Jessye Mae Norman (born September 15, 1945) is an American opera singer.Norman is a contemporary opera singer and recitalist, and is a successful performer of classical music.A dramatic soprano, Norman is associated in particular with the Wagnerian repertoire, and with the roles of Sieglinde, Ariadne, Alceste, and Leonore.
Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a school teacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, her father a singer in a local choir. Norman’s mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.
Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. At the age of nine, Norman heard opera for the first time on the radio and was immediately an opera fan. She started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price whom Norman credits as being inspiring figures in her career. At the age of 16, Norman 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, Norman sang in the university chorus and as a professional soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, while studying voice with Carolyn Grant. In 1965, along with 32 other female students and 4 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-level studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from which she earned a Masters Degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac.
Early career (1969–1979)
After graduating, Norman, like many young musicians at the time, moved to Europe to establish herself. In 1969 she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich and landed a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She made her operatic début that same year as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Critics at the time described Norman as having “the greatest voice since the German soprano Lotte Lehmann.”
In subsequent years Norman performed with various German and Italian opera companies appearing often as princesses or other noble figures. Norman was exceptional at portraying a commanding and noble bearing. This ability was partly due to her uncommon height and size, but more so as a result of her unique, rich, and powerful voice. Norman’s range was uncommonly wide, encompassing all female voice registers from contralto to high dramatic soprano. In 1970 she made her Italian début in Florence in Handel’s Deborah. In 1971, Norman made her début at the Maggio Musicale in Florence appearing as Sélica in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. That year she also sang the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Berlin Festival and recorded the role that same year with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of Colin Davis. The recording was a finalist for the Montreux International Record Award competition and brought Norman much exposure to music listeners in Europe and the United States.