Born in Augusta, Ga., to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher — music was always in the stars for acclaimed recitalist Jessye Norman.
“I don’t remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t trying to sing. And I liked to put on some of my mother’s costume jewelry and a feather boa or something, and pretend I was some grand singer, and sing something as worthy as ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,'” Norman told NPR in 2014.
Her mother and her grandmother were both pianists. Norman was one of five children.
Her family was also politically engaged. Growing up, Norman regularly joined in sit-ins and demonstrations.
At the tender age of 16, Norman entered the Marian Anderson vocal competition. Norman did not win the award but was later awarded a scholarship at Howard University. While at Howard, Norman won the National Society of Arts Award in 1966. She went on to graduate in 1967 with a degree in music.
After graduating, Norman headed to Europe.
In 1968, she won the ARD International Music Competition before landing a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where she first appeared as Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.” Norman appeared in Florence in the title role in “Handel’s Deborah” in 1970. The following year, she performed at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in the role of Sélika in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine.”
Norman’s credits are simply too long to list. She has performed for some of history’s most influential leaders, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and the Queen.
The musician cited jazz singers Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer and Sarah Vaughan as her early influences.
“It is a stark reminder to have Billie Holiday sing a song that was written, actually, by someone who did not experience the persecution that African-Americans have felt in this country,” Norman told WREG of Holiday’s anti-lynching hymn “Strange Fruit” in 2013. “He wrote it in sympathy, and in empathy. It is so meaningful, with us just having celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and all that is still going on socially and politically, that we are still not able to come together as one people.”
Her time in Europe proved fruitful and Norman became a huge success. Not only did she live in Germany, but she also moved to London in 1975. Her Cassandre in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” is often regarded as one of her most mesmerizing roles. After spending five years in London, Norman decided to return to America to see if she could mirror her success.
It did not happen overnight.
For two years, Norman worked hard to garner similar success until her Met debut in 1983. She went on to grace the Met stage more than 80 times throughout her career. Norman won five Grammy Awards, the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009, graced opera houses worldwide.
Sadly, the soprano died September 30, 2019, at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York from septic shock and multi-organ failure, secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015.
She was 74.