Life and career
Early life and musical education
Born Jessye Mae Norman in Augusta, Georgia, to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, and proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. There she was greatly influenced by the singing of two women, Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs. At the age of seven she entered her first vocal competition, placing third only because of a memory slip in the second stanza of the hymn "God Will Take Care of You". She later said in interviews, "I guess He has taken care of me. That was my last memory slip in public.”
When Norman was nine she was given a radio for her birthday and soon discovered the world of opera through the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which she listened to every Saturday while cleaning up her room. She started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, both of whom Norman credited as inspiring figures in her career. She received her first formal vocal coaching from Rosa Harris Sanders Creque who was her music teacher at A. R. Johnson Junior High School. She continued to take voice lessons privately with Ms. Sanders Creque while attending Lucy C. Laney Senior High School in downtown Augusta.
Norman studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan in the opera performance program. At age 16, she 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, she sang in the university chorus and as a soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, while studying voice with Carolyn Grant. In 1964, she became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma.
In 1965, along with 33 other female students and four 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 studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from which she earned a master's degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac. Later in her career, she worked closely with vocal coach Sylvia Olden Lee at the Metropolitan Opera who was also a coach to Kathleen Battle and Marian Anderson.
Early career (1968–1979)
After graduating, Norman, like many young musicians at the time, moved to Europe to establish herself. In 1968 she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich after she fought a judge's ruling that had arbitrarily changed the rules of the competition during the second round in what was likely a racially motivated decision. The following year, she began a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, making her operatic début with the company as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Critics at the time described Norman as having "the greatest voice since the German soprano Lotte Lehmann."
Norman performed with German and Italian opera companies, often appearing as a princess or other noble figure. Norman was exceptional at portraying a commanding and noble bearing. This ability was partly due to her uncommon height and size but was more a result of her unique, rich, and powerful voice. Norman's range was remarkably 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 Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. That year she also sang the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the count. at the Berlin Festival, and recorded the role with the BBC Orchestra conducted by 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.
In 1972, Norman made her first appearance at La Scala, where she sang the title role in Verdi's Aida and at The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, London, where she appeared as Cassandra in Les Troyens by Berlioz. Norman was Aida again in a concert version that same year in her first well-publicized American performance at the Hollywood Bowl for the venue's 50th anniversary celebration. This was followed by an all-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a recital tour of the country, after which she returned to Europe for several engagements. Norman briefly returned to the United States to give her first New York City recital as part of the "Great Performers" series in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1973.
In 1975, Norman moved to London and had no staged opera appearances for the next five years. She remained internationally active as a recitalist and soloist in works such as Mendelssohn's Elijah and Franck's Les Béatitudes. Norman returned to North America again in 1976 and 1977 to make an extensive concert tour, but it was not until many years later that she would make her U.S. opera début, only after she had established herself in Europe's leading opera houses and festivals including the Edinburgh International Festival, Salzburg Festival and Aix-en-Provence Festival. Norman toured Europe throughout the 1970s, giving recitals of works by Schubert, Mahler, Wagner, Brahms, Satie, Messiaen, and several contemporary American composers, to great critical acclaim.
In October 1980 Norman returned to the operatic stage in the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss's at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. She made her United States operatic début in 1982 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, appearing as Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, and as Purcell's Dido. Norman followed these with her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, appearing as both Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens by Berlioz, a production that marked the company's 100th-anniversary season. According to Encyclopædia Britannica: "By the mid-1980s she was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world." She was invited to sing at the second inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan on January 21, 1985; performing Simple Gifts from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs at the ceremony. In 1986, Norman sang at Queen Elizabeth II's 60th birthday celebration. That same year she appeared as a soloist in Strauss's Four Last Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic during its tour of the United States.
Over the years Norman expanded her talent into less familiar areas. In 1988 she sang a concert performance of Poulenc's one-act opera La voix humaine ("The Human Voice"), based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play of the same name. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Norman produced numerous award-winning recordings, and many of her performances were televised. In addition to opera, many of Norman's recordings and performances during this time focused on art songs, lieder, oratorios, and orchestral works. Her interpretation of the Four Last Songs is especially acclaimed. Its slow tempo is controversial, but the tonal qualities of her voice are ideal for these late works of the Romantic German lieder tradition.
Norman is also known for her performances of Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and his Schoenberg's one-woman opera Erwartung. In 1989 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Erwartung that marked the company's first single-character production. It was presented in a double bill with Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, with Norman playing Judith. Both operas were broadcast nationally. That same year, she was the featured soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the opening concert of its 148th season, which PBS telecast live. She performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre opening and gave a recital at Taiwan's National Concert Hall.
