Regal grand diva Jessye Norman dead at 74

Herb Boyd | 9/30/2019, 7:53 p.m.
Opera singer Jessye Norman has died.
Jessye Norman

Whether commanding the opera stage or just walking into a room bedecked in flowing gowns, Jessye Norman was regal in her comportment; there was the diva about her long before she opened that glorious voice. That powerful angelic soprano has been stilled. She died Monday morning, Sept. 30, at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. The official cause of death was septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury sustained in 2015. She was 74.

At the very beginning of her musical journey after participating in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia in 1960, it was clear Norman was on her way to great promise and success—she received a full-tuition scholarship to attend Howard University. This prize was just the first of many and they came in rapid succession after she completed her B.M. degree from Howard in 1967 and later her M.M. degree from the University of Michigan in 1968.

During an interview with Historymakers.com, Norman said she was born on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia to Janie King Norman and Silas Norman Sr. “I graduated from Augusta’s Lucy C. Laney Senior High School,” she began. In 1969, after she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany she was invited to perform as Elisabeth in “Tannhauser” with the Deutsche Opera Berlin. Thereafter she signed a three-year contract with the opera company and performed in “Deborah,” followed by “L’Africaine” and “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Berlin Festival.

A crowning achievement for her occurred in 1972 when she sang Verdi’s “Aida” at La Scala in Milan. From this momentous event there came a flood of invitations as well as solo recitals. Ten years later she was back on stage in “Oedipus Rex” and “Dido and Aeneas” with the Philadelphia Opera company.

In 1983, she was featured at the Metropolitan Opera’s 100th anniversary season. Her impressive resume blossomed considerably after a glowing 1987 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, where she was featured in “Erwartung,” the Metropolitan Opera’s first single-character production, and “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 1989. In 1990, she performed in Tchaikovsky: 150th Birthday Gala from Leningrad along with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Her first appearance with the Lyric Opera of Chicago was in the title role of “Alceste” in 1990. She was cast as Jocasta in a televised production of “Oedipus Rex” at the inaugural Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto in 1993, the same year she was featured in “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Metropolitan Opera, followed by “The Makropulos Case” in 1996.

Two years later she ventured into jazz terrain at Carnegie Hall in Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Ellington,” and subsequently released a jazz crossover project “I Was Born in Love with You,” with French composer Michel Legrand.

Not all her time was devoted to performances and in 2002 she established a tuition-free school of arts in her name in her hometown of Augusta. Seven years later she collaborated with New York City cultural institutions and curated A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy. By 2010, Norman had 75 recordings to her credit, including five Grammy Awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She also published that year her memoir, “My Life, My Song.”

Meanwhile the awards continued to accumulate—45 honorary doctorate degrees, a Kennedy Center Honoree and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. Her board memberships and partnerships were extensive, including the board of trustees of the New York Public Library, the Botanical Garden, Carnegie Hall and The Dance Theatre of Harlem.

One of her favorite spots in Manhattan was Chez Josephine’s on 42nd Street where its late owner Jean-Claude Baker always had a marvelous reception for her that once a few years ago included her brother, Dr. Silas Norman, who died in 2015 at 74. She is survived by a brother and a sister.

Among her most memorable performances for this writer is her aria from Saint-Saens’s “Samson and Delilah” and her towering rendition of “La Marseillaise” for France’s 200th anniversary of Bastille Day.

Her musical influence resonated well beyond opera, touching such jazz notables as pianist/composer Jason Moran, who stated that her “phrase charged the air,” and actress/singer Audra McDonald said Norman was “otherworldly.”