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World-Renowned Soprano Jessye Norman Dies at 74

The opera star, who championed diversity in the arts, was known for her singular voice and versatile range

Jessye Norman at L'Olympia on June 26, 2012. (Photo by David Wolff - Patrick/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

When France celebrated the 200th anniversary of revolution in 1989, Jessye Norman sang “La Marseillaise” while clad in a dress of red, white and blue. In 1986, she marked Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday with a rendition of “God Save the Queen.” The soprano also performed at two presidential inaugurations—that of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—and was friendly with President Barack Obama, who presented her with the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

Norman, who died at a New York hospital in the company of loved ones early Monday morning, always credited African-American predecessors including Marian Anderson and Dorothy Maynor with paving the way for her success.

“They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’” she explained in a 1983 New York Times interview, “or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing Porgy and Bess.’”

The international opera star—heralded by the Metropolitan Opera as “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century”—sang it all, embodying roles such as Aida, Carmen and Isolde of Tristan and Isolde, as well as starring parts in numerous Wagernian productions, over the course of her 50-year career.

Known for her versatile range (she switched from classical music to Duke Ellington and Baroque pieces with chameleon-like ease)—and, of course, her voice, which was praised as “sumptuous, shimmering” and “rich, majestic, capacious”—Norman won accolades including five Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors.

The opera singer grew up in segregated Georgia and attended Howard University on a full-tuition scholarship. Later, she studied at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Peabody Conservatory. She made her professional debut in 1969, performing the role of Elisabeth in a Berlin production of Tannhauser.

Norman appeared at Milan’s Teatro alla Scalla, London’s Royal Opera House and an array of major opera houses across the globe. In 1983, the rising star made her Met debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Eventually, she would go on to perform more than 80 shows with the company.

In between recording sessions and performances, the soprano also pursued social engagement projects aimed at giving back to the community and championing the arts. Most prominent among these efforts was the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school fine arts program launched in the singer’s hometown in 2003. Per the local Augusta Chronicle, Norman was scheduled to attend a local ceremony hosted in her honor October 11: The event, set to mark the rededication of Eighth Street as Jessye Norman Boulevard, will continue as planned.

Throughout her life, the opera singer remained ever conscious of her role as a prominant African-American voice in the arts community. “Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?” she said in an interview with the Times in 2014.

Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for the Washington Post who struck up a friendship with Norman in 2012, praised her for being “an extraordinary black woman who didn’t shy away from her blackness.” The world, he wrote, is quieter without her presence. “How lucky for heaven. How sad for us to lose such a wonderful soul,” he added.

Norman was 74 when she died. Per a statement provided to the Associated Press, the cause of death was septic shock and multiple organ failure following complications associated with a 2015 spinal cord injury.

Once, in a 1992 Times review, the critic Edward Rothstein characterized Norman’s voice as “a grand mansion of sound.”

“It defines an extraordinary space,” he wrote, “It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse.”

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