Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

The iconic soprano has died, aged 74


US soprano Jessye Norman has died in New York, aged 74. She will be remembered as a trailblazing opera singer and champion of diversity in the arts, having been one of the few successful black opera singers in a predominantely white industry. She performed on the stages of La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera many times throughout her illustrious career. 


Jessye Norman had a uniquely rich voice, which was close to a mezzo-soprano in tone, but with the range of a soprano. She was renowned for both her voice and her powerful stage presence, and embraced music from across the generations and genres, championing and performing works by composers from Wagner to Duke Ellington.

Born in Augusta into a family of amateur performers, Norman sang in church from a young age, listening to weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. After winning a scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC, she went onto study at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan.

Norman's career was kickstarted when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, resulting in a three-year contract with Deutsche Oper Berlin. Following her operatic debut as Ellisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser with the company, she was established as a major figure in the European opera scene. Her career flourished in the following years, and she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in Berlioz's Les Troyens in 1983. She went on to perform more than 80 times with the company. 

Norman sang at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as well as at the 60th birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II in 1986. In 1997, she became the youngest person in history to be awarded the presigious Kennedy Center Honor. This was far from her only accolade, with four Grammy Awards (including a lifetime achievement award) and the National Medal of Arts also to her name.  

A celebrated recitalist and dramatic opera singer, Norman was particularly renowned for her interpretations of Strauss's songs and operatic roles in Bizet's Carmen and Verdi's Aida.

Jessye Norman sings Strauss's Four Last Songs

In the latter part of her career, Norman extended her repertoire beyond operatic roles, performing music by Duke Ellington scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano. She also released a jazz crossover album, featuring the songs of Michel Legrad with a jazz trio accompaniment.

Director Robert Wilson spoke to BBC Music Magazine in 2001 in a profile of Jessye Norman, saying, 'One of the beautiful things about Jessye is that she's a formal artist. When I first saw her in the 70s in Paris, she was on stage with other singers, and the others looked like they were waiting for a bus. But Jessye, the way she stood was as beautiful as when she opened her mouth to sing. She's subtle, highly intelligent, has good ideas of what she wants and what looks good.' 

In later life, Norman dedicated herself to giving disadvantaged children the opportunity of an arts education, opening the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta in 2003.


Words by Freya Parr.