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Remembering Iconic Opera Singer Jessye Norman

Remembering Iconic Opera Singer Jessye Norman

We’re remembering the life and impact of another icon. Jessye Norman, renowned opera singer and four time Grammy award winner passed on September 30 at the age of 74.

Norman was born September 15, 1945 in Augusta Georgia. She grew up singing in church and eventually received a scholarship to Howard University to pursue her music studies. She went on to study at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and the University of Michigan, The Associated Press reports.

She began her career in 1969, quickly rising to prominence with her spectacular soprano voice, captivating audiences from Milan to New York. She was one of the few African American singers to gain international fame in the opera world, performing at elite venues like La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Norman was known for her lead roles in shows such as “Aida” and “Carmen.”

Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Met Opera in 1984. Photo Courtesy of Erika Davidson/Met Opera/Associated Press

Her family issued a statement to The AP saying, “We are so proud of Jessye’s musical achievements and the inspiration that she provided to audiences around the world that will continue to be a source of joy.”

Throughout her career, Norman earned numerous accolades. In 1997, she became the youngest person ever to win the Kennedy Center Honor at just 52 years old. She earned 15 Grammy nominations and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 .In 2004 she released her memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!,” and in 2009 she received the National Medal of Arts award from President Barack Obama. 

Jessye Norman at Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. Photo Courtesy of The Associated Press

While Norman was well known in the Opera world, she didn’t stifle her gift by just performing opera and classical music, often performing pieces by Duke Ellington and others. In 2002 she told the Chicago Sun Times, “I have always been drawn to things other people might consider unusual. I’m always taken by the text and beautiful melody. It’s not important to me who has written it. It’s just more reasonable to have an open mind about what beauty is. It’s important for classical musicians to stretch and think beyond the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms). They were wonderful composers, but they went to the great beyond a long time ago. There’s lots of music that will live for a very long time Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons,” she said.

The Met Opera spoke of Norman in a statement released to the press calling her “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century.” While she was revered for her musical abilities, Norman also spent time giving back to underserved communities, raising money for charitable donations, advocating for arts in schools and trying to create pathways for Black children to explore opera. In 2004, she opened The Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, Georgia, aimed at providing a free fine arts education to underserved children. 

Jessye Norman performing in 1991 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Photo Courtesy of Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty Images

Norman once spoke on her philanthropic efforts saying “I look at symphony orchestras around this country and I want those orchestras to look more like the demographic they’re meant to serve. I would like to see more African-Americans on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York. I look forward to the day when we do not think about color of skin when we’re looking to have a person do a job, whatever that job is,” she said. 

While her family is extremely proud of all she was able to accomplish musically, they also spoke to her philanthropy in their statement saying “we are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.

Norman was an amazing singer and an even more ethereal person. She often honored other Black singers who she said paved the way for her such as Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price according to The NY Times. She mastered a wide range of sounds and dominated the stage with her voice and presence. She also learned to speak and sing in multiple languages including Italian, French, German, Hungarian and Spanish. 

Jessye Norman was a force to be reckoned with and one that will be greatly missed. She passed away from complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015. She is survived by two siblings, James Norman and Elaine Sturkey.