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Jessye Norman, an inspired and inspiring opera soprano, dies at 74

Ms. Norman won five Grammy Awards and also received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997.MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images/File 1996/AFP/Getty Images

From her early performances, critics hailed Jessye Norman as a majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles wherever she performed — from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to Tanglewood and other venues around the world.

Ms. Norman, one of the most decorated of American singers, was 74 when she died Monday in New York. 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 won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She also received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.


Finding acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage from the outset, Ms. Norman began her career in the late 1960s and went on to sing 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 appeared in more than 80 performances at the Met, whose general manager, Peter Gelb, told The New York Times on Monday that she was “one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage.”

Ms. Norman first appeared at Tanglewood in 1972, early in her career.

“If Jessye Norman were as famous as she is good, there would have been a mob at Tanglewood for the Friday night Boston Symphony concert,” Globe critic Michael Steinberg wrote that August, lamenting the comparatively small audience of 5,000.

To Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde,” he added, Ms. Norman brought “musical taste of a high order, intensity, and that kind of personal projection which instantly says ‘star.’ ”

She was a month shy of turning 27 that night, and in a Globe interview a quarter-century later Ms. Norman recalled how she came to be in Tanglewood that evening.


Ms. Norman had been a member of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin when conductor Colin Davis chose her for a 1971 recording of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Davis, a Boston Symphony guest conductor, “invited me to come along with him to Tanglewood the next summer, and so I did. . . . It was a first for me, because I had never visited Tanglewood before, even as a guest. Immediately I was struck at how very beautiful everything was.”

Charmed by a venue where “people may rehearse in their shirt-sleeves, but they are serious about the music,” she recalled that “you can perform Wagner, and thousands of people will come and sit on the grass and bring their children and their grandma and their cousins. That is a wonderful thing.”

A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss.

In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of The New York Times likened her voice to a “grand mansion of sound.”

“It defines an extraordinary space,” he wrote. “It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse.”


As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with the Times.

“They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’ ” she said “or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing “Porgy and Bess.” ’ Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

In her memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” (2014), she recounted meeting instances of racism. “Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?” she told the Times in 2014.

Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., where she grew up 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.

“My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one — a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium — right there in their house,” she wrote in her memoir. “It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults.”


She began listening to opera on the radio as a child.

“I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after,” she wrote. “For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already.”

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.

In 1983, she made her Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.”

She rose early the next day to appear on NBC’s “Today” show. “The only person in my family who couldn’t come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia,’’ she said at the time. “I wanted to give her a look at me.”


Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts.

When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her in the Times as “one of our most musicianly singers” and added: “She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top.”

In a sign of her international stature, Ms. Norman was tapped to sing “La Marseillaise” in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day — which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalog of opera, lieder, spirituals, and recitals.

In person she cut an imposing figure, dressing dramatically and speaking with a diva’s perfect diction. And even after she left the opera stage she remained a restless, probing artist, collaborating with the dancer, choreographer, and director Bill T. Jones in 1999 on a piece called “How! Do! We! Do!”

In 2003, Ms. Norman and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation created the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta for underserved students.

Among her final projects was “Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!” — a tribute to Jones, who in 1893 became the first African-American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, and who had bristled at her stage name, “the Black Patti,” which compared her to the white diva Adelina Patti.

In her memoir, Ms. Norman recalled one of her own earliest stabs at singing opera in front of an audience. She was in junior high school when, at a teacher’s urging, she performed the aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson and Delilah.” She had been singing it in English at church functions and supermarket openings, but for the school performance her teacher had her learn it in its original French.

“I do think that if you can stand up and sing in French in front of an assembly full of middle-schoolers,” Ms. Norman wrote, “then you can do just about anything.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.