Jessye In Paris

1st October 2019

I am sitting at an Illy Café in the centre of Paris, some metres off the Place de la Concorde. The smell of ground coffee and pain-aux-raisins permeates the airy space as my trainee Italian barista struggles with her machines. Being at my leisure, I contemplate the day she is having in her own head, and smile.

My square table is painted in warm Illy-red, perfectly evoking the emotion of coffee. I take a moment to admire the aesthetic of its elegant logo, and sip. All is well in the world.

I scroll the news, inching towards a caffeine reverie. The New York Times catches my eye. ‘Jessye Norman, Regal American Soprano, Is Dead at 74’. 

I am jolted by the headline. Norman is an artist I have deeply admired and the first operatic superstar I ever saw. Indeed, now that I think of it, I first saw her exactly here, at Place de la Concorde.

A frisson descends upon me. I am unsure if it comes from the coffee, or this sudden call of Kismet.

It was a warm July night, as I remember it. Jessye Norman came on stage during a glittering evening of fireworks, to sing the Marseillaise. She emerged on stage as a sort of Madonna – Marianne vision, dressed head to toe in the flag. For one moment, wrapped in bleu blanc rouge, she became France. 

That was 1989, 200 years after the French Revolution, and fully 30 years ago.

1989 was also the year that France changed my life. 

Opera, like hurling, is an art form that takes patience to appreciate. Its drama alone will not bring you over the line. To fall in love with opera one must also uncover its layers of emotion and seek their motivation – an act rendered more difficult by the language barrier, and the beautiful but uncanny sound made by the singer. At age 24, I was some time from such discoveries. But Ms Norman made a one-night-stand with transcendent music easy. I’m not sure I saw people shed tears on the street that night, but I feel I should have.

July 1989 was my last month working for Mars in Ireland. Our sales team had hit its target and we were all rewarded with a trip to Paris to celebrate a special Bastille Day. Being young, our superficial focus was on drink and fun.

July 14th was a long night, ending in clashing opposition to the operatic flourish which was its zenith. A band of us paid into a peep show in La Pigale. There we witnessed a sex show so unsexy that it would surely have provoked the most ardent heterosexual to consider his position. I needed no such persuasion, vowing there, in a dingy place smelling of stale beer and fresh lust, that my days of being led must come to an end. 

Six weeks later I moved permanently to France, far enough away to allow the slow dawning of my adult self. In Strasbourg I found new balance, through what I learnt (of food, music, wine, winter, muses, men) and what I shared (my Irish culture, my welcome, my attention).

Time bends in our twenties. Life is lived so profoundly, and seconds are wrenched apart and examined in the greatest detail. I can describe every desk I sat at, every room I slept in, and most every meaningful person I encountered.

To this day I am unquiet in middle age and uncomfortable in the expertise that experience gifts us. Knowing your shit too well can shine a path to excellence, but can also lead to boredom.

Curiosity is the only cure for maturity. 

‘Allons enfants de la patrie…’ 

Jessye Norman’s voice echoed from Concorde down the Champs Elysées to where we were stacked, ten deep.

If I were asked in that moment what memory I would carry for thirty years, I might have mentioned the drunken camaraderie, or a thundering version of ‘O Sole Mio’ played by me on a restaurant piano, ably accompanied by a ‘Just One Cornetto’ chorus of salesmen and women. 

But no. Though these things happened, they are not my signal memory. 

That which lingers most is the birth of my connection with France. The great opportunity France gave me to become myself. And the vision of a beautiful black lady from America who shrouded herself in its flag, declaring that ‘le jour de gloire est arrivé’. 

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