Jessye Norman and Susan Platts

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 5)

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.

Jessye Norman and Susan Platts

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 5)

An Interview with Susan Platts early in the mentorship

What interested you most about participating in the Rolex Arts Initiative?
When Rolex first contacted me, I was deeply honoured to have been considered for this extraordinary opportunity to work with Jessye Norman. For a young professional, having the opportunity to take time away from the performing schedule to learn from Miss Norman is truly a golden opportunity. The idea of pairing an accomplished artist with a young emerging artist creates the dynamic of mentor and protégé that has been a proven method of passing on skills and traditions from time immemorial, but one that is rarely invoked in our present time.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
Whilst I have studied with other vocal artists, I have never been in a mentoring relationship. I feel that this mentor-protégée relationship is one where it is possible to seek advice, and to be able to discuss professional and musical matters in a personal and trusting way.

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?
Though it may sound a bit clichéd to say, just being in the presence of Miss Norman has given me so much already. I have already learned much from her about holding true to one’s values and beliefs. And naturally, she will give much to me with regards to technique, interpretation and language. I expect to go deeper into many aspects of music and character, with the intent of becoming more direct and clear in my expression.

Also I look forward, as anyone would, to be able to hear Miss Norman sing. That, in itself, is such an extraordinary opportunity for me. I will glean whatever I can from this consummate artist who shares a common interest in a holistic approach to musical meaning and expression.

So far, what is the best part of being a Rolex protégée?
That Rolex gave me an opportunity to meet and work with Jessye Norman. This is without a doubt the best part of the Initiative, as person-to-person communication is really what singing is all about. The acknowledgement that has come my way from Rolex, has also given me more personal confidence, to be proactive in areas where perhaps previously I dared not go. Being associated with Rolex is wonderful, as their continued support, interest and generosity do not go unappreciated. And having the time and opportunity to “learn” has certainly taken some pressure off my schedule.

What was your first impression of your mentor?
Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! Admittedly, at first I felt overwhelmed, but Jessye Norman is so kind, so gracious and engaging. I soon felt a part of the process. She made me feel extremely comfortable. I am learning that Jessye is not only a great artist, but also an extraordinary person. More than just an exceptional performer, she has a good soul, and is an honest and caring person. Naturally, as the year proceeds, our relationship will evolve, and I look forward to all the places where it may lead.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s?
We sing similar repertoires, though Miss Norman sings more works written for soprano, and we both have a deep love and affinity for German music. Obviously as individuals we are different. I don’t compare myself to Jessye Norman. I just feel that we both love to communicate and that singing is our natural medium for that. To this extent, our work will be on communication: all the technical and musical challenges are approached with the wish to make the musical message and meaning clearer to the listener, and to give life to the composer’s music and intentions.

Do you think that Jessye Norman’s guidance will change your approach to music?
It already has. Just being in Miss Norman’s presence has already had a profound effect on me. And with this has come renewed enthusiasm for all things possible in music and in the expression of feelings in music. My confidence has strengthened, and this has allowed me to approach new projects that in the past might have seemed unrealisable.

Jessye Norman and Susan Platts

A year of mentoring

Partnership (Chapter 3 of 5)

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’Amouret 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.

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.

Jessye Norman and Susan Platts

A year of mentoring

Looking ahead (Chapter 4 of 5)

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.

Jessye Norman and Susan Platts

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 5)

Susan Platts talks about her year as a Rolex protégée

What was your most important artistic achievement before you began participating in this programme?
If you look from where I began to where I am now, there’s a beautiful line [of progression] – a nice opportunity here, a nice opportunity there. Each year has been something a little more demanding. However, working with conductor Gary Bertini in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in Tokyo [in 2003] took me to a different level. I’d also say that singing the Luigi Dallapiccola opera,Ulisse [Ulysses], at La Scala in 2004 was pivotal. I worked with a conductor I adored – Bertini, again – and sang a piece of music that I never thought I’d be able to sing. It’s an atonal opera and there was little rehearsal time.

How did the mentoring year progress?
It’s not like we outlined what we’d do. Each time we’ve got together, we’ve done what felt right, worked on what music I had coming up on my concert schedule. There was no period of getting used to each other. But I appreciate the time and space that Jessye wants. I’ll be there when she wants me to be there. I might go and sing for a half-hour on my own, she makes me a cup of tea, we chat, we work.

What was the best part of being a Rolex protégée?
The incredible opportunity to work with such a fabulous mentor. But I also felt looked after. Everybody I met in the Protégé programme, everyone I worked with, they’re so nice. It speaks volumes about the company. They’re doing something incredibly right and it’s wonderful to feel like you’re under their wing. And under that wing is Jessye Norman.

Is there one incident or remark that sums up or typifies your relationship with your mentor?
It’s amazing to think that I could phone Jessye Norman. I phoned her the week before going to Kuala Lumpur to sing Chausson’s Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer [a work for voice and orchestra] and went over my French with her. That was in the early days with her, and I thought: “I’m trying to speak French to Jessye Norman! Am I absolutely crazy?” But there was Jessye on the other end of the phone!

What was the single most important lesson or piece of advice your mentor gave you?
To believe in myself. To have confidence in myself.

How do you think your work is similar to or different from your mentor’s? Was that a stimulus or a barrier to your relationship?
There haven’t been any barriers. Every piece of music I’ve taken to her is one that she has performed. We have two different voices. And she never sat down and said: “This is what the music is about.” She has a zone she goes to when she sings. There could be fireworks in the room and she’s still in her zone. She shares the subtext she has with the music, but what I do with it is up to me.

Did you learn from your mentor any lessons beyond the practice of your art?
For sure! We talked a lot about navigating the music industry and when to walk away from a bad situation. She gave me the strength to say life is too short for that. There’s your art and believing in yourself outside your art. They’re so closely related.

Can you describe the most beneficial aspect for you of the mentoring year?
I didn’t feel that there was any sense from Jessye of “you down there” or “me up here”. We both go into the studio and enjoy music. I often sensed that she was loving it all over again.

Has your approach to your discipline changed or developed during the mentoring experience?
There have been big changes. Jessye said: “You have it, you’re doing it fabulously, but you can do it better and with far less effort for you. I’m going to make it so that it’s easier for you and you’ll sound even better.” That’s important for a singer’s longevity.

Is there any other comment you would like to add?
I don’t quite know what I did to deserve this. I’ve gotten to know a wonderful, amazing person. And I think we’ll continue to be in touch. I don’t see her putting down the gate.