Jessye Norman is the reason I know opera. Before I heard her sing, it had been something far away and untouchable. But through her, it all made sense. That strange code of sounds was now full of both humanity and super-humanity. Her authority, her certainty was like a message from God. She was saying things so basic to being alive in a way that made aliveness brand new.
Many years later, when a friend introduced us and made possible a collaboration with my dance company, it was both daunting and thrilling. We were making our premiere at the Vail International Dance Festival and I was going to make a new piece with Jessye singing live.
“I dooon’t want to be just standing on the side singing while the dancers are over there,” she said over the telephone with big, sky-sized, open vowels.
Our first conversation was generous and warm and only about the potential for something great. And working together was the same. I had choreographed for weeks what the dancers would do and we pretended where Jessye would be, planning to work with her in the last week in Vail, leading up to the show. I had some small trepidation because she had a reputation of being a “diva” and because this was the first performance of the company, I wanted everything to go smoothly. But the rehearsal process was a dream. So generous and happy. Jessye was generous and kind and collaborative. She gave us the power and grounding of our Earth mother. We all worked like life-long friends.
Opening night, her dressing room was right next to mine and I could hear her warming up. This was the first time I really stopped to think how truly special this was. I was having the chance to sit and listen to Jessye Norman warming up. I sat back in a chair, closed my eyes and drank it all in. I was transported by even the scales and simplicity of preparing.
In the performance, she was tremendous. A dancer really. There was one moment in the choreography where Dawn Fay finished a section by sharing an ecstatic hug with her. It was a perfect moment in that Jessye exuded love so greatly that you could feel it in the back row. She turned into light.
My last memory of her was after we had said our goodbyes. I was leaving the restaurant of the afterparty and someone ran up to me and said there was something in the food she was unhappy with. They told me she was being a diva. And even after just a wonderful, loving week, that seemed right. When things were excellent, she brought more love to build on them. And when things were wrong, she put her foot down and demanded excellence. She lived in the authority that supported her art doing the same.
I aspire to be more like her every day.