Written by: Alexander Campbell
The world of music, and not just classical music, has been stunned by the untimely passing of Jessye Norman, one of the outstanding vocalists and artists of her generation. The sheer opulence and power of that glorious instrument heard live was never forgotten. It was allied to a magnetic, almost imperious, but always winning stage persona; one that transmitted both huge passion and joy in her craft but also a consummate and serious artistry. You knew she knew her ability and worth; and reputedly very self-critical – she set herself exacting standards and expected similar from others.
She was a beautiful diva from head to toe, with both the positive and occasionally negative traits of such goddesses. Highly intelligent and articulate, she was a great ambassador for music and extremely generous and tireless in her support of young artists, musicians, singers, dancers and actors, particularly those from less than affluent backgrounds and those of African-American descent. Her charitable activity was not confined to theatrical arts either – she was a prominent supporter of organisations working for those disadvantaged by health conditions, poverty, lack of education and opportunity. Her committed advocacy for those causes, articulated in her uniquely rich spoken voice was precise, diplomatic and never over-emotional.
She was born in Augusta, Georgia and had four siblings. Her mother was a teacher and her father sold insurance. Music was an integral part of family life; she sang at her local Baptist church and learnt the piano at an early age. Reportedly she listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts from about the age of ten, being inspired by ground-breaking singers such as Marian Anderson (the first black singer to perform at the Met), Mattiwilda Dobbs and Leontyne Price. She entered, but did not win, the Marian Anderson competition although the exposure led to the award of a scholarship at Howard University. After graduation she learnt her craft in Europe and won a contract at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, making a spectacularly successful debut in 1969 as Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Her major career was launched. Her operatic repertoire as was not conventional, but perhaps this was because the voice had such an extensive range, amplitude and vibrancy. It was clearly a dramatic soprano, but the powerful velvety middle and lower register made her equally as comfortable in the mezzo-soprano and even contralto range.
Initially people perhaps expected her to follow Price, Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett into the Verdian and Italianate repertoire but, Aida apart, she largely eschewed middle- and late-period Verdi and the Italian romantic repertoire stating she did not find the characters very empathetic. Her early stage successes were as Mozart’s Countess Almaviva and Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens – the role in which she made her Royal Opera debut in 1972, Colin Davis conducting, in a cast including Josephine Veasey as Dido, Jon Vickers as Aeneas and Robert Kerns as Chorebus. It was in this role that she made a very belated debut at the Met in 1983 (she later added Dido to her repertoire in the same staging); astonishingly, her USA stage debut had been as Stravinsky’s Jocasta the previous year.
Her other notable stage assumptions were as Strauss’s Ariadne, Janáček’s Emilia Marty, Bartók’s Judith, Poulenc’s Madame Lidoine, Purcell’s Dido and the woman in Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Norman seemed to have particular affinity for Schoenberg’s music, imbuing the texts with dramatic inflection. Her creativity with vocal colours and texts characterised her Lieder-singing and her concert work. Again, the range of compositional styles and repertoire she embraced was enormous, and she was as comfortable singing jazz spirituals.
She has left an impressive recorded legacy. Many won significant awards including Grammys. Perhaps the one release that exemplifies her art is of Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Whatever your reaction to the almost unbelievably expansive tempos, here is singing of undeniable grandeur and poise allied to interpretative and dynamic subtlety.
She won many accolades and honours including the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, and made many appearances at major events, not least the 2001 memorial to the victims of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. She also appeared in several documentaries about her career and wrote a memoir. On a personal note, one performance imprints itself in the memory – Strauss orchestral songs and then a blistering final scene from his Salome at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1986 with the LPO under Klaus Tennstedt. They had a special rapport that afternoon; I’ve barely recovered today.