Profile: Jessye Norman: Diva who chose the wrong stage

It may have seemed crazy to pursue her libel action for so long. But there was a reason, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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BUT SHE does have a sense of humour, friends say. Some years ago, Jessye Norman was singing in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera with Kathleen Battle, another brilliant African American singer, famous for her imperious and even self-important ways.

A day after the first night, the two of them were sitting with colleagues in the greenroom reading the notices, one of which praised Miss Battle as one of the finest young black singers in the country. She flung down the paper with an angry, "Why can't they just say 'singer'? Why do do they have to say I'm 'black'?" and flounced out. At which Miss Norman said: "Well, somebody had to tell her."

Unfortunately, if not unusually, Jessye Norman's sense of humour has its limits. Last week one of the quaintest court cases since the Seven Red-Bearded Dwarves came to an end in the Court of Appeal. Miss Norman had sued Classic CD for libel. The magazine had told a story about her trapped in a swing door. Advised to go sideways, she allegedly replied: "Honey, I ain't got no sideways."

She not only sued, she sued again and again. She sued in New York, where her case was thrown out. She sued in London, claiming that the words complained of were "vulgar and undignified" and that they sounded like "patronising mockery of speech attributed to certain black Americans". Her case was struck out in the High Court, but she asked for leave to appeal.

Last Thursday she finally came to the end of the legal road when Mr Justice Cocklecarrot - or Lord Justice Gibson - said she that had no case. "I do not believe for one moment that the ordinary reasonable reader of the article would think the six words complained of were capable, in their natural and ordinary meaning, of bearing any of the meaning now sought to be pleaded." In other words, she not only lost her case but was made to look petty and pompous; which is a pity, since she is neither. It would be sad if Jessye Norman were remembered in this country for a ludicrous court case.

She is one of the finest lyric artists of her generation, with a gloriously rich soprano-cum-mezzo voice, a sublime interpreter of most of the operatic and art-song repertory from Purcell on, but especially of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. Besides that, she has long had the reputation of being (for an opera singer) an unusually likeable and intelligent woman, and a kindly one, too: she spends much of her time campaigning for children's charities

Now 53, she was born in Augusta, Georgia. And she was born into a class who are sensitive and proud, with a good deal to be proud and sensitive about. When she was a girl the street she lived on was not even paved. Now all four of her siblings, who are devoted to her career, have professional careers of their own. She was educated at Howard University in Washington, most famous of black colleges, Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Michigan, where she studied with Pierre Bernac and Elizabeth Mannion. Her talent was blazingly clear from the beginning, but where to display it? For most of this century, gifted black Americans have come to Europe to find personal and artistic freedom - popular singers such as Josephine Baker, any number of jazz musicians in Paris, and even classical musicians - with good reason.

The first great black American opera singer was Marian Anderson. Born almost a century ago, she sang across Europe, winning from Toscanini the extraordinary accolade that "a voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years". In her native country, she sang sometimes in concert performance, but she did not sing at the Met. Not, that is, until 1955, when her mighty contralto voice was past its best. Then Rudolf Bing at last felt able to ask a black singer on to his hallowed stage - at a time when not only could blacks not ride in the same buses or use the same cafeterias as whites in the South, but when inter-racial marriages and "miscegenation" were still illegal in a majority of the states of the Union.

By the late 1960s, the last legal barriers had been removed. Jessye Norman still made her early career in Europe, winning the Munich International Competition in 1968, and making her operatic debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin the following year with Elisabeth in Tannhauser, which was to be one of her mainstays for many years.

By 1972, she was singing Aida at La Scala and Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens at Covent Garden. And yet, astonishingly enough, after that precocious start, she did not sing on the stage in America until 1982, when she sang Purcell's Dido in Philadelphia, and not at the Met until she sang Cassandra there in 1983.

For years past she has been one of the great divas of her age, paid enormous fees, and praised for a "voice as near perfection as one could hope for", a voice, it may be said, as monumental as her magnificent form. She is sometimes said to overdo it on stage, "high-camp singing with a lot of portamento", but her audience rarely goes home feeling short- changed.

As to her libel action, Lord Justice Gibson may have been right to dismiss it. But is her sensitivity so exaggerated, or so surprising? The great battle fought by all oppressed peoples is not only for human rights and equality before the law, but for dignity and equality of respect. In the case of black America, that battle has not been entirely won to this day. While finding Miss Norman's suit humourless, the judge acknowledged that she can take a joke against herself, or make one.

Admittedly, she has shown a litigious side before. Some years ago, after she left the set of Terry Wogan's chat show, a loud crash was heard, at which Wogan said: "That's Jessye falling over. I wonder who's picked her up." This, in turn, prompted an angry solicitor's letter demanding an apology for the "implication" (which no one else had noticed) that she had been drinking. She is all the same capable of greeting the very large English soprano Rita Hunter, "Hi, skinny!" and has been known to say that no audience can be expected to take her seriously as a heroine dying of consumption: "They have to say I was run over by a car or something."

Now think again about the words complained of. Only an oaf makes "Speaka da Wop" jokes in front of Italians or "Oy vey!" jokes in front of Jews (or indeed at all). And the most relaxed and sophisticated Irishman, hostile to crude nationalism, may bridle when an Englishman puts on an Oirish accent.

In the days when Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote a column in the Observer, Professor Bernard Crick took it over one week in his absence, and asininely began by thanking "Conor" for his borrowed place: "Sure and it suits me." On his return to print, Cruise O'Brien icily remarked that Crick would not address VS Naipaul in pidgin English.

That is the context in which Jessye Norman's over-reaction must be seen. She is a prima donna who does not always behave like one (the unkind will contrast her here with Kathleen Battle, not to say Cecilia Bartoli, who has just picked and won a fight in New York with Jonathan Miller over the arias she sang in Le nozze di Figaro). And yet she has a high sense of dignity, personal and ethnic. As an old friend says, "Honey I ain't ..." is preposterously far from the truth. So far from speaking in "coloured folks' " drawl, "she talks like the Queen nowadays".

She was orotundly rebuked by the judge: "I could have wished Miss Norman had told the hoary old anecdote - the subject of this libel action - as it would have shown that, in addition to the remarkable vocal and dramatic talents which have made her world-famous as an opera singer, she had an engaging sense of humour." But then perhaps she finds black dialect anecdotes as wearisome as Sir Ralph Gibson, PC, Lord Justice of Appeal (Charterhouse, Brasenose College, Oxford, King's Dragoon Guards and the Inner Temple) might find endless jokes about upper-class twits.

The judge was right about the merits of the particular case, but not about "black pride" in the best sense of that phrase. Few people have done as much for that as Jessye Norman. It is just that she does it better in the concert hall or opera house than in the law courts.

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