Jessye Norman (b. 1945)
The soprano Jessye Norman, a Georgia native, has performed at all the world's leading opera houses. She is renowned for her powerful and expressive voice, her wide-ranging repertoire, and her commanding stage presence.
Norman was born in Augusta on September 15, 1945, to Janie King and Silas Norman. Her mother, a homemaker and teacher, played piano, and her father, an insurance broker, was a soloist at their church, Mount Calvary Baptist. Besides a love of music, the Normans passed on to each of their five children a sense of social responsibility and the willingness to work hard to make great dreams come true. As a child Norman sang at various civic events and with church and school choirs. She listened to radio broadcasts of New York's Metropolitan Opera and to recordings of the classical artists Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, whom she regards as role models, as well as to jazz vocalists Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday. At sixteen she won a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated cum laude. She continued her studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the University of Michigan.
In 1968 Norman won the female vocal division of the International Music Competition of the German Broadcasting Corporation in Munich, Germany, and she made her operatic debut in 1969 as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's Tannhauser with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. In 1972 she made her La Scala debut, in Milan, Italy, in a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, made her U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl as Aida, and made her British debut at London's Royal Opera House as Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens. For several years she left grand opera to concentrate on recordings and concerts, giving her voice the opportunity to develop and mature outside the demands of an extensive opera repertory.
In 1983 Norman made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut during its 100th anniversary season, singing Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens, a production that was broadcast on PBS. Throughout her career she has concentrated on such twentieth-century composers as Igor Stravinsky and Leos Janacek and has sung many new works as well, including Judith Weir's woman.life.song, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2000 with a text by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Norman's voice has been described by critics as a palpable physical presence and a "force of nature," crossing the ranges of soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto, and she speaks and sings fluently in English, German, French, and Italian.
Norman's concert and recorded repertory has expanded to embrace jazz, popular music, and spirituals. "Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons" has been her motto from the earliest years of her career. Although she briefly retained the publicists who made the tenor Luciano Pavarotti a household name, she ultimately chose to build her reputation on musicianship instead of celebrity. The legendary devotion of her fans inspired the film Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix in 1981; in concerts she has received ovations lasting for nearly an hour.
Norman sang in 1985 at the second inaugural of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and in 1986 for Queen Elizabeth II's sixtieth birthday. In 1989 she sang "La Marseillaise" in Paris, France, for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Other official engagements have included singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, performing at the 1997 inaugural of U.S. president Bill Clinton, singing "America the Beautiful" at the six-month commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks, and taking part in the ceremonies honoring former president U.S. president Jimmy Carter when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
In 1997, at the age of fifty-one, Norman became the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor. In 1996 the city of Augusta renamed the Riverwalk Amphitheater and Plaza in her honor. She was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and has been awarded more than thirty honorary doctoral degrees by universities across the country. The government of France has awarded her the Legion of Honor. She has also received four Grammy awards.
Norman generously returns the gift of her talents to the world. She has endowed a scholarship at Howard University in the name of her teacher there and is an honorary Girl Scout for life, attached to a troop in Paris; she sold more than 2,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in 1999. She was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in 2000 for her work in the fight against lupus, breast cancer, AIDS, and hunger. In 2002 she returned to Augusta to announce that she would fund a pilot school of the arts for children in Richmond County. Classes commenced at St. John United Methodist Church in the fall of 2003. Art, Norman said in 1998, "comes from that part of us that is without fear, prejudice, [or] malice. . . . Art makes each of us whole."
After more than thirty years on stage, Norman no longer performs ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts.