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Jessye Norman (born September 15, 1945) is an Americanmarker opera singer. Norman is one of the most admired contemporary opera singers and recitalists, and is one of the highest paid performers in classical music. A true dramatic soprano with a majestic stage presence, Norman is associated in particular with the roles of Aïda, Cassandre, Alceste, and Leonora in Fidelio. Norman is known for the direct and emotionally expressive qualities of her singing and for her formidable intellectual understanding of the music and its style, as well as first-rate musicianship. As a performer, she is known for her magnetic and dramatic personality, and, with her imposing physical presence, cuts an impressive figure before audiences. According to Curt Sanburn in Life, Norman on stage creates the perception of one who "veritably looms behind her lyrics." Norman's public manner combines an apparent hauteur with flashes of disarming humor, putting her squarely in the venerable operatic tradition of the Diva, to the extent that many credit her as the inspiration for the title character in the 1981 French film Diva.

Life and career

Early life and musical education

Jessye Mae Norman was born on September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgiamarker to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a school teacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, her father a singer in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.

Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. At the age of nine, Norman heard opera for the first time on the radio and was immediately an opera fan. She started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price whom Norman credits as being inspiring figures in her career. At the age of 16, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia which, although she did not win, led to her being offered a full scholarship to Howard Universitymarker, in Washington, D.C. While at Howard Universitymarker, Norman 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 1965, along with 33 female students and 4 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 level studies at the Peabody Conservatorymarker in Baltimore and later at the University of Michiganmarker in Ann Arbor, from which she earned a Masters Degree in 1968. During this time Norman studied voice with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac.

Early career (1969-1979)

After graduating, Norman, like many young musicians at the time, moved to Europe to establish herself. In 1969 she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munichmarker and landed a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She made her operatic début that same year as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlinmarker. Critics at the time described Norman as having "the greatest voice since the German soprano Lotte Lehmann."

In subsequent years Norman performed with various German and Italian opera companies appearing often as princesses or other noble figures. Norman was exceptional at portraying a commanding and noble bearing. This ability was partly due to her uncommon height and size, but more so as a result of her unique, rich, and powerful voice. Norman's range was uncommonly wide, encompassing all female voice registers from contralto to high dramatic soprano. In 1970 she made her Italian début in Florence in Handel's Deborah. In 1971, Norman made her début at the Maggio Musicale in Florence appearing as Sélica in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. That year she also sang the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Berlin Festival and recorded the role that same year with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of Colin Davis. The recording was a finalist for the prestigious Montreux International Record Award competition and brought Norman much exposure to music listeners in Europe and the United States.

In 1972, Norman debuted at La Scalamarker, where she sang the title role in Verdi's Aida and at London's Royal Opera at Covent Gardenmarker, where she sang the role of Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens. Norman appeared as Aida again in a concert version that same year in her first well-publicized American performance at the Hollywood Bowlmarker. This was followed by an all-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a recital tour of the country. After which Norman went back to Europe for several engagements.Norman returned to the US again briefly to make her first-ever New York City recital where she appeared as part of the "Great Performers" series at Alice Tully Hallmarker in Lincoln Centermarker in 1973.

In 1975 Norman moved to London and had no staged opera appearances for the next five years. While she gave as the reason for her withdrawal the need to fully develop her voice, others felt that this was a period of concern for her weight and thus her stage image. However, Norman remained internationally active as a recitalist and soloist in works such as Mendelssohn's Elijah and Franck's Les Béatitudes. Norman returned to North America again in 1976 and 1977 to make an extensive concert tour, but it wasn't until many years later that she would make her US Opera début or appear frequently in the United States. Only after Norman had established herself in Europe's leading opera houses and festivals – including the Edinburgh Festival, Salzburg Festival, Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the Stuttgart Operamarker-- did Norman set out to establish herself in the United States. Norman toured Europe throughout the 1970s, giving recitals of works by Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler, Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, and several contemporary American composers to great critical acclaim.

Mid-career (1980-89)

In October 1980 Norman returned to the operatic stage in the title role of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Hamburg State Operamarker in Hamburg, Germany. Norman made her United States opera début in 1982 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, appearing in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex as Jocasta and in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas as Dido. Norman followed this with her début at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983, appearing in Berlioz's Les Troyens as both Cassandra and Dido, a production which marked the company's 100th anniversary season. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "By the mid-1980s she was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world." She was invited to sing at the January 21, 1985, inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, an invitation which she debated as an African American, as a Democrat, and as a nuclear disarmament activist. But she did accept and sang the folk song "Simple Gifts." In 1986, Norman sang at Elizabeth II's sixtieth birthday celebration. That same year Norman appeared as a soloist in Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker during its tour of the USA.

