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If you like Jessye Norman's story, you might also like:
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Maya Angelou,
Johnnetta Cole,
Suzanne Farrell,
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James Earl Jones,
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and Oprah Winfrey

Jessye Norman can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Jessye Norman's recommended reading: The Story of Ferdinand

Related Links:
Norman School
Decca Classics
Metropolitan Opera

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Jessye Norman
Jessye Norman
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Jessye Norman Biography

Legendary Opera Soprano

Jessye Norman Date of birth: September 15, 1945

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  Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia. Her father Silas was an insurance salesman, her mother a schoolteacher. Jessye Norman's parents placed an enormous importance on education. Although the schools of Georgia were racially segregated in the 1950s, the Normans and their neighbors pressed for high standards in their local schools and expected a high level of academic performance from their children. The presence of the University of Georgia medical school in the community had a powerful influence on the Norman children. One brother became a physician, one sister the director of a nursing program. Jessye too thought she might pursue a career in medicine, until her unmistakable talent led her in a different direction.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
Music was another interest of the Norman family. Jessye's father sang in the church choir; her mother played piano and insisted that Jessye study piano as well. Jessye's powerful singing voice attracted attention at an early age. By age four she was singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Soon she was singing in school assemblies and community functions.

Noting her love of singing, her parents gave her a radio of her own, and she spent many Saturday afternoons in her room, listening to the live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. As a ten-year-old child, she was spellbound by a recording of the great contralto Marian Anderson. Inspired by Anderson's recordings and by reading the singer's autobiography, Norman imagined becoming a classical singer herself.

While still in high school, she learned of the annual Marian Anderson Music Scholarship Competition. With the aid of her high school classmates, she traveled to Philadelphia, accompanied by her high school choir teacher, to participate in the contest. At age 16, she was the youngest entrant, and although she did not win an award, the judges encouraged her to study seriously. On her trip home, she and her teacher stopped in Washington, D.C., and her teacher arranged an impromptu audition with the music faculty of Howard University. Although she had over a year of high school ahead of her, Jessye Norman was offered a full music scholarship to Howard. Young Jessye set aside her plan for pre-med studies and resolved to pursue a musical career.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
Norman received a thorough grounding in music at Howard; after graduation in 1967, she continued her studies at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and at the University of Michigan, where she earned a Master's degree, consolidating her command of music theory and vocal technique, as well as learning to sing in the languages of the classical repertoire, Italian, French and German.

For generations, American classical singers have traveled to Europe to pursue their art. The numerous opera houses of Germany and Austria have long provided opportunities for young singers that the less developed American opera scene has not. Two American opera enthusiasts, Patricia and J. Ralph Corbett, invited the directors of the major European opera houses to New York to hear their country's most promising young singers. At age 23, Jessye Norman made the trip and sang an aria from Richard Wagner's Tannhäser. The director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper, Egon Seefehlner, was so impressed, he invited Norman to Berlin to sing the entire role. Norman quickly learned the rest of the role and made sure that her spoken German would serve her as well offstage as her singing diction onstage.

On arriving in Germany in 1969, she won first place in the competition sponsored by the ARD (Allgemeine Rundfunk Deutschland - German Broadcast Corporation), the country's largest national music competition. Shortly thereafter, she made her professional operatic debut as Elisabeth in Tannhäser at the Deutsche Oper. Her first aria was so well received that Dr. Seefehlner offered her a three-year contract before the performance was even over. In this quintessentially German role, the young African American singer was acclaimed as the greatest voice since Germany's beloved Lotte Lehmann. Her Italian debut followed within a year.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
Opera singers, particularly in Germany, are traditionally divided into narrowly defined vocal categories. The higher female voices are classified as coloratura, lyric and dramatic sopranos, and then divided into even narrower sub-categories. The category or fach a singer is assigned to ordinarily determines what roles she will be offered. From the beginning, Norman's warm, powerful sound seemed suited to the dramatic soprano repertoire, but the wide range of her voice defied classification. When asked to define her own voice, she famously replied, "Pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons."

Although she had made her initial impression in the dramatic role of Elisabeth, she was soon singing the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, a role often assigned to lyric sopranos. She was yet to appear in opera outside of Europe, but her 1971 recording of this role brought her to the attention of music lovers around the world.

In 1972, Norman made her first appearance at Milan's fabled La Scala, in the title role of Verdi's Aïda. At London's Covent garden she sang Cassandra in Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz. Norman returned to America and made a recital tour of the country. In 1973, she made her New York debut in recital at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
While critics struggled to describe her voice, Norman knew which roles were right for her and which were not. Within a few years of her debut, she felt that Dr. Seefehlner and the Berlin opera management were pushing her into roles her voice was not ready for. At best, opera singers' voices mature in their 30s and 40s; singers who sing too much in their 20s may find their vocal equipment worn out before they reach their full potential. Norman was determined to protect her instrument and refused to take on the heavier dramatic roles until she felt ready. In 1975, she moved to London, and concentrated on concert and recital appearances, including performances in concert works such as Mendelssohn's Elijah. Throughout the 1970s, she toured Europe extensively, giving recital of German lieder and French chansons as well as works by contemporary American composers. She made major concert tours of the United States in 1976 and '77, but stayed away from the opera stage until the end of the decade.

