NORMAN, JESSYE (1945– ) Singer

One of America’s greatest opera singers, Jessye Norman was born on September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. With her parents encouraging her interest in music, she started singing in church choirs at four. Soon after, she began taking piano lessons. As a child, she was first exposed to opera by listening to a radio broadcast from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Norman later recalled, “I was nine and didn’t know what was going on, but I just loved it.”Her singing voice won her a full scholarship to Howard University, from which she graduated with honors. She continued her musical studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1968, she won the International Music Competition in Munich, Germany. Based on the tremendous reception she received there, she moved to Europe to build her career. The following year, Norman made her debut with the Deutsche Opera in Berlin in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. She was soon playing the best European opera houses. In 1972, she made her first appearances at La Scala in Milan and at the Royal Opera House in London.

The same year, Norman performed Verdi’s Aida at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. She followed this triumph with her first major appearance in New York City in 1973. Part of the “Great Performers” series at Lincoln Center, her performance was hailed by the New York Times for its “extraordinary intelligence, taste and emotional depth.”After touring around the world, Norman retreated from opera singing in 1975. Concentrating on recitals, she explained she wanted to take some time to develop her voice. In Hamburg, Germany, in 1980, Norman took the stage in Ariadne auf Naxos, her first opera performance in five years. Three years later, Norman delighted her American fans by making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in its 100th season in September 1983. Another career triumph came in 1987, when she received a 10-minute ovation after performing a program of songs by Richard Strauss with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Norman is almost as well known for her regal bearing as for her technically perfect voice. With a dramatic personality and a large physique, she offers a commanding, sometimes even intimidating presence both on and off the stage. The word diva has often been used to describe Norman. In fact, she was rumored to be the inspiration for the opera singer in the popular French film Diva (1982), a romantic thriller.

Norman also has a reputation for searching out unusual projects and interesting collaborations. Among her more than 50 recordings are With a Song in My Heart (1984), an album of show tunes, and I Was Born in Love with You (2000), a collection of songs by French composer Michel Legrand.

Onstage, Norman sang a concert of spirituals with Katherine Battle in 1990 and performed an experimental dance and song piece with choreographer Bill T. Jones in 1998. March 2000 saw the Carnegie Hall premiere of Combining song and spoken word, this innovative work was commissioned by Norman and included music by composer Judith Weir and text by writers Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Throughout her career, Norman has received numerous honors, including more than 30 honorary degrees and several Grammy Awards. In 1997, at 52 she became the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor, the highest honor the United States bestows on artists.

Opera roles

    * Aida, Aida (Verdi)
    * Alceste, Alceste (Gluck)
    * Ariadne, Ariadne auf Naxos (Richard Strauss)
    * Armida, Armida (Haydn)
    * Carmen, Carmen (Bizet)
    * Cassandre, Les Troyens (Berlioz)
    * Countess Almaviva, The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
    * Dido, Dido and Aeneas (Purcell)
    * Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni (Mozart)
    * Elisabeth, Tannhäuser (Wagner)
    * Elle, La voix humaine (Poulenc)
    * Elsa, Lohengrin (Wagner)
    * Emilia Marty, The Makropulos Affair (Janáček)
    * Giulietta, The Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach)
    * Hélene, La belle Hélene (Offenbach)
    * Idamante, Idomeneo (Mozart)
    * Isolde, Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)
    * Jocasta, Oedipus rex (Stravinsky)
    * Judith, Bluebeard's Castle (Bartók)
    * Kundry, Parsifal (Wagner)
    * Giulietta di Kelbar, Un giorno di regno (Verdi)
    * Leonore, Fidelio (Beethoven)
    * Madame Lidoine, Dialogues of the Carmelites (Poulenc)
    * Marguerite, La damnation de Faust (Berlioz)
    * Medora, Il Corsaro (Verdi)
    * Pénélope, Pénélope (Fauré)
    * Phedra, Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau)
    * Rosina, La vera costanza (Haydn)
    * Salome, Salome (Richard Strauss)
    * Salome, Hérodiade (Massenet)
    * Santuzza, Cavalleria rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)
    * Sélica, L'Africaine (Meyerbeer)
    * Sieglinde, Die Walküre (Wagner)
    * Third Norn, Götterdämmerung (Wagner)
    * Woman, Erwartung (Schoenberg)

Further Reading
“Jessye Norman.” In Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Group, 1993.
Michener, Charles. “Diva Fever.” Vanity Fair. February 1989. 52: 2, 150+.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Jessye Norman at Notre Dame (1991). Philips, VHS, 1992.
Jessye Norman: Sacred Songs. Philips, CD, 1997.
Jessye Norman Sings Carmen. Philips, VHS, 1990.
Strauss: Four Last Songs. Philips, CD, 1987.