The American soprano Jessye Norman, sadly died of complications from a spinal cord injury aged 74, in September of last year. She was one of the most prominent singers in the last quarter of the 20th century. At her peak, her regal stage manner, brought her immense prestige and high fees.
I interviewed Ms Norman on Worlds Womens Day at the Royal Festival Hall, London, UK some years back. The link is below to this audio interview if you would like to listen.
Though generally billed as a soprano, she had a rich middle and lower register, which she exploited to great effect in repertoire associated with mezzo-sopranos. Her voice type, combining spinto soprano with the timbre of a mezzo, was sometimes referred to as that of a “falcon”, named after the famous 19th-century French singer Cornélie Falcon.
Norman’s 1983 recording of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur became a desert island choice for many. It maximises the voluptuous quality of her voice cresting the waves of the orchestra in full flood. The rapturous upward soaring of the soul in Beim Schlafengehen never fails to thrill and if Masur’s turgid tempi are questionable, they nevertheless serve to demonstrate Norman’s exemplary breath control.
Her memoir Stand Up Straight and Sing!, published in 2014, was written to tell the story of “African-American families in the Jim Crow South” who wanted to have “their worth in the world” acknowledged. The book also deals with the civil rights movement and the inspiration she took from Marian Anderson, the first black singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1955.
Many of her earliest successes were in Europe. Having won the Munich International music competition in 1968, she made her operatic debut the following year at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, later appearing there as Countess Almaviva in the Marriage of Figaro. Further engagements in Europe included Aida at La Scala and her Covent Garden debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, both in 1972.
Her US stage debut did not come until 1982, when she sang Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Purcell’s Dido with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Her Metropolitan debut, once again as Cassandra, was the following year.
From the 1990s Norman was increasingly involved in crossover and other popular forms of music-making. A Carnegie Hall recital in the 1998-99 season incorporated sacred music by Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano. A television special was filmed during the same season in her home town of Augusta. In 2000 she released the jazz crossover album I Was Born in Love With You, featuring songs by Michel Legrand.
She also threw her energies into educational and outreach projects, establishing the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in to provide free tuition for disadvantaged children. It is a comprehensive after-school arts program serving mostly disadvantaged middle and high school students in Augusta, Georgia, United States.
Jessye was one of five children born into a musical family: her mother, Janie King-Norman, was a teacher and amateur pianist, while her father, Silas Norman, an insurance broker, sang in an amateur choir. A particular item of furniture ensconced in a corner of the front room of her maternal grandparents’ house intrigued her: a harmonium. She later recalled it as “the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life”. She started piano lessons early and displayed vocal talent too, singing gospel songs in a local church at the age of four. A ninth birthday present of a radio introduced her to the world of opera in the form of the weekly broadcasts from the Metropolitan.
Inspired by the examples of Anderson and Leontyne Price she embarked on an opera performance programme in northern Michigan. She also studied at Howard University in Washington DC, the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore and the University of Michigan with, among others, Pierre Bernac and Elizabeth Mannion.
Prior to her stage debut in the US, she appeared in the title role of Aida in a 1972 concert performance at the Hollywood Bowl. An all-Wagner concert followed at Tanglewood and then a national recital tour before an appearance in the Great Performers series in Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center in 1973. Later that decade she became a well-known figure on the recital and concert circuit, with appearances at the Edinburgh and Salzburg festivals and elsewhere throughout Europe.
By the early years of the 21st century her timbre was beginning to lose its lustre, but she retained the imperious mien that had always characterised her stage presence: a simple arm movement or a raised eyebrow was enough to command attention. She retained too the commitment to unfamiliar and contemporary repertoire, giving the first performance of Judith Weir’s Woman.Life.Song in 2002 at Carnegie Hall repeated later in London. At Norman’s instigation the chosen texts were by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
In 2009 she curated a celebration of the African-American cultural legacy under the title Honor! Included were African-American trailblazers in various fields; among the notable New York venues were Carnegie Hall and the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Her support for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led to the suggestion that she might stand for office herself. Asked about the possibility of her running for Congress, she replied: “I considered it and then I put it aside. I don’t think that I would be successful because I would not be able to hold back on what I need to say.”
She is survived by two of her siblings, James and Elaine. I welcomed her speech on World Women’s day as you’ll hear in the audio interview below. I was grateful to have met her and her entourage in person on that day.
She has been and remains an inspiration to many. With her vast repetoire available to listen to and watch. Along with the legacy of her Art’s school providing free tuition to the disadvantaged. Her list of honary doctorate’s and awards is vast. As were the roles she performed in many Opera’s and recitals over a career spanning 50 years!
You’ll find our full interview in the membership section.