A celebrated performer rehearses her remarkable life, which began in Augusta, Ga., during Jim Crow and has taken her to the greatest concert and opera venues in the world.
Norman has few axes to grind in this genial mix of memory and sermon. Although she blasts a couple of hotel chains for treating her with disrespect and zings Morley Safer for some patronizing words on a 60 Minutes interview, she has nothing much ill to say of family, teachers, colleagues and conductors—except by omission. Her parents participated in the civil rights movement, as did young Jessye, who did lunch-counter sit-ins and got to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. Norman had initially planned to go to medical school, but Howard University heard about her—and heard her—so off she went into the world of music. She credits her church and family for her values, thanks teachers for their help, has great praise for Marian Anderson and provides a more-or-less chronological journey through her career. The author is often chary with dates (which seems odd, given the availability of information online), and the later chapters are generally thematic—the art of singing, honors and significant moments, growing older, etc. She writes that she favors no composer over another (whatever moves and/or challenges her she will sing), but she singles out some conductors she’s greatly enjoyed—among them James Levine and Herbert von Karajan. She also explains why she loves Wagner and Strauss, despite their unpleasant politics, and she frequently discusses the necessity to prepare and work hard. She writes that she does not really get nervous before performances, has abandoned her former custom of tea-and-honey before singing and, generally, adores her life.
Has the feel of an enjoyable though somewhat digressive dinner conversation with a good friend—a famous one.