Over the years Norman has not been afraid to expand her talent into less familiar areas. In 1988 she sang a concert performance of Poulenc's one-act opera La Voix Humaine ("The Human Voice"), based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play of the same name. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Norman produced numerous award-winning recordings, and many of her performances were televised. In addition to opera, many of Norman's recordings and performances during this time focused upon art songs, lieder, oratorios, and orchestral works. Her interpretation of Strauss's Four Last Songs is legendary. Its slowness is controversial, but the tonal qualities of her voice are ideal for these final works of the Romantic German lieder tradition.

Norman is also known for the Gurre-Lieder of Arnold Schoenberg and for Schoenberg's one woman opera Erwartung. In 1989 Norman appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Erwartung that marked the company's first single-character production. This opera was presented in a double bill with Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle with Norman playing the role of Judith. Both operas were broadcast nationally. That same year, Norman was the featured soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in its opening concert of its 148th season, which was telecast live to the nation by PBS. Also in 1989, Norman was invited to sing the French national anthem La Marseillaise in Paris at the Place de la Concordemarker in a costume designed by Azzedine Alaïa as part of an elaborate pageant orchestrated by avant-garde designer Jean-Paul Goude. That same year Norman also performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centermarker opening and gave a recital at Taiwan's National Concert Hall.

Later career (1990-present)

Since the early 1990s Norman has lived in Croton on Hudson, New Yorkmarker in a secluded estate known as "The White Gates" which she purchased from television personality Allen Funt. In 1990, Norman performed at Tchaikovsky's 150th Birthday Gala in Leningrad and she made her Lyric Opera of Chicago début in the title role of Gluck's Alceste. In 1991 Norman sang for the 700th Celebration Party of Swiss National Day. That same year, she performed in a concert recorded live with Lawrence Foster and the Lyon Opera Orchestra amid the tantalizing acoustics at Paris's Notre Dame cathedralmarker. In 1992 Norman sang Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex at the opening operatic production at the new Saito Kinen Festival in the Japanese Alpsmarker near Matsumoto. In 1993, Norman sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. In 1994, Norman sang at the funeral of former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In September 1995, she was again the featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, this time under Kurt Masur's direction, in a gala concert telecast live to the nation by PBS making the opening of the orchestra's 153rd season. In 1996 Norman gave a highly lauded performance as the title character in the Metropolitan Opera's premier production of Janáček's The Makropulos Case.

Starting in the mid 1990s, Norman began to move away from soprano stage-roles migrating heavily toward mezzo soprano roles. In January 1997, Norman performed at the second inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. Jessye Norman's 1998-1999 performances included a recital at Carnegie Hallmarker in New York City, which had an unusual program incorporating sacred music of Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano, and featuring the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemblemarker. Other performances during the season included Das Lied von der Erde, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a television special for Christmas filmed in her home town of Augusta, Georgia, as well as a spring recital tour, which included performances in Tel Avivmarker. The following season also brought performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington to London and Vienna, together with a summer European tour, which included performances at the Salzburg Festival.

In 1999 Norman collaborated with choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones in a project for New York City's Lincoln Center, called "How! Do! We! Do!" In 2000, Norman later released an album, I Was Born in Love with You, featuring the songs of Michel Legrand. The recording, reviewed as a jazz crossover project, featured Legrand on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. In February and March 2001, Norman was featured at Carnegie Hall in a three-part concert series. With James Levine on piano, the concerts were a significant arts event, replete with an 80-page program booklet featuring a newly commissioned watercolor portrait of Norman by David Hockney. In 2002, Norman performed at the opening of Singapore's Esplanade Theatres on the bay.

On March 11, 2002, Norman performed "America the Beautiful" at a memorial service unveiling two monumental columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Centermarker, as a memorial for the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. In 2002 she returned to Augusta to announce that she would fund a pilot school of the arts for children in Richmond County. Classes commenced at St. John United Methodist Church in the fall of 2003.In November 2004, a documentary of Miss Norman's life and work to date, was created. This film, directed by André Heller, with Othmar Schmiderer as director of photography and produced by DOR-FILM of Vienna, chronicles the music, the social and political issues, the inspiration and dreams that combine to make this singer unique in her profession. In 2006, Norman collaborated with the modern dance choreographer, Trey McIntyre, for a special performance during the summer at the Vail, Colorado Dance Festival.

In March 2009, Ms. Norman curates Honor!, a celebration of the African American cultural legacy. The festival honors the courageous African American trailblazers and artists of the past with concerts, recitals, lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions hosted by Carnegie Hallmarker, the Apollo Theatermarker, The Cathedral of St. John the Divinemarker, and other sites around New York City.

