Described as a “force of nature” by admiring critics, Jessye Norman was among the most celebrated sopranos of the late twentieth century. Norman’s uncommon range and commanding presence earned her a devoted following and numerous awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor and the National Medal of Arts.
Norman was born in Augusta on September 15, 1945, to Janie King and Silas Norman. Her mother, a homemaker and teacher, played piano, and her father, an insurance broker, was a soloist at their church, Mount Calvary Baptist. As a child Norman sang at various civic events and with church and school choirs. She listened to radio broadcasts of New York’s Metropolitan Opera and to recordings of the classical artists Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, whom she regarded as role models, as well as to jazz vocalists Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday. At sixteen she won a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later graduated cum laude. She continued her studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the University of Michigan.
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. Three years later she made her La Scala debut, in Milan, Italy, in a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida and her British debut at London’s Royal Opera House as Cassandre in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens.
But it was not until 1983 that she finally performed at the New York Metropolitan Opera. During the intervening years she had stepped away from grand opera to focus on recordings and concerts, giving her voice the opportunity to develop outside the demands of an extensive opera repertory. When she finally took the stage at the Met—during the venue’s centennial season—Norman delivered a bravura performance, singing Cassandre and Dido in Les Troyens in a production that captivated audiences and charmed critics. She would sing more than eighty performances at the Met in the years that followed.
Norman returned often to such composers as Igor Stravinsky and Leos Janacek, but remained an inventive, agile performer throughout. She was fluent in four languages, eased gracefully between diverse musical traditions, and, in the latter stages of her career, collaborated with the likes of Bill T. Jones and John Cage. She had a ready reply when asked to account for her restless creativity, a rejoinder for which she would become famous. “Pigeonholes,” she said, “are for pigeons.”
Norman briefly retained the publicists that ushered the tenor Luciano Pavarotti to worldwide celebrity and might well have become a household name herself. But she ultimately chose to build her reputation on musicianship, a decision that earned her a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic. Her ovations were prolonged, sometimes lasting for nearly an hour, and the 1981 film Diva, by Jean-Jacques Beineix, was reportedly influenced by the legendary devotion of her supporters. Critics were effusive, too, applauding both her commanding presence and expansive range. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times famously described Norman’s voice as a “grand mansion of sound” after witnessing her 1992 recital at Avery Fisher Hall. “It defines an extraordinary space,” he wrote. “It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse.”
Norman’s renown meant that she was often invited to perform at public ceremonies, both in the United States and abroad. She sang at inaugurals for presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; performed for Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday; and 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 and taking part in the ceremonies honoring former president Jimmy Carter when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Few performers have been so highly decorated. Norman received more than thirty honorary degrees from universities throughout the country, was awarded the Legion of Honor from the French government, and became the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor at the age of just fifty-one. She received four Grammy awards for her recordings and a fifth for lifetime achievement.
Norman received numerous accolades in her native Georgia as well. In 1996 the city of Augusta renamed the Riverwalk Amphitheater and Plaza in her honor, and she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Her wide acclaim notwithstanding, Norman remained fiercely loyal to the institutions and places that nurtured her talents and spent much of her later years pursuing philanthropic projects to their benefit. She endowed a scholarship at her alma mater, Howard University, in honor of an influential teacher and was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in 2000 for her efforts to combat lupus, breast cancer, AIDS, and hunger. Two years later she announced that she would fund a pilot school to support disadvantaged students who wished to pursue careers in the arts. The Jesse Norman School of the Arts welcomed its first students in 2003 and has continued to expand in the years since, offering instruction in a variety of disciplines and mediums.
Jessye Norman died in 2019 at the age of seventy-four.