The world is mourning the loss of legendary opera singer Jessye Norman, who has died at the age of 74. The five-time Grammy award-winner, Kennedy Center Honoree (1997) and National Medal of Arts winner, died Monday of septic shock and organ failure at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Born in Augusta, GA to a mother who was a schoolteacher and father who was an insurance salesman, Norman’s parents insisted Norman learn to play the piano. Norman’s father sang in the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church choir and her mother played piano. Gifted a radio from her family at age 9, Norman listened to live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, becoming a fan of opera great Marian Anderson. Listening to Anderson and reading her autobiography, Norman was able to see herself as an opera singer, auditioning for a Marian Anderson singing contest in Philadelphia as a teenager. Although Norman didn’t win the competition, Norman auditioned for Howard University’s music program on her way back home, where she was quickly accepted and awarded a full scholarship.
Norman received her musical foundation at Howard University, continuing her studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and then at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s degree. It is this musical education and foundation that Norman credits for her ability to combine music theory and vocal technique, and to sing in the languages of the classical repertoire of Italian, French and German. In 1973, Norman made her New York debut in a recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and the rest is history. A Soprano, Norman traveled the world performing in Germany, Italy, France, Canada and England achieving worldwide stardom for her mastery of opera and other forms of music.
See below a conversation between Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef and Norman for the TIFF/Glenn Gould Foundation, which honored Norman with the Glenn Gould award in 2018. The Glenn Gould award is given to a living individual for contributions that have enriched the human condition through the arts. Norman was the 12th recipient of that award.
Norman was also inducted into the British Royal Academy of Music, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Norman has received honorary doctorates from Julliard, Yale and Harvard and has an orchid named after her in France. France also made Norman a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. One of Norman’s five Grammy awards was a Lifetime Achievement Award given in 2006. The trailblazer is one of the few opera singers in general and black opera singers specifically to attain worldwide stardom and adoration.
Norman is survived by a brother and sister, James Norman and Elaine Sturkey, who released a statement saying they are proud of her musical achievements and, “We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”
Listen to Norman’s beautiful voice below:
Read Norman’s New York Times obituary here.