Rhinegold Photo credit: Carol Friedman
Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Josephine Miles

Jessye Norman: a tribute

3:46, 2nd October 2019

Globally celebrated US opera singer Jessye Norman died on 30 September at the age of 74

The soprano was in the vanguard of black singers who have achieved worldwide fame in the opera world. She made her opera debut in Berlin in 1969, establishing herself in Europe in the 1970s before making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1983.

Norman was born into a musical family on 15 September 1945 in Georgia. Her mother was an amateur pianist and her grandparents owned a harmonium which Norman played from a young age. She sang regularly in church and began listening to opera on the radio as a child: ‘For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already,’ she wrote in her 2014 memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing!

Inspired by the African-American singers Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, among others, Norman studied music at Howard University in Washington DC before going on to the Peabody Conservatory and University of Michigan. In 1968 she won first prize at the Munich International Competition, and the following year made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

She subsequently performed at La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses before making her Met debut as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1983. Her recording of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur that same year received a raft of accolades, including a Gramophone award, and has become one of the legendary recordings of the 20th century.

Ash Khandekar, editor of Opera Now, commented: ‘Though Jessye Norman was deeply associated with Richard Strauss, she wasn’t, in fact, an archetypal Straussian soprano. Her densely grained, lustrous, majestic tone brought an extraordinary sense of nobility to this music, quite unlike anything we’d heard before from the lighter, brighter sopranos that Strauss himself favoured. This was compounded by extraordinary breath control which allowed her to phrase into infinity, bringing an almost superhuman dimension to songs that explore the great metaphysical questions of life and death.’

Operatic roles in which Norman excelled included Wagner’s Sieglinde and Kundry, Strauss’s Ariadne, The Woman in Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Beethoven’s Leonore and Weber’s Euryanthe.

Norman received the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in 2018

Throughout her career she won numerous awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Honour, presented to her by Barack Obama in 2009. In 1986 she sang at the 60th birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth, and she performed at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In 2018, she was the recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal, the highest honour in the UK’s classical music world.

Norman was also committed to providing means for those from non-privileged backgrounds to learn and experience music: the Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in 2003 in Augusta to provide a free fine arts education to disadvantaged children. Her work in this area came from a profound belief that music is a force for good in humanity: ‘I am deeply spiritual,’ she once said. ‘I revel in those things that make for good, the things that we can do to shed a little light, to help place an oft-dissonant universe back in tune with itself… Long live art, long live friendship, long live the joy of life!’

Norman died on 30 September in New York due to complications from a spinal cord injury.

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