Opera libel case is over before the fat lady even opened her mouth

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The Independent Online
THIS TIME it was all over before the fat lady had a chance to open her mouth. The opera singer Jessye Norman lost her attempt yesterday to sue for libel over a joke about her size that she claimed was vulgar and undignified.

Classic CD magazine had related a story of how Miss Norman became trapped in swing doors on her way to a concert and was advised to turn sideways to release herself. In ringing tones the diva declared: "Honey, I ain't got no sideways."

Miss Norman had complained that the words, which she said she never made, held her up to ridicule, mockery and contempt because they conformed to a "degrading, racist stereotype of a person of African-American heritage".

Unfortunately for Miss Norman, the judge did not quite see it that way.

He suggested, in fact, that the world-famous diva may have been taking herself a little too seriously.

In his ruling at the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Gibson said: "I could have wished that Miss Norman had told the hoary old joke contained in the anecdote, the subject of this libel action, as it would have shown that, in addition to possessing the remarkable vocal and dramatic talents which have made her world-famous as a distinguished opera singer, she had an engaging sense of humour," he said.

Miss Norman, 53, had already tried unsuccessfully to sue the magazine in the US over the article, which was published in 1994.

Her claim in this country was struck out under High Court rules that the words complained of do not bear the meaning attributed to them.

Lord Justice Hirst quoted a passage from the three-page article which he said was, on the whole, "extremely complimentary" to the soprano.

"While her Salome is released this month on Philips, it is still hard to envisage the grand statuesque 49-year-old as the libidinous adolescent on stage stripping off the seven veils. This is the woman who got trapped in swing doors on her way to a concert, and when advised to release herself by turning sideways, replied: `Honey, I ain't got no sideways'."

But, he said, the article also described her as "the singer who is as strong and single-minded as Salome herself".

But Miss Norman claimed that Future Publishing, which produces the monthly magazine, had been guilty of "patronising mockery of the modes of speech stereotypically attributed to certain groups or classes of black Americans". She complained that it had caused serious injury to her personal and profession reputation and her own feelings. Mark Warby, for the magazine, said Miss Norman's interpretation of the words was far-fetched and fanciful. Lord Justice Hirst concluded that if the words were considered in context they could not be interpreted in the sense that Miss Norman claimed "which is in any event so anodyne a meaning as to be barely defamatory".

Lord Justice Gibson said the words were simply poking gentle fun at the singer's then size. "I hasten to add that in the very next sentence it is said, `She has lost a lot of weight since then'."