Stand Up Straight and Sing!

Stand Up Straight and Sing! is by one of my favourite opera singers, Jessye Norman. I decided to seek out her memoir after I listened to one of her Christmas albums. I own three of them, and always play her music over the holidays. My thanks to the Ajax Public Library for lending it to me. Norman, who died in 2019, published this book in 2014. It was written in an oral style which read like a transcription. The editing made the text seem relaxed, as if Norman was talking to me from across the table. Since I am familiar with Norman’s speaking voice, I often read it to myself with her voice in mind.

Norman did not produce a chronological memoir after the initial chapters about her childhood and early singing education. Instead, she wrote about themes such as racism, living in Germany, and singing as an art form. I was most touched by the chapter entitled Racism as It Lives and Breathes. Norman could very well have been the richest and most famous person to be staying in any particular hotel yet there were times when she was asked to explain her business in being there, especially as she enjoyed the hotel’s luxurious amenities like spas and pools. After being questioned like that, she had plenty to say to hotel management and refused to stay at one particular chain for their biased treatment.

Norman was an avid linguist who tried to learn the languages of the operas she sang. She took language lessons and was fluent in German, as I have seen all-German interviews with her. There were however many language errors in both German and French within the text. She also erred in referring to an English part of speech:

“Miss [Marian] Anderson was famous for speaking of herself and her performances in the third person plural. She would say something like, ‘We sang for the king of Sweden,’ not in reference to herself and her accompanist, Franz Rupp, but herself and her God.”

The third person plural is they; the first person plural is we.

Norman used her memoir to share advice on singing and how to live life in general. Aside from the breathing exercises, singers need proper sleep and to keep themselves warm and hydrated. One can learn a master’s class of helpful advice from this book alone. By using the formal title in her reference to Marian Anderson, one can see how respectfully Norman regarded others. Her memoir was full of such titles, when other authors might have used only surnames.

As a spiritual person Norman always had a loftier perspective and did not obsess with what often irked others (blatant racism notwithstanding). Her mental attitude benefited from this water-off-a-duck’s-back philosophy as life with less stress is better for a singer, as for all of us. She addressed some of her “diva” moments that had made the press and I am sure the truth lies somewhere in between the prima donna of the press and the saintly spiritual Zen master she is painting herself as.

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