Trailblazing opera star Jessye Norman dead at 74

  • Music
  • Tuesday, 01 Oct 2019

This 1984 image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, in New York.

Renowned international opera star Jessye Norman, whose passionate soprano voice won her four Grammys, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor, has died, according to family spokesperson Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 74.

A statement released to the Associated Press on Monday (Oct 7) said Norman died from septic shock and multiorgan failure, secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she suffered in 2015. She died at Mount Sinai St Luke's Hospital in New York, and was surrounded by loved ones.

"We are so proud of Jessye's musical achievements and the inspiration that she provided to audiences around the world that will continue to be a source of joy. We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavours addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education," the family statement read.

Norman was a trailblazing performer, one of the rare black singers to attain worldwide stardom in the opera world, performing at such revered houses like La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, and singing title roles in works like Carmen, Aida and more.

She sang the works of Wagner, but was not limited to opera or classical music, performing songs by Duke Ellington and others as well.

"I have always been drawn to things other people might consider unusual. I'm always taken by the text and beautiful melody. It's not important to me who has written it. It's just more reasonable to have an open mind about what beauty is," Norman said in a 2002 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

"It's important for classical musicians to stretch and think beyond the three B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms). They were wonderful composers, but they went to the great beyond a long time ago. There's lots of music that will live for a very long time."

In that same interview she profoundly said, "Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons."

Sept. 18, 2007 file photo of soprano Jessye Norman performing during The Dream Concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Sept. 18, 2007 file photo of soprano Jessye Norman performing during The Dream Concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Norman certainly knew no boundaries or limits. She broke barriers and had hoped her industry would see more faces like hers. "It is a more diverse place, thank goodness," Norman said of the opera world in a 2004 interview with NPR, "I wish it were even more diverse than it is."

Norman was born on Sept 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, in the US in segregationist times. She grew up singing in church and around a musical family that included pianists and singers.

She earned a scholarship to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, DC, to study music, and later studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

Eventually she made her operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, wowing audiences around the world on stages in Milan, London and New York thanks to her shining vocals, no matter the language. The New York Times described her voice as "a grand mansion of sound."

"It defines an extraordinary space. It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous falls," the Times' Edward Rothstein wrote.

In 1997, at age 52, Norman became the youngest person ever to earn the Kennedy Center Honour in the organisation's 20-year history at the time.

She received her National Medal of Arts from US President Barack Obama and has earned honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious schools, including Juilliard, Harvard and Yale.

She is a member of British Royal Academy of Music and Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Norman even has orchid named after her in France, and the country also made her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

She's earned 15 Grammy nominations throughout her illustrious career, picking up her first at the 1985 show for best classical vocal soloist performance for Ravel: Songs Of Maurice Ravel. She earned Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Norman released her memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, in 2004. She is survived by two remaining siblings, James Norman and Elaine Sturkey. - AP

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