Norman in 2014
Jessye Mae Norman
September 15, 1945
Augusta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||September 30, 2019 (aged 74)|
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Jessye Norman (September 15, 1945 - September 30, 2019) was an American opera singer and recitalist. She was able to perform dramatic soprano roles, but refused to being limited to that voice type. She was a commanding presence on operatic, concert and recital stages, associated with roles including Beethoven's Leonore, Wagner's Sieglinde and Kundry, Cassandre and Didon by Berlioz and Bartók's Judith. The New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein described her voice as a "grand mansion of sound", and wrote that "it has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls."
Norman was trained at Howard University, the Peabody Institute, and the University of Michigan. Her career began in Europe, where she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1968, which led to a contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Her operatic début came as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser, after which she sang as Verdi's Aida at La Scala in Milan. She made her first operatic appearance un the U.S. in 1982 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, when cast as Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, and as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. She went on to sing leading roles with many other companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Paris Opera, and the Royal Opera, London. She sang at the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan, at Queen Elizabeth II's 60th birthday celebration in 1986, and performed the La Marseillaise to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. She sang at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta and for the second inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1997.
Norman sang and recorded recitals of music by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Ernest Chausson and Francis Poulenc, among others. In 1984, she won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, the first of five Grammy Awards that she would collect during her career. Apart from several honorary doctorates and other awards, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of Arts, and was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music. In 1990, UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar named her Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations.
Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. All siblings learned to play the piano early. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, and proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. There she was greatly influenced by the singing of two women, Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs. At the age of seven she entered her first vocal competition, placing third only because of a memory slip in the second stanza of the hymn "God Will Take Care of You". She later said in interviews, "I guess He has taken care of me. That was my last memory slip in public."
When Norman was nine she was given a radio for her birthday and soon discovered the world of opera through the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which she listened to every Saturday. She started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, both of whom Norman credited as inspiring figures in her career. She received her first formal vocal coaching from Rosa Harris Sanders Creque who was her music teacher at A. R. Johnson Junior High School. She continued to take voice lessons privately with Ms. Sanders Creque while attending Lucy C. Laney Senior High School in downtown Augusta.[a]
Norman studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan in the opera performance program. At the age of 16, she entered the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia which, although she did not win, led to an offer of a full scholarship at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.. While at Howard, studying voice with Carolyn Grant, she sang in the university chorus and as a soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ. In 1964, she became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma.
In 1965, along with 33 other female students and four female faculty, she became a founding member of the Delta Nu chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota. In 1966, she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. After graduating in 1967 with a degree in music, she began graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from which she earned a master's degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac. Later in her career, she worked closely with vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee at the Metropolitan Opera who was also a coach to Marian Anderson and Kathleen Battle.
After graduating, Norman, like many young musicians at the time, moved to Europe to establish herself. In 1968, she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. The following year, she began a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she first appeared as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser.
Norman performed as a guest with German and Italian opera companies, often portraying noble characters convincingly, both by appearance as by unique voice which was both flexible and powerful. Her voice range was wide, from contralto registers to dramatic soprano. In 1970, she appeared in Florence in the title role in Handel's Deborah. In 1971, she sang at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino the role of Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. The same year, she portrayed Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the count at the Berlin Festival, and recorded the role with the BBC Orchestra conducted by Colin Davis. The recording was a finalist for the Montreux International Record Award competition and exposed her to music listeners in Europe and the United States.
In 1972, Norman made her first appearance at La Scala, where she sang the title role in Verdi's Aida. and at The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, London, where she appeared as Cassandra in Les Troyens by Berlioz. Norman was Aida again in a concert version that same year in her first well-publicized American performance at the Hollywood Bowl for the venue's 50th anniversary celebration. This was followed by an all-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a recital tour of the country, after which she returned to Europe for several engagements. Norman briefly returned to the United States to give her first New York City recital as part of the "Great Performers" series in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1973.
In 1975, Norman moved to London and had no staged opera appearances for the next five years. She remained internationally active as a recitalist and soloist in works such as Mendelssohn's Elijah and Franck's Les Béatitudes. Norman returned to North America again in 1976 and 1977 to make an extensive concert tour. Norman toured Europe throughout the 1970s, giving recitals of works by Schubert, Mahler, Wagner, Brahms, Satie, Messiaen, and several contemporary American composers, to great critical acclaim.
