Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jessye Norman: A Portrait


For fans of Jessye Norman this is a must have. While it's a "documentary" - it's not quite the in-depth, probing, revelation or examination of the singer I was hoping for, but rather a series of conversations on topics ranging from childhood, spiritual beliefs, politics, dedication to her art, early career dealing with loneliness, and the like. Little of it plumbs the depth of the woman or of her art, (how could 90 minutes do that?) but once I settled in, I found myself smiling, happy to have this force of nature sitting in my living room and talking casually about a thousand things.


Jessye speaks mostly in English - but since this was a German production, she moves back and forth between German and English - sometimes in the middle of a sentence, or thought. The film is broken up by a dozen music videos with Norman lip-synching to some of her more remarkable recordings. While I know some shall be put off by this sort of thing, I adored it. Each video is performed as part of an art installation, the singer gowned and jeweled, in headdresses, turbans, wild wigs and haute couture, moving, expressing herself physically to her own recordings. Some will dismiss this as artifice, but - and I mean this as a compliment - few in history (and no one I can think of) does artifice come so naturally to as it does Jessye Norman. She makes me believe every breath, every moment - she creates a world that seems, somehow, better than it is - or maybe, just maybe, it really is as great as she makes it, if even for only the brief moments that she's in it with me, making me forget the rest.


There are touching, moving reminisces of her childhood. One in particular, where as a child, her mother worked for the Democratic party registering voters, and young Jessye assisted her. At certain times, Mrs. Norman would ask her daughter to leave the table they were working at. It wasn't until after college Jessye asked her mother why. It was because certain members of their congregation and community could neither read nor write and had to sign only with an "x" and her mother didn't want her daugther to see or know that about these friends. It was one of those "lump in my throat" moments.


Norman talks about wanting to understand why racisim exists; why governments are more interested in the sexuality of its citizens, than more important matters, why can't we live and let live? "I want to know. It could be that only God can answer such a question." "A society is responsible for helping people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - but's let's make sure that they are wearing boots!" The music, coming as it does from some of her legendary recordings - is breathtaking - sometimes literally!


A video of "Erlkoenig" opens the "recital" portions and it is stunning mini film in and of itself. I can probably list a dozen favorite recordings of this song: Jessye's is at the top of that list. I can think of few better ways to relax and escape "the real world" for 90 minutes than to bask in the glow of Jessye Norman.


Brava, Jessye!


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