American opera star and recitalist Jessye Norman is one of the most celebrated and highly respected singers in the world. In her upcoming memoir Stand and Straight and Sing!, she shares what it was like to grow up in the segregated South and how she made her way to stages across the globe.
Norman’s conversational tone is intimate and remarkably kind, even when she shares a story that could portray a colleague in an unflattering light. She also has a rebellious, “don’t tell me I can’t do that” kind of spirit, combined with a hint of diva, a hint of tomboy, and a very strong sense of security and comfort in who she is. To be honest, I found her to be just delightful! I wanted to know all about the stories she had to tell.
Something that really stood out to me is how Norman recalls her family and community with such great fondness and gratitude. That is always refreshing in a memoir. I came away loving her mom especially, and thinking about what an amazing woman she must have been.
That being said, it’s hard for me to gauge how non-musicians will feel about the book. There are some amazing passages about her childhood and the impact of major events in history (especially the fall of the Berlin Wall). Naturally, there are also long stretches that focus on her profession. Here’s where I’m torn: there are times when she explains musical terms or traditions so a layperson could understand, yet there are times when she doesn’t. I’m a professional and still had to look up a term or two that is specific to the vocal world. If you’re a classical music or opera enthusiast or professional, this will be a sure winner. Otherwise, there might be a large portion of the book you aren’t all that interested in.
As for me, I loved Stand and Straight and Sing!. I never grew tired of Norman’s stories, and I feel I came out of the book with a deeper appreciation for what singers do, as well as some new insights I can apply in own work.