Jessye Norman – Stand Up Straight and Sing!
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2014
When soprano Jessye Norman published her autobiography Stand Up Straight and Sing! in 2014, she chose a literary form to address her audience, but her voice is as unmistakable as when she is on stage.
Born in Augusta, Georgia, Jessye Norman did not consider an operatic career in her early years and grew up in a close-knit family which she cherished. In her parents’ house, she began her music studies as a pianist. She remembers her teachers affectionately and describes the people she admires with respect, as in the case of leading singers like Marian Anderson. To Anderson, Norman dedicates an interlude right in the middle of the book, to celebrate the African-American singer who was her predecessor and source of inspiration.
Norman recalls only the most significant events of her career, such as the performance in honor of Rosa Parks at the Capitol Rotunda and the one for the bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris. At first, this choice could give an idea of incompleteness, but I am pleased with it. It avoids writing a redundant list of performances and keeps Stand Up Straight and Sing! fresh and eloquent to the end. Moreover, when Norman describes major events, she is grateful for the privilege to perform in front of famous people and never emphases her own achievement, revealing emotion and not self-admiration.
Norman is a woman of many interests and she frequently includes in her story matters unrelated to music. As an African-American female singer, racism issues and women’s rights are two of Norman’s main concerns. She grew up when both African-Americans and women were struggling for recognition and remembers well the injustices she had suffered in person. The pages where she discusses these issues are some of the most intense of the book, especially when she recalls being discriminated when she was already worldwide famous and when she writes about the strong women of her family. The description of her aunts is simply delightful.
Because of these many topics, Stand Up Straight and Sing! is a wide-ranging work which will please every book lover and not just music aficionados. Norman’s pleasure in pouring out her opinions and sharing them with everyone is clear, and she appears as a strong woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. She is also a fine storyteller with a plain and direct style. In the end, her honesty and clarity of mind are admirable as much as her soprano voice and her memoirs are as enjoyable as one of her innumerable recordings.