In October 1980, Norman returned to the operatic stage in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. Her first operatic appearance in the United States came in 1982 at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, where she appeared as Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, and as Purcell's Dido. Her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City was in 1983, when she portrayed both Cassandre and Didon in Les Troyens by Berlioz in a production that marked the company's 100th-anniversary season. She usually performed one of the roles, and Tatiana Troyanos the other, but one night she performed both roles.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "By the mid-1980s she was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world." She was invited to sing at the second inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan on January 21, 1985; performing "Simple Gifts" from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs at the ceremony. In 1986, Norman sang at Queen Elizabeth II's 60th-birthday celebration. That same year she appeared as a soloist in Strauss's Four Last Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic during its tour of the United States.
Over the years Norman expanded her talent into less familiar areas. In 1988, she sang a concert performance of Poulenc's one-act opera La voix humaine ("The Human Voice"), based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play of the same name. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Norman produced numerous award-winning recordings, and many of her performances were televised. In addition to opera, many of Norman's recordings and performances during this time focused on art songs, lieder, oratorios, and orchestral works. Her interpretation of the Four Last Songs is especially acclaimed, as "the tonal qualities of her voice were ideal for these final works of the great Romantic German lieder tradition".
Norman is also known for her performances of Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and his Schoenberg's one-woman opera Erwartung. In 1989, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Erwartung that marked the company's first single-character production. It was presented in a double bill with Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, with Norman playing Judith. Both operas were broadcast nationally. That same year, she was the featured soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening concert of its 148th season, which PBS telecast live. She performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre opening and gave a recital at the National Theater and Concert Hall in Taipei.
Also in 1989, Norman was invited to sing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14. Her rendition was delivered at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in a costume designed by Azzedine Alaïa as part of an elaborate pageant orchestrated by avant-garde designer Jean-Paul Goude. This event was the inspiration that led the South African poet Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu to write a poem titled "I Shall Be Heard" dedicated to Norman. The poem appears in Ndlovu's book of poems In Quiet Realm, the foreword to which is penned by Norman.
From the early 1990s, Norman lived in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in a secluded estate known as "The White Gates", which was previously owned by television personality Allen Funt. She performed at Tchaikovsky's 150th Birthday Gala in Leningrad and appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the title role of Gluck's Alceste in 1990. The following year, she performed in a concert recorded live with Lawrence Foster and the Lyon Opera Orchestra at Notre-Dame de Paris. Norman sang Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex at the opening operatic production at the new Saito Kinen Festival in the Japanese Alps near Matsumoto in 1992. The following year, she sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1994, Norman sang at the funeral of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She was again the featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic, then conducted by Kurt Masur, in a gala concert telecast for the opening of the orchestra's 153rd season in 1995. She gave a highly lauded performance as the title character of Janá?ek's The Makropulos Affair when it was first performed in 1996.
Norman performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta, singing "Faster, Higher, Stronger". In January 1997, she performed at the second inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Norman's 1998-99 performances included a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which had an unusual program incorporating the sacred music of Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano, and featuring the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. Other performances during the season included Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a television special for Christmas filmed in her home town of Augusta, Georgia, as well as a spring recital tour, which included performances in Tel Aviv. The following season also brought performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington to London and Vienna, together with a summer European tour, which included performances at the Salzburg Festival.
In 1999, Norman collaborated with choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones in a project for New York City's Lincoln Center, called "How! Do! We! Do!" In 2000, she released an album, I Was Born in Love with You, featuring the songs of Michel Legrand. The recording, reviewed as a jazz crossover project, featured Legrand on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. In February and March 2001, Norman was featured at Carnegie Hall in a three-part concert series. With James Levine as her pianist, the concerts were a significant arts event, replete with an 80-page program booklet featuring a newly commissioned watercolor portrait of Norman by David Hockney. In 2002, Norman performed at the opening of Singapore's Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.
On March 11, 2002, Norman performed "America the Beautiful" at a service unveiling two monumental columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center, as a memorial for the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. In 2002, she returned to Augusta to announce that she would fund a pilot school of the arts for children in Richmond County. Classes commenced at St. John United Methodist Church in the fall of 2003. In November 2004, a documentary about Norman's life and work was directed by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer as director of photography, documenting her music as well as political and social issues. In 2006, Norman collaborated with the modern dance choreographer Trey McIntyre for a special performance during the summer at the Vail Dance Festival.
