Jessye Norman (b. 1945)
The soprano Jessye Norman, a Georgia native, has performed at all the world's leading opera houses. She is renowned for her powerful and expressive voice, her wide-ranging repertoire, and her commanding stage presence.
In 1968 Norman won the female vocal division of the International Music Competition of the German Broadcasting Corporation in Munich, Germany, and she made her operatic debut in 1969 as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's Tannhauser with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. In 1972 she made her La Scala debut, in Milan, Italy, in a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, made her U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl as Aida, and made her British debut at London's Royal Opera House as Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens. For several years she left grand opera to concentrate on recordings and concerts, giving her voice the opportunity to develop and mature outside the demands of an extensive opera repertory.
Norman's concert and recorded repertory has expanded to embrace jazz, popular music, and spirituals. "Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons" has been her motto from the earliest years of her career. Although she briefly retained the publicists who made the tenor Luciano Pavarotti a household name, she ultimately chose to build her reputation on musicianship instead of celebrity. The legendary devotion of her fans inspired the film Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix in 1981; in concerts she has received ovations lasting for nearly an hour.
Norman sang in 1985 at the second inaugural of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and in 1986 for Queen Elizabeth II's sixtieth birthday. In 1989 she sang "La Marseillaise" in Paris, France, for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Other official engagements have included singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, performing at the 1997 inaugural of U.S. president Bill Clinton, singing "America the Beautiful" at the six-month commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks, and taking part in the ceremonies honoring former president U.S. president Jimmy Carter when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Norman generously returns the gift of her talents to the world. She has endowed a scholarship at Howard University in the name of her teacher there and is an honorary Girl Scout for life, attached to a troop in Paris; she sold more than 2,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in 1999. She was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in 2000 for her work in the fight against lupus, breast cancer, AIDS, and hunger. 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. Art, Norman said in 1998, "comes from that part of us that is without fear, prejudice, [or] malice. . . . Art makes each of us whole."
After more than thirty years on stage, Norman no longer performs ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts.
Jessye Norman, Singer: Portrait of an Extraordinary Career, dir. Bob Bentley, prod. Malachite for the Arts Council of Great Britain in association with the BBC (Filmmaker's Library, 1986), video.
Diane Trap, University of Georgia Libraries
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.