American soprano Jessye Norman is one of today’s leading opera singers and is considered to have one of the most beautiful voices in the world. She is ‘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 has a distinguished and diverse discography and has been the recipient of many prestigious international prizes.
Norman studied with Carolyn Grant at Howard University in Washington, D.C. on a scholarship before moving on to the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and then the University of Michigan. Her principal teachers, after Grant, include Pierre Bernac and Elizabeth Mannion.
Norman has a broad repertory that ranges from Purcell to Richard Rodgers and Duke Ellington. She appears regularly with opera companies, symphony and chamber orchestras and at various festivals. One critic observed that Norman’s ‘vocal phrasing moves beyond mere seamlessness to convey a more ardent, spontaneous passion’.
In 1968, one year before making her operatic debut, Norman won the Munich Competition. The next year she made her operatic debut as Elisabeth inTannhauser at the Berlin Deutsche Oper. Soon after, in 1971, she appeared in the title role ofL’Africaine at Florence’s Maggio Musicale. She followed this with the role of Aida at La Scala in Milan and as Cassandra in Berlioz’sLes Troyens at Covent Garden in London.
In 1973, Norman gave remarkable recitals in both London and New York before embarking on an extensive tour of North America during the 1967-77 season. It was not until November 1982 that she made her operatic debut in her home country. She performed the roles of Jocasta inOedipus rex and as Dido in Purcell’s opera, both with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Her debut with the Metropolitan Opera followed the next year, again as Cassandra. Following her successful debut with the Met, Norman made many more appearances with the company, including as the title role in the Met’s premier production ofThe Makropulos Casein 1996.
In the late 1980s, Norman appeared as soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker during its 1986 tour of the USA, singing in Strauss’Vier letzte Lieder. In the fall of 1989, she sang with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta for the opening concert of its concert season.
Highlights from the 1990s include her performance at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan in 1992 and her repeat appearance as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic in 1995, this time with Kurt Masur. Other performances included a recital at Carnegie Hall, in which she performed a unique programme which included the sacred music of Duke Ellington. The recital featured the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. Also during the 1998-99 season, Norman appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa inDas Lied von der Erde and a televised Christmas special for her hometown. She also gave a spring recital tour, which took her to Tel Aviv, among other cities. The next year, she performed Ellington’s sacred music in London and Vienna. She also performed at the Salzburg Festival.
Norman is admired for her adherence to the original language of the music she sings. For example, she has performed Mussorgsky’s songs in the Russian language in Moscow and the works of the classical German repertory, and contemporary works. She is equally at home in the music of Purcell and that of Arnold Schoenberg, inGurrelieder, for example.
Her career has brought her to Italian venues such as La Scala and the Teatro Communale and other European concert halls including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Stuttgart Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Hamburg State Opera and also in America with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She has also appeared at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Salzburg Festival.
Norman’s diverse recordings have earned her numerous awards, including the Grand Prix National du Disque for her albums with Lieder by Wagner, Robert Schumann, Gustav Mahler and Schubert. She also won the coveted Gramophone Award for her performance of Strauss’Four Last Songs. Additionally, she received an Edison Prize and award and honours from Belgium, Spain and Germany. Norman won a Grammy Award for her interpretation of “Songs of Maurice Ravel” and Wagner’s Lohengrin and Die Walküre. She received an Ace Award from the National Academy of Cable Programming for “Jessye Norman at Notre Dame”.
Some of Norman’s most recent recordings include the four-time Grammy nominated recording ofBluebeard’s Castle with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra andDas Lied von der Erde with James Levine and the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Norman had received more than thirty honorary doctorates worldwide and was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor, the highest arts honour in the USA, in December 1997. Other honours include the title Commandeur de l’Orde des Arts et des Lettres in 1984 and the Legion d’Honneur in October 1989 from French President Mitterand. Norman was also named Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations in June 1990. Furthermore, the National Museum of Natural History in Paris named an orchid after her.
Norman is also very involved outside of music. She serves on the Board of Directors of a number of institutions, including the New York Public Library, the New York Botanical Garden, City-Meals-on-Wheels (New York City), the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the National Music Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the LUPUS Foundation. She also serves as spokesperson for the latter and for The Partnership for the Homeless. Back in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, Norman serves on the Board of Trustees of Pain College and the Augusta Opera Association. She is also a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America and an renowned cookie-seller.
Jessye Norman currently resides in New York State.