World-renowned opera star Jessye Norman and Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith talk about pushing the boundaries of artistic talent.
“The most important gift a mentor can give to her protégée is to instill the freedom to embrace her own voice,” said legendary soprano Jessye Norman.
Fresh from a book tour to promote her new memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, Norman, who served as music mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative from 2004-2005, was speaking to a crowd gathered in the elegant salon of ambassador François Barras, Consul General of Switzerland in New York, in June, who regularly hosts events featuring Swiss artists, personalities or companies.
Norman was joined by Tracy K. Smith, literature protégée in 2010-2011, to talk about art, role models, and the importance of helping young artists explore the full range of their talents. Rebecca Irvin, who established the Initiative in 2002, moderated the conversation.
Smith agreed that for a protégée, freedom to fully express oneself, unselfconsciously, is a key lesson. Speaking about her mentor, the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Smith said: “The model he represents for me, still, is that of someone who will take up any possibility.” In addition to poetry, Enzensberger has written for opera and penned children’s books, radio dramas and translations.
Smith is currently at work on a memoir, her first attempt at nonfiction, which was a daunting undertaking but one that her mentor encouraged her to pursue. “He was very helpful in saying warmly ‘This is what you can do’, and saying sternly ‘This is how you need to do it.’”
During a Q&A that followed the dialogue, Norman was asked if there was one concert she still wanted to sing, a challenge to overcome. Considering the question, Norman smiled ruefully and told a story of intending to learn Russian many years ago, only to be taken in other directions. She will sing only in languages she can speak, which already number quite a few. Norman’s last remarks of the evening were a declaration to find yet another voice in which to express her massive talent: “I promise you that before I stop I will sing in Russian.”