Life and career
Early life and musical education
Norman was born 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, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.
Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. When she 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. Norman started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, whom Norman credits as inspiring figures in her career. At age 16, Norman 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 professional 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.
Early career (1969–79)
After graduating, Norman, like many young musicians at the time, moved to Europe to establish herself. In 1969 she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich and landed a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She made her operatic début that same year as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. 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 figures. 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, Italy, 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 The Marriage of Figaro at the Berlin Festival and recorded that role with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of 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 debuted at La Scala, where she sang the title role in Verdi's Aida and at London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where she sang the role of Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens. Norman appeared as Aida again in a concert version that same year in her first well-publicized American performance at the Hollywood Bowl. This was followed by an all-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a recital tour of the country, after which she went back to Europe for several engagements. Norman returned to the US briefly to give her first New York City recital as part of the "Great Performers" series at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center 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 US opera début or appear frequently in the United States. Only after Norman had established herself in Europe's leading opera houses and festivals—including the Edinburgh Festival, Salzburg Festival, Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the Stuttgart Opera—did she set out to establish herself in the United States. 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 Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. She made her United States operatic début in 1982 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, appearing in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex as Jocasta and in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas as Dido. Norman followed these with her début at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, appearing in Berlioz's Les Troyens as both Cassandra and Dido, a production that marked the company's 100th-anniversary season. According to the 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, an invitation she debated accepting as an African American and a Democrat (as well as a nuclear disarmament activist). In the end, she did accept and sang the folk song "Simple Gifts". 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 US. In 1987, Norman joined the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan in possibly the greatest rendition of the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner in a historical concert (filmed and recorded audio by Deutsche Grammophon) at the Salzburg Festival The concert was then repeated some weeks later in Berlin, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Over the years Norman has not been afraid to expand 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 Strauss's Four Last Songs is especially acclaimed. Its slowness is controversial, but the tonal qualities of her voice are ideal for these final works of the Romantic German lieder tradition.
Norman is also known for her performances of the Gurre-Lieder of Arnold Schoenberg and for 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 its opening concert of its 148th season, which PBS telecast live. Norman also performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Center 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 Jessye Norman. The poem appears in Ndlovu's book of Poems titled "In Quiet Realm" whose foreword is penned by Ms Norman.
Later career (1990–present)
Since the early 1990s Norman has 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 Cathedral. 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 Richard Strauss's 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 Orchestra, this time under Kurt Masur's direction, 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.
Starting in the mid-1990s, Norman began to move away from soprano stage roles to mezzo-soprano roles. She 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 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, Israel. 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 Vangelis's Mythodea 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, Colorado 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 St. John the Divine, and other sites around New York City.
Norman no longer performs ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts. She serves 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 is 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 serves 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 (Sonoma County), California, in a recital of American standards in tributes to the likes of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
In April 2018, Norman was honored as the 12th recipient of the Glenn Gould Prize for her contribution to opera and the arts.
The 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 is actively involved in the program, including fundraisers for its benefit.