

(Soundbite of song, “Somewhere, There's a Place for Us”)

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. They haven't learned passion for life. And from Paris, this meek voice came back at me and said, bless you, child.

(Soundbite of song, “Somewhere, There's a Place for Us”)

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.

And we wonder why they don't have a kind of spiritual connection, one person to the other. They've 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.

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: 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. And she said well, come over and sing it for me. It was very simple. I would go over to Mrs. Hubert on her port and I'd sing “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” or whatever it was, my great number. 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 foreign language)

CHIDEYA: Today, Jessye Norman is almost as famous for recording 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, middle notes and high notes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So I used 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) (Unintelligible)

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 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) (Unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: That's the last NEWS & NOTES for 2006 and all of us here wish you a happy 2007.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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