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Jessye Norman honoured with starry Met Opera memorial

American soprano Renée Fleming (foreground, third from left) with violinist David Chan (left) and pianist Gerald Martin Moore at the memorial for Jessye Norman at The Metropolitan Opera in New York last Sunday.

New York

THE unmistakably radiant voice of soprano Jessye Norman, who died in September at 74, filled the Metropolitan Opera House once more last Sunday afternoon as friends, relatives, colleagues and fans gathered for a starry memorial celebrating her life.

There were video clips of Norman performing some of the roles she conquered the Met stage in the 1980s and 1990s. There were performances by Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as by singers including Latonia Moore, Lise Davidsen and Renée Fleming, who all sang works associated with Norman, and bass-baritone Eric Owens who sang a farewell - Wotan's from Die Walküre.

Friends, relatives and colleagues offered reminiscences. Her younger sister, Elaine Norman Sturkey, shared memories of growing up in Augusta, Georgia, and how the family would follow her success in her Sunday evening phone calls. She recalled accompanying her sister around the world once she became a diva, and the logistics of dealing with what she jokingly called "the Jessye Norman suitcases": an array of Louis Vuitton bags that she remembered as heavy even when empty, but far heavier when filled to capacity with Norman's humidifier, teapot and other tools of the trade.

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An expression of her soul

But Sturkey grew serious when talking about her sister's artistry. "I was always in awe of the way she used her gift," she said. "For Jessye, music was an expression of her soul."

Several speakers recalled her pathbreaking role as an African American soprano. "Throughout her life, Jessye fought for justice," said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. "She fought for justice onstage, even with her very presence, breaking barriers with her blackness, and defying exclusion with her excellence." With the memorial - featuring both Strauss songs and spirituals - Norman joined a select group to be honoured in death at the Met. Composer Giacomo Puccini and singers Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills all had memorials or special concerts held in their memories; some artists have even had their funerals held there, including conductors Leopold Damrosch and Anton Seidl in the 19th century, and tenor Richard Tucker in 1975.

Jack Lang, the former French minister of culture, spoke of choosing Norman to sing La Marseillaise in 1989 at Place de la Concorde in Paris before world leaders and millions of television viewers for the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day.

There had been pushback from some French politicians. ("She's not French," he recalled them objecting). But, Lang said, he had wanted someone to sing the Marseillaise not as a national anthem, but as a universal anthem to freedom.

"Who other than Jessye could have sung this?" he said.

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, recalled when Norman sang the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in the late 1980s with Herbert von Karajan, who was then "the most powerful conductor in the world".

"In Salzburg, where opera stars are more important than movie stars, images of Jessye's face were everywhere in advance of her arrival," Gelb recalled. "The city's fleet of taxicabs had portraits of Jessye plastered on their sides, and posters of Jessye appeared in the front windows of just about every Salzburg store, from sausage stalls to lingerie shops."

"All of this was making the imperious but aging Karajan, who ruled over the city from his perch at the Festspielhaus, a little insecure," Gelb said.

Serene and unflustered

So, at their first rehearsal together, Maestro Karajan ordered her to sit on the stage but not sing - something Gelb described as "an unprecedented move that surely would have intimidated a lesser artist than Jessye Norman." Instead, he said, she was "serene and unflustered", and when it was time for the performance, she enjoyed a triumph.

Actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith, a friend who often travelled to hear Norman sing, remembered an outdoor concert in Menton, France. The organisers arranged to have traffic stopped before the concert "to clear the air as much as possible" so auto fumes would not inhibit her singing. But there was little that they could do about a train that was scheduled to pass near the stage during the concert.

"I do remember that when the train came through Menton, and Jessye was hitting a high note, I heard Jessye," Ms Smith remembered. "She sang through it." She said that Norman had often spoken of "singing through things", and of honouring the music that came from slave ships, where people sang through their experience.

"Until this morning, this very morning, I thought that Jessye's voice simply overrode the train," she said. "I don't think that any more. Now I understand that Jessye Norman had the ear, the timing, the love of song, the wish to share and the will to sing through, and, with the roaring train. In the same way, she integrated several musical histories to grace the world with the power of her voice." NYTIMES