Late last night I learnt that one of my all time singing heroines, Jessye Norman had died. In my opinion she had one of the most impressive classical voices of the 20th Century. And I was honoured to not only hear her sing twice live, but also to look after her as a student backstage at Symphony Hall Birmingham.
Jessye Norman had an incredible voice: it was pure, powerful and with a tone that truly filled your heart. She was musical in her interpretation of her repertoire and seemingly had endless stamina in singing the heavier repertoire. She was a strong physical presence and stunning.
I was honoured to have looked after her when she came to perform at Symphony Hall Birmingham in 1995. As a student at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, I had managed to get a job looking after the artistes backstage at Symphony Hall. It had only been open for a couple of years, but was world renowned for its extraordinary acoustics which could be changed inside the hall with large doors and a moveable ceiling. EVERY international artiste – musician, singer or conductor in the classical world wanted to sample this, and I regularly had to accompany these stars – and sometimes their entourage to the stage, their hotel, keep them calm before going on stage, or just having a friendly chat over a cup of tea!
But in the case of Jessye Norman, I knew she was coming to sing in the hall over a month before her arrival. My boss checked I was going to be on the rota: he was keen I looked after her rather than one of my colleagues. BUT, I had to sign an 18 page contract agreeing to her terms. This included not looking her in the eyes before the performance; not speaking to her before the performance; specific food; filtered water at room temperature; no air conditioning in her dressing room. Of course my boss and colleagues thought this was outrageous, but I was so excited, of course I signed.
On the day of the concert she arrived in style. Norman was a tall, imposing woman. She quietly went to her dressing room; I had to take her down to the stage and knew I couldn’t speak to her, so conducted a semaphore type communication. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room in the lift for both of us, so I had to sprint to the floor below to meet the lift before taking her to the side of the stage. During that time Norman remained serene and oblivious to my bizarre but legally binding behaviour.
Jessye Norman sang with a full orchestra for 2 x 45 minutes, then added encores. This is a remarkable physical and mental feat. For anyone who is not an Opera fan, this is like running two marathons straight after each other. It takes tremendous stamina and strength to project the voice over a big orchestra without a microphone. But what made it even more remarkable was that Norman immediately sat outside the concert hall with a table and pen, and for 3 hours met all of her adoring fans. She signed programmes and CDs even though she was exhausted, until every fan had spoken to her. Can you imagine a sportsman doing this?
And this alone made me reconsider her original 18 page contract with demands. This was a world class artiste where the audience had huge expectations. She couldn’t hide behind pre-recorded backing tracks, click tracks or backing dancers and lighting shows; she was herself – a voice over a big orchestra, and she had to deliver time after time at an outstanding level, to fulfil the expectation of her audience.
She travelled all over the world to perform; Symphony Hall is a world class concert venue, but it is very likely that some of the venues weren’t used to hosting such a world star so she had to insist on specific things being there and certain behaviour backstage so she was totally focused on her performance AND her audience.
Often we here of artistes who demands everything from chilled champagne to kittens and an expensive brand of scented candles. Perhaps they are throwing their weight around, but in the case of Norman, she was creating a ‘safe psychological environment’ around her, to ensure she could perform to the best of her ability.
So my question to you is, how do you create a safe environment to ensure you perform to the best of your ability when you speak, present or even contribute in meetings? It is okay to ask for a car park space, or a technical rehearsal before speaking, or even access to the room early. It is not unreasonable to ask for someone to meet you from your flight if you are working overseas, or a room without air-conditioning because you get a dry throat. Think about what you need in order to perform to the best of your ability, then you will be able to create that safe environment and you too, will perform as a star.
RIP Jessye Norman
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