Words fail to capture the power of Jessye Norman's voice
Celebrated opera singer died Sept. 30 In New York City
When the operatic soprano Jessye Norman took the stage, even the most experienced music critics could find themselves at a loss for words to describe the power of her voice.
One "inevitably finds himself falling into the lamest of cliches — 'oceanic power,' 'force of nature,' 'larger-than-life presence' and so on," classical music critic Tim Page once wrote in The Washington Post. But where Norman was concerned, he continued, "all of the cliches ring true: This gigantic woman with the gigantic voice is one of a kind. Posterity will envy us for having her in our midst."
Norman, one of the most celebrated opera singers of her era, with a repertoire that spanned the operatic canon from Wagner to Verdi and from Purcell to Poulenc, also venturing into jazz and African American spirituals, died Sept. 30 at a hospital in New York City. She was 74.
The cause was "septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015," according to a family statement distributed by a spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn.
Norman came of age in the Jim Crow South, one of five children in a middle-class African American family in Augusta, Ga. Hers was a musical household, where all the children took piano lessons, their mother sang as she went about her work and the radio was set on Saturday afternoons to the matinee broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
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Norman established herself in Europe before making her Met debut as Cassandra in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" on opening night in 1983, opposite Plácido Domingo and under the baton of conductor James Levine. By the end of her career, even those uninitiated to the thrills of opera might have known her from her appearances on PBS and her performances at public events, including the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
She credited African American opera singers of earlier generations, including Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Mattiwilda Dobbs, with opening the international stage to her.
"They have made it possible for me to say, 'I will sing French opera' or 'I will sing German opera,' instead of being told, 'You will sing 'Porgy and Bess,'" she told the New York Times in 1983.
At the same time, she said, "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."
Rosalyn M. Story, the author of the volume "And So I Sing: African-American Divas of Opera and Concert," said in an interview that black singers looked to Norman, with her "towering sense of self" and majestic instrument, as "an exemplary figure." She described Norman's voice as complex, with the range of a soprano but the "dark, warm quality" often associated with mezzos. With only a note or two, Story said, Norman's voice was immediately recognizable.
Norman made dozens of appearances at the Met before her final performance there in 2002. In Europe, she performed in the continent's most celebrated opera houses, including La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, and the Paris Opera.
She excelled in the works of the German composers Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, in Baroque operas such as Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" as well as modern works such as Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmélites" and Janácek's "The Makropulos Case." She took on classic roles including Aida, Verdi's enslaved Ethiopian princess, and Bizet's gypsy Carmen. But she was not interested in "so-called mainstream repertory," she told the Times.
"I have not become a Verdi heroine soprano and, of course, that's what's needed in opera houses. ... To sing roles with which I have no empathy would be wrong," she said. "The fact is, I adore the unusual."
She was widely admired as a recitalist, winning her first of four Grammy Awards in 1984 for a recording of the works of Maurice Ravel. (Her later awards honored her recordings of Wagner's "Lohengrin" and "Die Walküre," and Bartók "Bluebeard's Castle." Norman also won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2006.)
Even as her voice diminished with age, she attracted adoring fans to her recitals, where, in what is often perceived as operatic tradition, she projected what many reviewers described as a regal presence.
In 1998, Anthony Tommasini, the Times opera critic, noted that she was the only prima donna he could "think of whose entrances in recital are followed by a spotlight." On the rare occasions when she granted interviews, she sometimes referred to herself in the first-person plural.
In 2009, President Barack Obama bestowed on her the National Medal of Arts.
Norman was born Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, the daughter of an insurance salesman. She began singing at an early age, including at church, and entered her first vocal competition at age 7. She took third prize, she told the Times, because she flubbed the second stanza of the hymn "God Will Take Care of You."
"I guess He has taken care of me," she quipped. "That was my last memory slip in public."
She received a scholarship to study at Howard University in Washington, where she received a bachelor's degree in music in 1967, then studied at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore before receiving a master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan in 1968.
A turning point came that year, when she won the Munich International Music Competition and then debuted in West Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhäuser." Many aspiring American opera singers began their careers in Europe because of the greater appetite there for the art form. She soon attracted attention in the United States as well.
"The voice always had the obvious makings of greatness," Alan Kriegsman wrote in The Post in 1972. "It is large, very large in amplitude, and its natural quality is so rich in timbre and texture that it takes only a few moments of listening to know one is dealing with an exceptional instrument."
"Mark the name well," he wrote. "It's apt to become as much a magnet here as on the other side of the Atlantic before too long."
Norman lived for a portion of her career in London and had an estate in Westchester County, N.Y. Her survivors include a sister and a brother.
Her civic engagement included work on behalf of AIDS research, the Girl Scouts and music education for disadvantaged youths. She said that she wished to see more minority musicians on the opera and concert stages.
In her 2014 memoir, "Stand Up Straight and Sing!" — the title was drawn from an admonition from her mother — Norman described herself as coming from "a specific place and time in the history of our nation, in the Deep South, where our people marched, bled, and soldiered their way through the civil rights movement."
"Every voice needed to find its own place," she wrote, "its own platform from which the cry for freedom and equality could be heard."