Jessye Norman & Susan PlattsPartnership

Published in 2005icon-clockTime to read: 4m40s
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For both Jessye Norman and her Rolex protégée Susan Platts, singing is an exploration of the words: what they meant to the composer setting them to music, what the fusion of literature and music has manifested and whether the opera stage is the ideal place to sing them. Jessye Norman’s interpretative compass is based almost entirely on projecting the meaning of the words. Toronto-based mezzo-soprano Platts arrived at their working relationship with an inborn ability to communicate with the audience like a storyteller. As soon as they were introduced, the two singers were able to get straight down to business.

by David Patrick Stearns 2005
  • Jessye Norman
    The Mentor
  • Susan Platts
    The Protégé

A close relationship

Like many people who are often recognized in public, Jessye Norman is a deeply private individual, though easy access between the two was immediately established through email and telephone on an as-needed basis. To prepare for a performance of Chausson’s Poème de l’Amour et la de Mer in Kuala Lumpur, Platts found herself speaking the French text over the phone to her mentor (who has sung and recorded the work) to monitor enunciation and to discuss interpretation.

Masterclass

Face-to-face meetings often started around four in the afternoon at the mentor’s home with Platts warming up her voice and Jessye Norman making tea before working on vocal technique, specifically how Platts could produce a more cutting sound with less effort. “Working with Jessye, I think we achieved a little bit of sharpening of my blunt little sword,” says Platts. “She’s been teaching me better control, utilizing my breath in a better way.”

The Jessye Norman regimen also included Bach: “In order to negotiate those roulades, the voice needs to be supported, and that’s how you sing everything. It’s a good way to keep the voice oiled,” she says. Historic research is another thing she insists upon. While working on Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette with Platts, she delved deep into the mindset of a teenage girl discovering emotions of huge profundity. “She’s such an intense worker that by day three, I’m exhausted.” says Platts, “I’m not used to anything like that!”

Strong impression

The protégée made an equally strong impression on her mentor. “Susan isn’t fixated on doing things in one particular way,” says Jessye Norman. “I can say: ‘That sound needs more space in the back of her throat,’ and she does it right away, which is wonderful. She really is like a sponge, and it’s very enjoyable working with her.”

Conversations bordered on the mystical: both singers talk about finding an elusive but higher zone of communion between the music, their musical collaborators and the audience. “You can sing all night long and it’s not tiring,” says Jessye Norman.

Quality of Voice

Limits in the relationship were only the most prosaic ones. Platts, for example, knew she would not end the year with Norman’s voice: “She knows how the vocal mechanism works, but she can’t give me her voice quality.”

“Susan has a wonderful voice! She doesn’t need mine!” exclaims her mentor. What she does need, in Jessye Norman’s view, is opera. “I think there are roles that I might help her find enjoyment in doing. And I intend to do that. I’d like her to have the experience of movement on stage – that infuses what we do as singers.”

Best not to count the days. As much as Platts might be a sponge, she knows her own mind. “I don’t feel drawn to opera,” she admits. “But then, I’m not yet in my prime.”

Extracted from a chapter, written by David Patrick Stearns for Unique Voices, Common Visions, a record of the 2004/2005 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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