After more than thirty years on stage, Norman no longer performs ensemble opera, concentrating instead on recitals and concerts. In addition to her busy performance schedule, Jessye Norman serves on the Boards of Directors for Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Librarymarker, the New York Botanical Gardenmarker, City-Meals-on-Wheels in New York City, Dance Theatre of Harlem, National Music Foundation, and Elton John AIDS Foundation. She is a member of the board as well as National spokesperson for the LUPUS Foundation, and spokesperson for Partnership for the Homeless. And in her home town of Augusta, Georgia, she serves on the Board of Trustees of Paine College and the Augusta Opera Association.

Opera roles

These are notable opera roles that Norman has performed.

* Aïda, Aïda (Verdi)
* Alceste, Alceste (Gluck)
* Ariadne, Ariadne auf Naxos (Richard Strauss)
* Armida, Armida (Haydn)
* Carmen, Carmen (Bizet)
* Cassandre, Les Troyens (Berlioz)
* Countess Almaviva, The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
* Dido, Dido and Aeneas (Purcell)
* Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni (Mozart)
* Elisabeth, Tannhäuser (Wagner)
* Elle, La voix humaine (Poulenc)
* Elsa, Lohengrin (Wagner)
* Emilia Marty, The Makropulos Affair (Janáček)
* Giulietta, The Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach)
* Hélène, La belle Hélène (Offenbach)
* Idamante, Idomeneo (Mozart)
* Isolde, Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)
* Jocasta, Oedipus rex (Stravinsky)

* Judith, Bluebeard's Castle (Bartók)
* Kundry, Parsifal (Wagner)
* Giulietta di Kelbar, Un giorno di regno (Verdi)
* Leonore, Fidelio (Beethoven)
* Madame Lidoine, Dialogues of the Carmelites (Poulenc)
* Marguerite, La damnation de Faust (Berlioz)
* Medora, Il Corsaro (Verdi)
* Pénélope, Pénélope (Fauré)
* Phedra, Hippolyte et Aricie (Rameau)
* Rosina, La vera costanza (Haydn)
* Salome, Salome (Richard Strauss)
* Salome, Hérodiade (Massenet)
* Santuzza, Cavalleria rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)
* Sélica, L'Africaine (Meyerbeer)
* Sieglinde, Die Walküre (Wagner)
* Third Norn, Götterdämmerung (Wagner)
* Woman, Erwartung (Schoenberg)

Oratorio and orchestral parts performed

These are among the notable oratorio and orchestral parts that Norman has performed.

* (Beethoven), Missa solemnis
* (Beethoven), Symphony No. 9 in D minor, soloist
* (Alban Berg), Der Wein
* (Alban Berg), Sieben frühe Lieder, Altenberg Lieder, Jugendlieder
* (Berlioz), Les Nuits d'été
* (Berlioz), La mort de Cléopâtre, Cléopâtre
* (Berlioz), Romeo et Juliette, Juliette
* (Brahms), Lieder
* (Brahms), A German Requiem
* (Brahms), Alto Rhapsody
* (Bruckner), Te Deum [and] Helgoland [and] 150 Psalm
* (Chausson), Poème de l'amour et de la mer, op. 19
* (Chausson), Chanson perpétuelle, op. 37
* (Debussy), L'Enfant prodigue [and] La damoiselle élue
* (Henri Duparc), Mélodies
* (César Franck), Les Béatitudes (oratorio)
* (Haendel), Deborah, Deborah
* (Mahler), Das Lied von der Erde
* (Mahler), Des Knaben Wunderhorn
* (Mahler), Songs of a Wayfarer.

* (Mahler), Kindertotenlieder.
* (Mahler), Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection", soloist
* (Mahler), Symphony No. 3, soloist
* (Mozart), Die Gaertnerin aus Liebe
* (Francis Poulenc), Mélodies
* (Ravel), Shéhérazade
* (Ravel), Deux mélodies hébraïques
* (Ravel), Chansons madécasses
* (Erik Satie), Mélodies
* (Arnold Schoenberg), Gurrelieder
* (Arnold Schoenberg), Brettl-Lieder
* (Franz Schubert), Lieder
* (Franz Schubert), Erlkönig
* (Robert Schumann), Frauenliebe und Leben, op. 42
* (Robert Schumann), Liederkreis, op. 39
* (Richard Strauss), Four Last Songs (Philips, 1983).
* (Richard Strauss), Lieder with piano
* (Michael Tippett), A Child of Our Time
* (Wagner), Wesendonck Lieder
* (Verdi), Requiem
* (Hugo Wolf), Lieder

Concert and recital work

Throughout her career, Norman has spent much of her time giving recitals and concerts and continues to do so today. In addition to her operatic recitals, Norman has given regular recitals encompassing the classical German repertory as well as contemporary masterpieces, such as Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and the French moderns, which she invariably performed in the original tongue.

This combination of scholarship and artistry contributed to her consistently successful career as one of the most versatile concert and operatic singers of her time. Often cited for her innovative programming and fervent advocacy of contemporary music, she has earned the recognition of "one of those once –in-a-generation singers who isn’t simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing."

