A GIFT TO THE ARTS:  World-renowned soprano Jessye Norman dropped by the Library of Congress for a live conversation with Library of Congress Librarian Carla Hayden in Coolidge Auditorium.

by Patrick D. McCoy

The stately Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress was the perfect setting for the opulence and grandeur that is Jessye Norman.  A voice heard around the world, the legendary opera singer sat down with Library of Congress Librarian Carla Hayden for a live conversation before an enthusiastic audience.  There was a bustling of excitement as attendees awaited with great anticipation for Miss Norman to take the stage.  Just before the conversation began, a video of famous bass Thomas Quasthoff played with Quasthoff coaching a young singer, extolling Norman and encouraging the singer with whom he was working to think of her glorious voice as she sang. The video then wrapped with excerpts of Norman  singing and highlights of previous conversations.  Then the moment for which all were assembled occurred:  the screen lifted to reveal the regal soprano seated, ready to engage in conversation.

During the one-hour long conversation with Miss Norman, Carla Hayden presented Norman with wonderful talking points that inspired the singer to expound upon her extraordinary career.  In asking about her early beginnings in opera, Norman reflected on her early career in Munich, Germany and the many opportunities that she experienced early on in her career.  She also gave gentle nods to the influences in her life, including soprano Birgit Nilsson, who she stood from a distance behind the stage scrim as she sang.

Family and community was a considerable part of Miss Norman’s conversation.  As Hayden moderated the talk, she made reference to Norman’s memoir “Stand Up Straight and Sing.”  In essence, she asked what inspired the title. Norman shared that her mother inspired the title, but she actually would say:  “Stand up straight and sing out!”  This also segued into Norman crediting the strong Black woman in her life that formed her.  A significant full circle moment that in many ways capped the event was when the soprano shared that she had to take two buses to the Library of Congress when she was a student at Howard University.  It was announced earlier on in the program that she donated her papers to the institution.  Howard University students will also have the opportunity to maintain the collection.  “We can help out with transportation”  Hayden gleefully responded, much to the audience’s delight.  Norman also recalled one of her important Howard professors, Doris McGinty and Julieanna Richardson, the founder of the respected repository of unsung heroes “The History Makers” and also credited to introducing Norman to the Library of Congress.

One hour was just not enough to bask in the rich experiences of this great singer.  Norman also shared a few interestingly light moments during her career.  When she spoke about the power of spirituals, she shared the impact, resonance and history of these important songs.  Often, after she has sung a program of recital repertoire, it is still requested that a spiritual be rendered.  On one occasion, after the singing of the famous “Libestod” of Richard Wagner, an audience member asked if she could sing a spiritual, Norman responded “Isolde just died.”   And then there was the heartwarming story of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts that provides exceptional arts education to students in the community.  Beginning in a Sunday School room in Saint John’s Church in Augusta, the school now resides in its own building and is an important mainstay in the city.

At conclusion of the conversation, the opera legend was greeted with rapturous applause.  The Library of Congress is certainly to be commended for allowing the community to bask in the excellence that has marked Miss Norman’s career.


A native of Petersburg, VA, Patrick holds a BM in Vocal Performance from Virginia State University and a MM in Church Music from Shenandoah Conservatory.  Formerly the Performing Arts Columnist for Washington Life Magazine, he currently is a freelance writer, publishing articles for several noted publications, including The Washington Post, Early Music America Classical Music Voice North America, The Afro-American Newspaper, CBS Washington and Examiner.com.  He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc., a member of the Shenandoah University Alumni Board of Directors and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  He serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Zion Parish in Beltsville, MD. Visit http://patrickdmccoy.com