In the first years of her career, her stature and noble bearing had made her a natural in the princess roles of Wagner and Verdi opera, but a hectic schedule had made it difficult to care for her own physical well-being. When she finally retuned to the opera stage in 1980, she looked and sounded better than ever and was ready for the most demanding challenges. In 1980 she played the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss at the Hamburg State Opera, a role that remains forever associated with her powerful interpretation. In the United States, she electrified audiences with her performances in the leading female roles of Stravinsky's Oedipus rex and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Philadelphia Opera. These roles, spanning the range from 20th century modernism to 17th century Baroque, were a compelling demonstration of Norman's musicianship and stylistic versatility.

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In 1983, the Metropolitan Opera celebrated its 100th anniversary, and Jessye Norman made her long-awaited Met debut in Les Troyens. In keeping with the historic occasion, Norman performed a historic feat, singing the roles of both Cassandra and Dido in the same evening.

By this time, Norman was recognized as one of the foremost singers in the world, and was invited to sing at state occasions on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1985, she sang the Shaker song "Simple Gifts" at the second inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. A few years later, she performed at the 60th birthday celebration for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Norman's concert performances in the 1980s also made news. In appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic in the United States and Europe, she stunned audiences with her powerful interpretations of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss. Her recordings of these works are treasured by collectors. Television brought Norman's artistry to an even larger audience with the broadcast of her 1987 Christmas special, recorded in her hometown of Augusta.

On the opera stage Norman undertook a number of challenging modern works, including a pair of one-woman operas in which she was the sole performer onstage, La voix humaine by Francis Poulenc and Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg. She first sang La voix humaine in a concert performance in 1988. The following year she sang Erwartung at the Met in a double bill with Bela Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Her performance of Erwartung and Bluebeard's Castle was recorded and broadcast on national television. Her appearance with the New York Philharmonic in the opening concert of its 148th season was broadcast live on public television.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
At the decade's close, Norman had attained international stature as a uniquely beloved ambassadress of song. In 1989, she was chosen by President Mitterand of France to sing the national anthem, "La Marseillaise," in the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The following year, the Secretary General of the United Nations named her an Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations, and she traveled to Leningrad to participate in the celebration of Tchaikovsky's 150th birthday. In 1991 she sang at the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation, and recorded a live concert at Notre Dame in Paris.

In the 1990s, her performances on the opera stage found her exploring widely diverse repertoire, and exploring new territory geographically as well as artistically. She assumed the title roles of Glück's Alceste in Chicago, and sang the role of Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex in Japan in a production directed by Julie Taymor. Having sung roles in German, French, Italian and Latin, she added Czech to her arsenal of languages with the 1996 Met premiere of The Makropoulos Case by Leos Janacek.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
In 1997 Norman sang at the second inaugural ceremony of President Bill Clinton. She was also among the year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the youngest recipient in the 20-year history of the Honors. This period also saw her asserting her identity as a uniquely American singer. She performed Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by a jazz band and the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. She later brought the Ellington program to London and Vienna. She often programs Ellington's music alongside songs by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, comparing and contrasting these three quintessentially American 20th century composers.

Throughout her career, she has constantly broadened her repertoire, mixing contemporary music with the classics in her concerts and recitals. In her 2000 album, I Was Born In Love With You, she sang the songs of the contemporary French composer Michel Legrand, accompanied by the composer at the piano, and jazz stars Ron Carter and Grady Tate on bass and drums. In 2001 she gave a typically expansive overview of her extensive repertoire in a three-part concert series at Carnegie Hall with Met conductor James Levine as her accompanist.

Norman showed yet another side of her talent in 2009, when she curated the Honor! Festival celebrating the achievements of African American artists through concerts, performances and exhibitions at venues throughout New York City, including Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
Jessye Norman has used her great success to give back to the community, particularly her hometown of Augusta, Georgia and in New York City. In 2003 the Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in Augusta, a free after-school program that gives talented middle school students the opportunity to study music, drama, dance and art. She serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall and the New York Public Library, as well as the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Lupus Foundation, and the Partnership for the Homeless. She is a proud lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.

Since her first work with the Alvin Ailey dancers in 1997, she has pursued increasingly adventurous collaborations with theater directors, filmmakers and modern choreographers, including: her 1999 project with Bill T. Jones, How! Do! We! Do!; a 2006 Ellington program with Trey McIntyre; a double bill of Erwartung and La voix humaine designed by Austrian multimedia artist Andre Heller; a theatrical interpretation of Schubert's Winterreise song cycle, staged by director Robert Wilson; and a documentary film, Jessye Norman, directed by Heller and Othmar Schmiderer.

Jessye Norman Biography Photo
To date, she has recorded over 75 CDs. In addition to highest honors from the recording associations of France, Britain, Germany and Spain, in 1996, she became the fourth classical singer to receive the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, joining the company of Enrico Caruso and the heroines of her youth, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. In 2010, she received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.

Today, Jessye Norman makes her home in Croton-on Hudson, New York. Although she no longer performs ensemble opera, she continues to perform as a soloist, in innovative theatrical works and in recital, as well as in concert with the world's leading orchestras.

This page last revised on Jul 09, 2015 12:27 EDT
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