Entertainment Music

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Obituary: Jessye Norman

One of the world's great divas, with a 'voice as near perfection as one could hope for'

Once in a generation singer: Jessye Norman in 2006. Photo: Getty Images
Once in a generation singer: Jessye Norman in 2006. Photo: Getty Images

Jessye Norman, who has died aged 74, ranked at the pinnacle of the operatic pantheon as an authentic dramatic soprano superstar, combining a sumptuous sound with a majestic stage presence.

Hailed as a "once-in-a-generation singer", she had a huge voice that could fill the grandest of auditoriums with breathtaking ease, losing nothing in beauty of tone or passion of performance. "The immensity of her voice struck like a thunderbolt," noted one dazzled critic. "It was like an eruption of primal power."

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In Britain she made a promising impression when the conductor Colin Davis encountered her at the BBC in 1970 when she was 25; within two years she was singing under his baton at the Last Night of the Proms.

Though her impressive girth made it difficult for her to take on the more athletic roles on the operatic stage, it did not seem to matter, one enthralled critic describing her as "a great motionless priestess, both the earth and the sky".

Jessye Norman also embraced the contemporary and American repertoire, singing pop by the French composer Michel Legrand, sacred music by Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano, as well as the traditional spirituals and gospel songs she had learnt as a girl growing up in the Deep South.

By the 1970s she had also mutated into a fully fledged and larger-than-life diva, large enough in 1981 to inspire the character of the black American opera singer in Jean-Jacques Beineix's debut film Diva.

She sang at the funeral of the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Millions more worldwide watched her on television in March 2002 when she sang America the Beautiful at a memorial service at the site of the former World Trade Centre in New York for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks the year before.

As one of the world's great divas, Jessye Norman was acclaimed for a "voice as near perfection as one could hope for", a voice, some unkindly observed, as monumental as her magnificent physique.

The daughter of an insurance broker, Jessye Mae Norman was born on September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia. Both her parents were musical, her father a singer at the local baptist church, her mother an amateur pianist.

After attending local high schools, she was awarded a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, graduating in 1967 with a degree in Music.

Although by then the last legal barriers impeding black artists in America had been dismantled, Jessye Norman still made her early career in Europe, winning the Munich International Music Competition in 1968, and making her operatic debut at the Berlin State Opera the following year as Elisabeth in Tannhauser, one of her mainstays for many years .

In the summer of 1970 she was in London, where a studio performance at the BBC brought her to the attention of Colin Davis, then chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who invited her to sing Countess Almaviva in his recording of The Marriage of Figaro the following year. In 1972 she made her debut at La Scala, Milan, in Verdi's Aida.

After appearances at the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals, Jessye Norman sang Wagner at the Last Night of the Proms that September, under Davis's baton, and on her return to America in January 1973 made her professional concert debut at the Lincoln Centre, New York.

More engagements followed all over Europe, including appearances at the festivals in Bath, Harrogate and Aldeburgh, and in 1974 she returned to the Royal Albert Hall to sing at a concert directed by Pierre Boulez.

By then she was acknowledged as one of the great exponents of her art, with a voice described as "one of the wonders of the world".

Among the many public events and ceremonies at which she performed, Jessye Norman sang at the 1985 and 1997 American presidential inaugurations, the Queen's 60th birthday celebrations in London in 1986, and three years later at the bicentennial of the French Revolution celebrated by an elaborate pageant in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, at which she sang La Marseillaise.

In 1997 she received the United States's highest award in the performing arts, the Kennedy Centre Honour: she was the youngest recipient in its 20-year history.

Other awards and distinctions included honorary doctorates at some 30 colleges, universities and conservatories around the world. In 1989 she was appointed to the Legion d'honneur by President Mitterrand.

In 2006 she was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement. She was also a life member of the Girl Scouts of America.

She was unmarried.

Jessye Norman died on September 30.

© Telegraph


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