October is Black History Month, and we’ve decided to do a feature on Jessye Norman after hearing about her recent death. The US opera singer was considered one of the most renowned sopranos of the 20th century.
She was born in Augusta, Georgia into a family of amateur musicians, and she was encouraged to play piano from an early age. She was a talented singer, singing at church from the age of 4. She said “I don’t remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t trying to sing.” in an interview in 2014.
She earned a scholarship to study music at Howard University in Washington DC, before attending the Peabody Conservatory and the university of Michigan. She then went on to establish her career in Europe throughout the 70s, touring with German and Italian opera societies, where she often had the role of a noble or princess, partly due to her size and stature, but mainly due to her commanding, powerful voice.
By the 1980s, she was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world, and in 1983 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and at the 60th birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth in 1986.
She has woman many prestigious awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor, which she earned in 1997 at the age of 52; a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; a National Medal of Arts in 2009 and France’s Legion d’Honneur.
In 2003, the Rachel Longstreet Foundation and Norman partnered to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts after-school program for economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia. Norman was actively involved in the program, including fundraisers for its benefit.
She died on September 30, 2019 aged 74, from complications resulting from an earlier spinal cord injury in 2015.