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Theatre & Performance Opera legend Jessye Norman on receiving Glenn Gould Prize: ‘Gratitude is an important part of being a performer’

Opera singer Jessye Norman sings during a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washington on Dec. 11, 2013.

Cliff Owen/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Few people satisfy the archetypal qualities of an opera singer quite like Jessye Norman. Her large, expressive face urges you to maintain eye contact as she speaks with an accent that seems to be entirely her own – vaguely British, with hints of high German and Southern debutante. She is not so much dressed as draped in fabric and bold jewellery, her hair hidden under its signature silk wrap. And she takes up space. She always has, be it with her grand physical size and formidable voice, or with her famously unhurried recordings of Richard Strauss.

This month, Norman is in Toronto to accept the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize, Canada’s biennial international award bestowed by the Glenn Gould Foundation to celebrate extraordinary artistic and humanitarian contributions to the arts. She is the 12th winner, her fellow laureates including Oscar Peterson, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Cohen and Philip Glass.

Norman may stir up stereotypes, but she is an original. For five decades, the 73-year-old soprano has lent her voice to the opera stage, concert repertoire and an enormous, Grammy Award-winning discography of audio and film recordings. She’s sung for presidential inaugurations, royal birthdays, racked up over 30 honorary doctorates and started her own tuition-free school for the arts in her hometown of Augusta, Ga.

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She’s in Toronto for just more than a week – she’s appeared at the TIFF Bell Lightbox to speak about her life and work, and given master classes with voice students at the University of Toronto – and receives the prize formally on Feb. 20 at the Four Seasons Centre, during a gala concert presented by the Glenn Gould Foundation and the Canadian Opera Company.

I got what I anticipated from a conversation with Norman: a proper regaling. She told me about how it felt to sing at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, saving her own emotional outpouring for after the job was done. She recounted how her singing allowed a world leader to grieve the loss of his wife (“He’s running a country, he doesn’t have time to sit and weep, he thought”) and spoke of when she sang with an Israeli cellist as he played Strauss’s music for the first time, “with his eyes closed and a bit of a tear, just enjoying the sound that orchestra was making.”

She told me of her early professional life in Berlin on both sides of the wall, and of her history-charged return to the city just two weeks after the Wall came down, to record opera’s ultimate piece of politics, Beethoven’s Fidelio. “It was so overwhelming to hear this choir sing ‘Freiheit!’ [Freedom!] that it practically blew me off the stage.” Did she realize that was a historical moment of music-making? “Yes. I understood that very well.”

And I anticipated that Norman would have much to say about being an African-American opera singer who began her career as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1969, “singing in the largest German opera house, singing a German girl in a German opera.”

It’s almost more extraordinary that she didn’t. “There isn’t anything that I wanted to sing that I haven’t sung, or that I don’t sing now,” says Norman. If there were people throughout her career who took issue with an African-American singing roles like Sieglinde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Ariadne in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, she never heard about it. “It could well be that these things were said to my agents, but they weren’t said directly to me.”

Almost like a planet, a force around which orbit the moments and people of 20th-century history, Norman is an artist who makes me ponder what it is that turns a career into a legacy. There is a pattern to her professional arc, and it became clear only after our conversation, which settled into my head on the snowy ride home.

It’s not applause that drives Norman, but the flashes of inspiration that come to her in the middle of the night, when she’s suddenly solved a puzzle from the previous day’s practice. “If you don’t enjoy moments of that kind, then I think it’s better to do some other job,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just too hard.”

Like a grand version of the metaphor about reading between the lines, Norman’s legacy is about the attention she gives to the space between her performances, numerous as they have been. It’s easy for singers to get hooked on the rush of a performance, but the truth of the career is in the preparation. “You’ve got to enjoy getting ready to do it,” she says, “because you will spend much more time in preparation than you’re going to spend on stage.”

The Glenn Gould Prize is prestigious, and still somehow outweighed by Norman’s existing legacy. Perhaps somewhere, midway through her impressive count of awards and recognitions, the scales tipped; accolades were no longer given to Norman, but accepted by Norman. This prize, named for one of Canada’s artistic gems, is representative of our country’s extending of its arm toward a great artist, including itself among her distinguished accolades. Norman’s acceptance on Wednesday will be her gracious response to the question: Won’t you please have our award?

And she is delighted to have our award. “Gratitude is an important part of being a performer,” she says.

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