Also in 1989, Norman was invited to sing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14. Her rendition was delivered at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in a costume designed by Azzedine Alaïa as part of an elaborate pageant orchestrated by avant-garde designer Jean-Paul Goude. This event was the inspiration that led the South African poet Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu to write a poem titled "I Shall Be Heard" dedicated to Norman. The poem appears in Ndlovu's book of poems titled "In Quiet Realm" whose foreword is penned by Norman.
Later life and death (1990–2019)
From the early 1990s Norman lived in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in a secluded estate known as "The White Gates" previously owned by television personality Allen Funt. In 1990 she performed at Tchaikovsky's 150th Birthday Gala in Leningrad and made her Lyric Opera of Chicago début in the title role of Gluck's Alceste. In 1991 she sang for the 700th Celebration Party of Swiss National Day. That same year, she performed in a concert recorded live with Lawrence Foster and the Lyon Opera Orchestra at Paris's Notre-Dame de Paris. In 1992 Norman sang Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex at the opening operatic production at the new Saito Kinen Festival in the Japanese Alps near Matsumoto. In 1993, she sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1994, Norman sang at the funeral of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In September 1995, she was again the featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic, this time with Kurt Masur, in a gala concert telecast live on PBS marking the opening of the orchestra's 153rd season. In 1996 Norman gave a highly lauded performance as the title character in the Metropolitan Opera's premiere production of Janáček's The Makropulos Affair.
Norman performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta, singing "Faster, Higher, Stronger". In January 1997 she performed at the second inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Norman's 1998–99 performances included a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which had an unusual program incorporating the sacred music of Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano, and featuring the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. Other performances during the season included Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a television special for Christmas filmed in her home town of Augusta, Georgia, as well as a spring recital tour, which included performances in Tel Aviv. The following season also brought performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington to London and Vienna, together with a summer European tour, which included performances at the Salzburg Festival.
In 1999 Norman collaborated with choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones in a project for New York City's Lincoln Center, called "How! Do! We! Do!" In 2000 she released an album, I Was Born in Love with You, featuring the songs of Michel Legrand. The recording, reviewed as a jazz crossover project, featured Legrand on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. In February and March 2001, Norman was featured at Carnegie Hall in a three-part concert series. With James Levine as her pianist, the concerts were a significant arts event, replete with an 80-page program booklet featuring a newly commissioned watercolor portrait of Norman by David Hockney. In 2002, Norman performed at the opening of Singapore's Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
On June 28, 2001, she and light lyric coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle performed Mythodea by Vangelis at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, Greece.
On March 11, 2002, Norman performed "America the Beautiful" at a service unveiling two monumental columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center, as a memorial for the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. 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. In November 2004, a documentary about Norman's life and work was created. The film, directed by André Heller, with
Othmar Schmiderer as director of photography and produced by DOR-Film of Vienna, chronicles the music, the social and political issues, and the inspiration and dreams that combined to make her unique in her profession. In 2006, Norman collaborated with the modern dance choreographer Trey McIntyre for a special performance during the summer at the Vail Dance Festival.
In March 2009, Norman curated Honor!, a celebration of the African-American cultural legacy. The festival honored African-American trailblazers and artists with concerts, recitals, lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions hosted by Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and other sites around New York City.
Norman with Tom Hall, 2014
Norman stopped performing ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts. She served on the boards of directors for Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library, the New York Botanical Garden, City-Meals-on-Wheels in New York City, Dance Theatre of Harlem, National Music Foundation, and Elton John AIDS Foundation. She was a member of the board as well as a national spokesperson for the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation, and spokesperson for Partnership for the Homeless. Norman served on the Board of Trustees of Paine College and the Augusta Opera Association.
In March 2013, the Apollo Theater and Manhattan School of Music featured Norman in Ask Your Mama, a 90-minute multimedia show by Laura Karpman based on Langston Hughes's "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz".
In March 2014, Norman was featured at The Green Music Center Weill Hall on the campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California (Sonoma County), in a recital of American standards in tributes to the likes of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. In 2015 she and pianist Mark Markham presented a program of mainly Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart at Carnegie Hall with a few art songs by Satie and Poulenc.
In April 2018, Norman was honored as the 12th recipient of the Glenn Gould Prize for her contribution to opera and the arts.
Norman died at Mount Sinai–St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan on September 30, 2019, aged 74, from multiple organ failure and septic shock; secondary to complications from a spinal-cord injury she suffered in 2015.
Jessye Norman School of the Arts
In 2003, the Rachel Longstreet Foundation and Norman partnered to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts after-school program for economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia. Norman was actively involved in the program, including fundraisers for its benefit.