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Jessye Norman, Grammy-Winning Opera Star, Has Died At 74

Jessye Norman, the renowned international opera singer, has died aged 74. She was one of the most popular and highly regarded sopranos in the world.

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Jessye Norman opera singer photo
Opera singer Jessye Norman. Photo: Carol Freidman

Jessye Norman (15 September 1945 – 30 September 2019) the renowned international opera soprano, has died aged 74. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for Lifetime Achievement, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor. A statement released on Monday said Jessye Norman died from septic shock and multiple organ failure related to complications from a spinal cord injury she sustained in 2015. She died on Monday 30 September 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 endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education,” the family statement said.

Jessye Norman was one of the rare black singers to attain worldwide stardom in the opera world, performing at such revered houses as La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. The New York Times noted, “her distinctly opulent voice” was especially suited to the works of Wagner and Strauss. However Norman was not limited to operatic roles and also performed songs by Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, and many other contemporary artists. In 2000 she released a jazz crossover album featuring songs by Michel Legrand.

Jessye Norman was born on 15 September 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, and grew up in a musical family – her mother and grandmother were pianists, her father was a singer – and she sang in church from the age of four. She earned a scholarship to the study music at the prestigious, historically black college, Howard University in Washington DC, and later studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

She made her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1969 in Berlin and went on to multiple prominent roles, including the title role in Aida in productions in Berlin and Milan, and the role of Cassandra in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, at the Metropolitan Opera among many others. By the mid-1980s Jessye Norman was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, as well as the 60th birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1997, when she was 52, Jessye Norman became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honor. She received the National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama in 2009 and held honorary doctorates from some of the best universities in the world, including Yale, Harvard and the Juilliard. She was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

She performed ‘America the Beautiful’ at a memorial service unveiling two columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center in 2002, honouring the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The following year, in 2003, she partnered with the Rachel Longstreet Foundation to open the Jessye Norman School Of The Arts for economically disadvantaged students in her hometown of Augusta. The Augusta Chronicle reported that Norman was set to attend the 11 October street-naming ceremony in her hometown on Eighth Street, where the school is located. It will be named Jessye Norman Boulevard.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera House paid tribute describing her as, “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century”. Their statement read, “Starting with her Met debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens on Opening Night of the Met’s centennial 1983-84 season, Norman sang more than 80 performances with the company, dazzling audiences with her beautiful tone, extraordinary power, and musical sensitivity.”

“Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage,” said Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. “Her legacy shall forever live on.”

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