Jessye Norman (1945-2019)
The magnificent American soprano Jessye Norman, widely recognised as one of the greatest voices of the late twentieth century and particularly acclaimed in Wagner and Strauss, has died in New York following long-term complications from a spinal injury sustained in 2015. She was 74.
Born into a family of amateur musicians in Augusta (GA) in 1945, Norman sang from early childhood, going on to train at Howard University Washington, Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory and the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. On relocating to Germany after completing her studies, her career hit the ground running when she made her professional opera debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser in 1969; heavyweight German repertoire would play a central role in her operatic career, thanks to the unforced amplitude of her voice and a natural affinity with the language (indeed she retained a slight German accent in spoken English even after moving back to the United States in the early 1990s). An imposing, statuesque figure (she stood at just over 6 foot), she commanded the stage with an easy authority and excelled as mythical, regal heroines such as Gluck’s Alceste, Strauss’s Ariadne and Berlioz’s doomed prophetess Cassandre (the role in which she made her belated Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983) - and when she sang Wagner’s Sieglinde at the Met in the late 1980s, one was never in any doubt that this apparently downtrodden housewife was both the daughter of a god and the mother of a future hero. Musically, too, Norman was never afraid to take up exactly as much space as she needed and possessed the superb breath-control to justify it – as is gloriously evident in her near-legendary recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, which won a Gramophone Award in 1984 and is widely regarded as one of her greatest triumphs on disc.
Though commonly described as a dramatic soprano, Norman truly was a singer whose voice defied categorisation – the thrilling power of her upper register was matched by an opulent middle and chest-voice which enabled her to take on zwischenfach and mezzo roles such as Bizet’s Carmen (which she recorded in 1989 but never sang complete on stage), Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Judit in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Her concert repertoire included numerous works which are usually the province of contraltos, such as Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 and Das Lied von der Erde, as well as the mezzo parts in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and Verdi’s Requiem. Later in her career she also made numerous jazz and crossover recordings, including a disc of songs by Michel Legrand in 2000 and an album of Great American Songbook classics with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra, and appeared with artists including Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Elton John. (Norman sat on the board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and also worked closely with charities including the Lupus Foundation, NYC Meals on Wheels, and the Partnership for the Homeless).
Thanks to her flamboyant glamour, social activism and sheer charisma as well as her magnificent voice, Norman’s popularity extended far beyond the opera world, and she was frequently chosen to perform at high-profile events such the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the opening ceremony at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the victims of 9/11 at the World Trade Center in 2002, and (perhaps most spectacularly) the bicentenary of the French Revolution on Bastille Day 1989, for which she emerged from a monument on the Place de la Concorde swathed in a giant tricolor to sing La Marseillaise. Among her many awards and honours were honorary doctorates from universities including Harvard, Yale and Cambridge, the Legion d’honneur in 1989, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Grammys, and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.
Norman died in hospital in Manhattan on 30th September and is survived by two siblings, Elaine Sturkey and James Norman.
Jessye Norman - a selected discography
Jessye Norman (Ariadne/Prima Donna), Edita Gruberova (Zerbinetta), Julia Varady (Komponist), Paul Frey (Bacchus/Tenor), Olaf Bär (Harlekin), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Musiklehrer)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur
Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC