The world lost a treasure that will never be replaced when the legendary opera singer Jessye Norman died on Monday at the age of 74.
As one writer notes, “if arias are like lyrical prose poems, then each singer becomes a poet, reading the text with a unique timbre and cadence.” As for Norman, her voice delivered pure poetry from her interpretations of a Wagner opera or Bizet’s “Carmen.”
But while the performer would rise from a world of limitations in the segregated South and Jim Crow to worldwide acclaim, the divine diva could never shed that which often left her feeling on the edge rather than in the inner circle — the color of her skin.
In her memoirs, she acknowledged how her parents “dared to dream of and plan for brighter futures for their children” — and Norman made the best of every opportunity that came her way. After leaving her childhood home of Augusta, Ga., she traveled to Howard University, continuing to fight perceptions that because she was Black, she was somehow less talented.
She first began to compete internationally in 1968, winning the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition and then, a year later, accepted an invitation to sing at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She continued to hone her craft on stages throughout Europe, eventually returning to the U.S. She would become known for her ability to bridge classical masterpieces with the music that marked her beginnings — the Negro spirituals — blending the structure of her operatic performance with the improvisational style of the spiritual.
Norman, a dramatic soprano, would become known for her prowess in roles that included Wagner’s “Sieglinde,” “Ariadne” by Richard Strauss, Gluck’s “Alceste,” Beethoven’s “Leonore” and both Cassandre and Dido in “Les Troyens” by Berlioz. In addition, she sang and recorded recitals of music by Schubert, Brahms, Chausson, Poulenc, Mahler and Strauss, sang at the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan, at Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday celebration and took the stage to perform “La Marseillaise” during the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. She also sang at the 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Atlanta and for the second inauguration of Bill Clinton.
Her formative years as a singer harken to her loss in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia at the age of 16. However, the experience led to the offer of a full scholarship at Howard University where she sang in the university chorus and as a soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ.
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 a New York Times interview, Norman talked about her wide range of vocal abilities.
“As for my voice, it cannot be categorized and I like it that way because I sing things that would be considered in the dramatic, mezzo or spinto range. I like so many different kinds of music that I’ve never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range.”
She would add, in another interview when asked to characterize her voice, “pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.”