Norman frequently collaborates with the worlds best symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, and other classical solo artists in her recital work. She has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, Stockholm Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and Berlin Philharmonic to name a few.

Norman premiered the song cycle by composer Judith Weir, a work commissioned for her by Carnegie Hallmarker, with texts by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estés; performed a selection of sacred music of Duke Ellington; recorded a jazz album, Jessye Norman Sings Michel Legrand; and was the soprano co-lead in Vangelis' project Mythodea.Norman commended herself in Mussorgsky's songs, which she performed in Moscow in the original Russian. Other of Norman's diverse projects have included her 1984 album, With a Song in My Heart, which contains numbers from films and musical comedies, and a 1990 performance of American spirituals with soprano Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall.

Voice type

Norman is most often referred to as a dramatic soprano but unlike most dramatic sopranos, Norman has become known for roles more traditionally sung by other types of voices. From her student days Norman had been selective about her repertoire, heeding her own instincts and interests more than the advice of her teachers or requests of her management. In the beginning of her career, this tendency put her at odds with the Deutsche Opera and compelled her to seek out musical works on her own that she felt were more suitable to her vocal skills. Norman told John Gruen of the New York Times, "As for my voice, it cannot be categorized—and I like it that way, because I sing things that would be considered in the dramatic, mezzo or spinto range. I like so many different kinds of music that I've never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range."

Some vocal critics assert that Norman is not a dramatic soprano but has in fact a rare soprano voice type known as a Falcon. The Falcon voice is an intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo soprano that is similar to the dramatic soprano but with a darker-color. Norman, however, refuses to place any labels on her voice.

Over the years Norman's technical expertise has been among her most critically praised attributes. In a review of one of her recitals at New York City's Carnegie Hall, New York Times contributor Allen Hughes wrote that Norman "has one of the most opulent voices before the public today, and, as discriminating listeners are aware, her performances are backed by extraordinary preparation, both musical and otherwise." Another Carnegie Hall appearance prompted these words from New York Times contributor Bernard Holland: "If one added up all the things that Jessye Norman does well as a singer, the total would assuredly exceed that of any other soprano before the public. At Miss Norman's recital ... tones were produced, colors manipulated, words projected and interpretive points made—all with fanatic finesse."


In the mid 1980s, Norman was involved in a major and much publicized legal dispute with a record company.

In 1995, Norman filed a $3 million suit against Classic CD magazine claiming that an article in the November 1994 issue depicted her "in a grotesque and exaggerated manner." Norman said the article, entitled "Deadlier Than The Male", mocked her speech in an effort "to ridicule and caricature her and all persons of African-American background and descent." After a five year battle, Norman eventually lost the lawsuit.

Honors and awards


  1. Jessye Norman (born 1945), New Georgia Encyclopedia.
  2. Jessye,
  3. Jessye Norman's Biography,
  4. Jessye Norman Biography,
  5. Norman, Jessye Biography,
  6. Norman, Jessye: Biography,
  7. Jessye Norman, UXL Newsmakers.
  8. Jessye Norman,
  9. Past Winners, National Society of Arts and Letters.
  10. Jessye Norman, Inspired Minds.
  11. Jessye Norman, African American World, PBS. Article by Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  12. Jessye Norman (Soprano),
  13. En.Wikipedia: Azzedine Alaïa, cf. article for image of Jessye Norman in the celebrated costume.
  14. About Jessye Norman, The Jessye Norman School of the Arts, Rachel Longstreet Foundation.
  15. Jessye Norman: Operatic Stage Roles,
  16. How about some Falcon roles?, The New Forum for Classical Singers.
  17. " Jessye Norman sues magazine for portraying her in 'exaggerated' manner", Jet, November 20, 1995.
  18. " Life as a Classical Music Magazine Editor", Clef #3, September 2000.
  19. " Capturing the Flag", San Francisco Classical Voice.
  20. Jessye Norman Biography, Notable Biographies.
  21. Jessye Norman: Accolades,
  22. Tomasson, Robert E. " Chronicle", The New York Times, May 4, 1990.
  23. Jessye Norman, Picture Story,
  24. " Sidney Poitier, Jessye Norman and Ed Bradley honored at New York's Associated Black Charities Black History Makers Awards Dinner, Jet, March 3, 1997.
  25. " Opera Star Jessye Norman and Pasadena POPS Perform For Blair Students", Pasadena Now.
  26. " Jessye Norman To Receive Radcliffe Medal", Harvard University Gazette.
  27. " Jessye Norman, performs at the Opera House", Tell Us Detroit.

Further reading

  • Gates, Henry Louis and Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (eds.) (2004) "Norman, Jessye" African American Lives Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 629-631, ISBN 0-19-516024-X

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