The iconic opera singer with the voice like “a grand mansion” passed away earlier this week, a loss that has been felt far beyond the borders of the classical community. A force to be reckoned with both on stage and off, we’re looking back on one of our time’s unforgettable musicians…
1/ She once sweet-talked her way into singing on stage at La Scala… just days before getting an official invitation from Claudio Abbado to perform there! In an interview with the BBC in 1981, Jessye Norman recounted the incredible story of how as a young singer visiting La Scala on a 4-hour layover in Milan, she managed to convince the concierge to let her take a look at the empty stage–and then how she dared to sing a few notes!
2/ She had another life-long passion: politics. Growing up in Augusta, Georgia, she felt the impact of Jim Crow laws early on, and lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As a singer, she had the opportunity to marry her two passions, singing at presidential inaugurations… and of course singing Pete Seeger songs as she young protester.
3/ She considered running for Congress. But ultimately decided that she wasn’t well suited for it, telling The Guardian in 2015: “I considered it and then I put it aside. I don’t think that I would be successful because I would not be able to hold back on what I need to say about these things.”
4/ She once lobbied to change the national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing, requiring over an octave and a half range. While this wouldn’t have been a challenge for a master singer like Jessye Norman, she thought it too advanced for a song meant to be shared by the entire population. She also found it violent:
“The song I wish we had as a national anthem is America the Beautiful. It doesn’t talk about war, it doesn’t talk about anything except the beauty of this land and the joy that we should have in being in this land.”
5/ Her operatic debut set the stage for success. At 23 years old and fresh out of graduate school, Jessye Norman tackled her first leading role: Elisabeth in a production of Wagner’s Tannhaüser in Berlin. What a role to start with! Her ambitious choice paid off and marked the beginning of a long relationship with German opera companies–and with the music of Wagner. This winning combo culminated in a one of classical music’s most iconic recordings: the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with the great Herbert von Karajan. Let’s go behind the scenes:
6/ Spirituals are near and dear to her heart–as is spirituality. Raised in a religious household, Jessye Norman grew up singing in Baptist church choirs and credits this training as the foundation of her professional career. She continued to perform the repertoire of her childhood throughout her life alongside the operatic repertoire she became known for. In her memoirs, she gives both genres equal footing: each chapter opens with a passage of a spiritual and closes with an excerpt from an opera.
“That is the beauty of music. No matter the genre, it is spiritual — a ministry — and the rhythms, the lyrics, the pacing, the dramatic content, the delivery, each of these things has the exquisite power to touch people, to bring them immense joy.” (excerpted from her memoirs, Stand up straight and sing!)
8/ She’s accumulated an impressive collection of diplomas. Jessye Norman started her academic career at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., before continuing her studies at the University of Michigan and the Peabody Conservatory. In the later decades of her life, she was also awarded with a host of honorary degrees from some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States: Harvard, Juilliard, Yale, and more…
9/ If she were on a desert island… her one luxury would be sparkling water and she would absolutely relish being off the grid (and in particular, being unreachable by telephone. (Learn more about the eclectic soundtrack she’d chose to keep her company over on the BBC here.)
10/ “Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons” is undoubtedly one of her most oft-cited phrases. The boundary-breaking singer famously shared this pearl of wisdom in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2002.