In March 2009, Norman curated Honor!, a celebration of the African-American cultural legacy. The festival honored African-American trailblazers and artists with concerts, recitals, lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions hosted by Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and other sites around New York City.
Norman stopped performing ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts. She served on the boards of directors for Carnegie Hall, City-Meals-on-Wheels in New York City, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the New York Botanical Garden, the New York Public Library, National Music Foundation, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. She was a member of the board and spokesperson for the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation, and also spokesperson for Partnership for the Homeless. She served on the Board of Trustees of the Augusta Opera Association and of Paine College.
In March 2013, the Apollo Theater and Manhattan School of Music featured Norman in Ask Your Mama, a 90-minute multimedia show by Laura Karpman based on Langston Hughes's "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz".
In March 2014, Norman was featured at The Green Music Center Weill Hall on the campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California (Sonoma County), in a recital of American standards in tributes to the likes of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. In 2015, she and pianist Mark Markham presented a program of mainly Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart at Carnegie Hall with a few art songs by Satie and Poulenc.
Norman died at Mount Sinai-St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan on September 30, 2019, aged 74, from multiple organ failure and septic shock, secondary to complications from a spinal-cord injury she suffered in 2015.
Norman was memorialized with a gala tribute at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, on November 24, 2019. Among the speakers and peformers at the public remembrance were Anna Deavere Smith, Gloria Steinem, the former Minister of Culture of France, Jack Lang, Eric Owens, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Peter Gelb, and Renée Fleming.
In 2003, the Rachel Longstreet Foundation and Norman partnered to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts after-school program for economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia. Norman was actively involved in the program, including fundraisers for its benefit.
Throughout her career, Norman spent much of her time giving recitals and concerts encompassing the classical German repertory as well as contemporary masterpieces, such as Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and the French moderns, which she invariably performed in the original tongue. This combination of scholarship and artistry contributed to her consistently successful career as one of the most versatile concert and operatic singers of her time. Often cited for her innovative programming and fervent advocacy of contemporary music, she earned recognition as "one of those once-in-a-generation singers who isn't simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing."
Norman premiered the song cycle woman.life.song by composer Judith Weir, a work commissioned for her by Carnegie Hall, with texts by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estés; performed a selection of sacred music of Duke Ellington; recorded a jazz album, Jessye Norman Sings Michel Legrand; and was the soprano co-lead in Vangelis' Mythodea project. In Moscow, Norman performed songs of Mussorgsky in the original Russian. Other projects included her 1984 album With a Song in My Heart, which contains numbers from films and musical comedies, and a 1990 performance of American spirituals with soprano Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall.
Although Norman was often considered a dramatic soprano, she became also known for roles traditionally sung by other types of voices. From her student days, Norman was selective about her repertoire, heeding her own instincts and interests more than the advice of her teachers or requests of her management. At the beginning of her career, this tendency put her at odds with the Deutsche Oper and compelled her to seek out musical works on her own that she felt better suited her. Norman told John Gruen of The New York Times: "As for my voice, it cannot be categorized – and I like it that way, because I sing things that would be considered in the dramatic, mezzo or spinto range. I like so many different kinds of music that I've never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range."
Some vocal critics say that Norman was not a dramatic soprano, but rather had a rare soprano voice type known as a Falcon. The Falcon voice is close to a mezzo-soprano timbre, but closer to a dramatic soprano tessitura. The term "Falcon roles" specifically refers to parts written for sopranos instead of mezzos, as was the case with Cornelie Falcon after whom the voice type is named. The roles are thus often sung by lyric mezzos. This mix of sound is why many fans, conductors, and critics unhesitatingly refer to her as a soprano or a mezzo. At age 23, when asked by an interviewer in Germany how she would characterize her voice, she replied that "pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons."
Over the years Norman's technical expertise was among her most critically praised attributes. In a review of one of her recitals at Carnegie Hall, The New York Times contributor Allen Hughes wrote that Norman "has one of the most opulent voices before the public today, and, as discriminating listeners are aware, her performances are backed by extraordinary preparation, both musical and otherwise."Bernard Holland wrote in the same paper after a recital at Alice Tully Hall that she "carefully gauged her seemingly limitless resources to fit the changing textures of her material".
Norman received honorary doctorates from more than 30 colleges, universities, and conservatories.
Notable parts in oratorios and orchestral concerts included:
Norman performed recitals including: