Jessye Norman thrilled the opera world for decades, with a voice that has always been described in superlative terms: shimmering, rapturous, sumptuous, magnificent. The soprano who won accolades while helping artists of colour see a place for themselves in operatic and classical circles, died yesterday in New York at 74.
The cause was septic shock and multiple organ failure following complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015, according to a statement by her family.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Howard University and studied at the University of Michigan and Peabody Institute. Her career received its first big boost when she won a first-place prize at the Munich International Music Competition in 1968. The next year, she made her debut on an opera stage at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” as Elisabeth.
Norman, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.
Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture.
In a career that began in the late 1960s, Ms. Norman sang the title role in Verdi’s “Aida,” Wagner’s heroines, characters in Janacek, Poulenc, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in “Les Troyens” by Berlioz, in which she made her Met debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her “one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage.”
While in many ways she belonged to the world, the Augusta, Ga., native was first the product of an African-American community prepared to protect her spirit and her gifts.