The highly esteemed American soprano Jessye Norman has died at the age of 74. A statement released to the Associated Press attributed the cause of death to septic shock and multi-organ failure, secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury Norman had sustained in 2015. A four-time Grammy Award winner, recipient of the National Medal of the Arts as well as the Kennedy Center Honor, Norman’s death was confirmed by a family spokesperson.
“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.
Possessed of a powerful, sumptuous voice particularly suited to the roles of Wagner and Strauss, Norman was also a distinguished interpreter of the classical song repertoire. She was born on September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, surrounded by a family of pianists and singers. She grew up singing in church and won a scholarship to study music at Howard University in 1962, an historically black college, later pursuing formal vocal training at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan. Norman would later say she fell in love with opera after hearing a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera at the age of nine.
One of a few black singers to achieve operatic success on an international scale, the soprano’s career began in the late 1960s. Her operatic debut with the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1969 saw her favourably compared to the iconic German soprano Lotte Lehmann, and high-profile engagements soon followed. In addition to the heroines of Wagner and Strauss, the roles for which Norman would become closely associated with included Aida, Alceste, Leonore, Mozart’s Countess and Cassandre from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in which she made her Met debut in 1983.
Norman’s catalogue of recordings includes albums of African-American spirituals, as well as lieder by Wagner, Schumann, Mahler and Schubert; recordings of Lohengrin, Die Walküre and Parsifal; a Carmen conducted by Seiji Ozawa; and an iconic recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs.
In 2003, the soprano partnered with the Rachel Longstreet Foundation to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts after-school program for economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia.
Norman was a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and of the British Royal Academy of Music, receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. She was given the Royal Philharmonia Society Gold Medal just last year.