By Anita Kirpalani, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With her long red dress and black hair spinning out of her red head scarf, Jessey Norman leaned against the black grand piano that stood out against the wooden floor of Rio’s Theatro Municipal and where Mark Markham was seated, ready to play. After 16 years of absence and two canceled shows, the internationally renowned American classical singer was back in Brazil last week with a new repertoire, and an ecstatic and expectant audience that she has long won over.

Jessey Norman
Jessey Norman, photo by Carol Friedman.

The dramatic soprano – known as such for her deep voice that can sing over a full orchestra – made her comeback with four shows (Salvador, Rio, São Paulo and Paulínia) and a surprise. No arias or classical opera solos for this icon of operatic singing, but a program that pays tribute to “American Masters” of the twentieth century.

The first part was dedicated to famous musicals composers like Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen; and the second to big names of jazz amongst which Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Duke Ellington.

Norman has long made a name for herself. Born in Georgia in 1945, she came from a family of musicians and started singing from an early age, at the Baptist Church she attended. After winning a scholarship for the Howard University, she went to the Peabody Institute and did her masters at the University of Michigan.

Having lived a big part of her life in Europe, Norman has sang at some of the biggest concert halls like Berlin’s Deutsche Opera Berlin, Milan’s La Scala, London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and is the winner of a number of awards including four Grammy Awards.

If Norman is mainly famous for her opera roles, like Aida or Cassandra, or her interpretation of classical music by Mahler or Strauss, she is one of those artists who are refreshingly not afraid to cross the line of genres. Multilingual and daring, she has sung French contemporary music, and had already interpreted some of Duke Ellington’s songs.

Theatro Municipal
The beautifully crafted Theatro Municipal interior, photo by Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License.

But this time around, the entire concert was dedicated to songs from the Great American Songbook. Except for La Habanera from Carmen sang after the curtain call and that the public warmly welcomed, the audience got to listen to a few classics like “Summertime” by Gershwin that Norman dedicated to Ella Fitzgerald, “Lonely Time” by Bernstein, and a few songs dedicated to Ellington such as “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” or the solo “Meditation for Piano” played by the Floridian Mike Maham.

Most of the songs that Norman sang are actually taken from Roots : my life, my song, her first solo album in more than ten years that came out in June 2010. The 2 CD set, which was recorded live at concerts in Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, traces back to the music that have played an important role in her life. The songs that have made her famous are nowhere to be found and have been replaced by African beats, gospel and jazz except for, once again, La Habanera, the only reminder of her classical background.

At the Theatro Municipal, the audience was mainly Brazilian but connoisseurs of the repertoire who easily followed Norman the few times she called the public to participate, by snapping, clapping or humming. A few American fans could however be spotted as they shouted “thank you Jessey” – a clear statement that their “saudade” (longing) of her had somewhat finally been alleviated.

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