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Sat, 09.15.1945

Jessye Norman, Classic Soprano Vocalist born

Jessey Norman

*Jessye Norman was born on this date in 1945.  She was a Black opera singer (soprano) and recitalist.  

Jessye Mae Norman was from Augusta, Georgia; the daughter of Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher.  She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age.  Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four.  When she was nine, she was given a radio for her birthday and soon discovered the world of opera through the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which she listened to every Saturday while cleaning up her room.   Norman started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, both of whom she credited as inspiring figures in her career.  

She attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.  At age 16, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia which, although she did not win, led to an offer of a full scholarship at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.   Norman studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan in the opera performance program.  While at Howard, she sang in the university chorus and as a professional soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, while studying voice with Carolyn Grant. In 1964, she became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma.  In 1965, along with 33 other female students and four female faculty, she became a founding member of the Delta Nu chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota.

In 1966 she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition.  After graduating in 1967 with a degree in music, she began graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory and later at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, from which she earned a master's degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac.  Eventually, she made her operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, wowing audiences around the world on stages in Milan, London, and New York thanks to her shining vocals, no matter the language. The New York Times described her voice as “a grand mansion of sound.”  “It defines an extraordinary space. It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward.  

Starting with her Met debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens on Opening Night of the Met’s centennial 1983-84 season, Norman sang more than 80 performances with the company, dazzling audiences with her beautiful tone, extraordinary power, and musical sensitivity,” The Met Opera called Norman “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century.”  In 1997, at age 52, Norman became the youngest person ever to earn the Kennedy Center Honor in the organization’s 20-year history at the time. She received her National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama and has earned honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious schools, including Juilliard, Harvard, and Yale.

She was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Norman even has an orchid named after her in France, and the country also made her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.  Norman was associated with roles such as Wagner's Sieglinde, Ariadne by Richard Strauss, Gluck's Alceste, Beethoven's Leonore, and both Cassandre and Dido in Les Troyens by Berlioz.  She earned 15 Grammy nominations throughout her career, picking up her first at the 1985 show for best classical vocal soloist performance for “Ravel: Songs Of Maurice Ravel.” She earned Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Norman also gave back, raising funds to help students attend school, championing the arts in schools, and championing diversity.  Norman was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and became a Spingarn Medalist in 2013.  Apart from several honorary doctorates and other awards, she also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of Arts and was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music.   Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019.    

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