She was a diva so grand she needed to Rolls Royce just to get across the street. Martin Kettle kicks off stars’ tributes to the great American soprano
Jessye Norman’s voice was a force of nature, a gift from the gods. When you went to hear her sing, you always knew exactly what you would get. Sumptuous, creamy and voluptuous tone was Norman’s trademark, along with a meticulous attention to text and expression. For some, it was all too grand and undifferentiated, like a meal in which the richness of the food was overwhelming and unchanging in every course. But the sheer vocal splendour that Norman produced was the sort of sound that comes only once in a lifetime.
Yet Norman was not just an unforgettable voice. She was an unforgettable public presence – an African American presence – in every event in which she participated. The knowingness that marked her vocal art extended seamlessly to her public conduct. Her choices on Desert Island Discs did not include her own recordings (which, given her personality, they might easily have done) but Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. She was a majestic figure in every sense, and she knew from the start of her career to the end that she was also an embodiment of her black brothers and sisters. She would never be anybody’s second-class citizen. And she never was.