The following is a guest post from Cienna Benn, a 2021 graduate of Howard University and now a graduate student in the University of California, Irvine’s School of Humanities, pursuing a doctoral degree in Visual Studies with an emphasis on Culture and Theory. During the spring semester of 2020, Benn participated in Howard University’s Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship program (AHHA), working in the Music Division of the Library of Congress on the papers of the distinguished African American opera and concert soprano Jessye Norman.
Jessye Norman was born on September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. One of five children, she was from a musically inclined family, as both her mother and grandmother were pianists and her father was a singer in their local church choir. From an early age Norman proved herself to be a gifted singer, performing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at age four and competing in her first vocal competition at age seven. Inspired by the recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, she chose to pursue the world of opera and earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 16 to major in music and study voice with Carolyn Grant. After graduating in 1967, she studied further at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and, finally, at the University of Michigan where she earned her master’s degree in music in 1968.
After winning the Bavarian Radio Corp. International Music Competition in 1968, Norman made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1969 in Berlin. The range of her dramatic soprano with its rich lower and middle registers afforded her early successes including appearances as Aïda in Berlin and in the role of Cassandre in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1972 at La Scala in Milan. In 1983 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, performing the roles of both Cassandre and Didon in Les Troyens for the company’s 100th anniversary season. She became one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic sopranos in the world, starring in nationally broadcasted performances, and producing numerous award-winning recordings, and singing at two presidential inaugurations.
Norman earned 34 notable honors and awards and more than 40 honorary doctorates; she established the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Georgia; and she curated a festival celebrating African American cultural legacy. In 2014, she published her memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, chronicling her life from a young child to a celebrated opera singer. Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019, just months after donating thousands of items documenting her 50-year career to the Library of Congress Music Division.
Reflecting on her Special Collection:
Before even approaching an inventory of the collection, I spent a week’s time researching this regal soprano who was the impeccable Jessye Norman. Coming into my internship, I knew only that Ms. Norman was a Howard alumna from Augusta, Georgia. I was soon told fantastic stories about the magnitude of her voice, the grace of her stature, and the power of her stage presence by my Library of Congress mentor, Raymond White. I also read several chapters from her memoir, Stand up Straight and Sing!, learning more about how she inherited a love for music and history from her family and about the international journeys her performances afforded her. It’s no wonder, of course, that all it took was a single clip of her performance from the final scene of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung for me to appreciate for myself who this woman was in all of her operatic majesty. I couldn’t have imagined all that she must have accomplished to become the towering figure I was watching, absolutely transfixed by her craft. I also couldn’t imagine all that I was about to uncover in this collection as a testament to these extraordinary accomplishments, but I was elated to embark on it.
Sure enough, on the first day of taking inventory of the collection, amid numerous programs, letters, and publicity materials, I uncovered newspaper clippings detailing the Howard University protest in 1968 (the protest responsible for the creation of Howard’s Africana Studies Department that I majored in) with a corresponding letter from the president of the university, thanking her for her consistent support and particular attention to the protest at hand. Discovering these pieces shocked me—primarily because I had expected to be dealing strictly with music materials, libretti, concert programs, business correspondence, etc.; these clippings were an appropriate introduction to the first of many socio-political materials I found in Ms. Norman’s collection. Immediately following the clippings were a letter from Toni Morrison, music by Duke Ellington, and correspondence from the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Georgia, each alluding to her commitment to representing and remaining connected to the African American community in particular.
The most memorable materials I saw to this effect were related to her benefit project, “Jessye Norman Sings for the Healing of AIDS” (1996-1997). This project was completed in partnership with The Balm in Gilead, Inc., a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose mission is to prevent disease and improve the health status of people throughout the African Diaspora by supporting faith institutions in areas of program design, implementation, and evaluation in order to programmatically eliminate health disparities. As the traditional bedrocks for social and political struggles in the Black community, churches across the nation were assembled for the benefit to extend their tradition of action to the rising disproportionate diagnoses of HIV and AIDS among the Black community, providing them with AIDS education and outreach programs. During the 1980s, many churches and religious leaders had turned their backs on the public fight against AIDS. Yet, through this partnership, Jessye Norman was able to curate some of her closest friends and colleagues (including Elton John, Maya Angelou, and Whoopi Goldberg) to raise money and awareness for the cause on behalf of churches across America. As I flipped through a scrapbook the size of two telephone directories compiled by The Balm in Gilead and containing publicity materials and media from Black churches supporting the project, I was sincerely astonished by Ms. Norman’s ability to use her stature and agency to such an incredible extent. The television airing of Ms. Norman’s performance at the benefit gala became an Emmy-award winning PBS broadcast special, contributing a remarkable amount of visibility to the fight against HIV and AIDS in the Black community. Finding these records solidified Jessye Norman to me as not only an artist involved in her community, but an activist within it.
In all, and as an Africana Studies major, I hadn’t expected to see so much of my discipline reflected in a music collection. But Africana Studies itself is an interdisciplinary field, bearing much resemblance to the Music Division where Jessye Norman’s collection is housed. Her collection contained a vast range of materials: passports, correspondence, scrapbooks, itineraries, posters, costume designs and fabric swatches, music manuscripts, photographs, and even obituaries. The Music Division’s ability to preserve all of these varying archival materials to tell a particular story about the history of music and performing arts is an interdisciplinary strength intrinsic to this department. In Africana Studies we practice using the same integrative lens to examine the historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic modalities of African American life as storytellers and activists of our own communities. Being able to learn how archival materials are preserved, described, and made available through finding aids for this purpose has been extremely enlightening.
In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of The New York Times described Jessye Norman’s voice as a “grand mansion of sound” with “enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward.” Jessye Norman’s sumptuous voice undoubtedly illuminated the opera world and reached even far beyond. Her voice for poised activism and identity make her historical narrative an incredibly dynamic one to reflect on in both the past and present alike. Moreover, the multifaceted dimensions of her story reflect the very aptitudes of the Music Division in their ability to preserve it, and being able to be a part of that process has inspired a versatility of my own voice.