On September 15, 1945, Jessye Mae Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, to parents Silas Norman and Janie King-Norman. Janie King-Norman was a school teacher and pianist, Silas Norman was an insurance salesman. Jessye’s family was musically inclined, her grandmother along with her mother were pianist, while her father sang in their church choir of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. As a seven-year-old elementary school student, she enrolled in her first singing competition, unfortunately, she placed third in the competition because she didn't remember some of the lyrics of the second stanza. Her early musical influences outside of her family were two women by the name of Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs. From an early age she showed that she was a terrific singer; to help enhance her musical abilities her mother enrolled her into piano lessons helping keep her family’s musical legacy intact. She was introduced to the world of opera as a nine-year-old, her birthday present was a radio and on Sundays, as she cleaned her room she listened to a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. She was introduced to two incredible black women opera singers, Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. These two women were her early opera influences; the best part about these women is Norman could see herself in these women and as a successful opera singer.
While attending middle school she began her lessons as an opera singer with vocal coach Rosa Harris Sanders. As a high school student, she received vocal lessons from a woman named Lucy C. Laney. She continued her opera training as a young teen with a non-profit organization named the Interlochen Center for the Arts located in the state of Michigan. At the age of sixteen, she earned a full scholarship to attend Howard University after she competed in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition, which was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a student at Howard, she studied voice with Carolyn Grant, sang in the Howard University choir, became a soloist in the choir at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, and became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma. In 1965, as a twenty-year-old, she became one of the founding members of the Delta Nu chapter of the Sigma Alpha Iota sorority. A year later she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. The following year she earned her bachelor's degree from Howard then enrolled in the master’s program at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, before transitioning to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance. She earned her master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1968, while simultaneously studying voice with Opera singer Elizabeth Mannion and vocalist Pierre Bernac. She was also fortunate enough to receive vocal coaching from the legendary Sylvia Olden Lee during her career.
In 1968, Norman moved to Europe to begin her career as an opera singer, little did she know this was the beginning one of the most successful opera careers in history. She would win the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany, despite an attempt by a racist judge to suddenly change the rules of the competition to prevent her from winning. She then made her debut as a professional opera singer in the opera Tannhauser as the character Elisabeth, after signing a three-year contract to perform with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Following her performance, critics rated her performance and her voice as the greatest since Lottie Lehmann who was a German soprano singer. Norman experienced massive success as a black opera singer in Europe, her voice was outstanding, and she didn’t have the traditional look and size of the average opera singer. She performed in Germany and Italy with the most successful companies; she even often appeared as a European princess or a noble. Norman was outstanding, perfectly singing all the voice ranges from contralto to soprano. She sang in her first Italian performance in 1970 in Florence, Italy performing in the opera Deborah by Handel, the following year she performed as Selika in L’Africaine by Meyerbeer at the Maggio Musicale. Her star was shining bright and she wasn't slowing down any time soon. She followed her performance at the Maggio Musicale by staring in the role of Countess Almaviva in the opera Le Nozze di Fargo by Mozart at the Berlin Festival. She even recorded her role as Almaviva with the BBC Orchestra which became a finalist for the Montreux International Record Award, her performance made her a household name in Europe and the United States.
In 1972, she performed the lead role in the opera Aida in Milan, Italy at La Scala, next she performed in London at the Royal Opera and the Covent Garden as the character Cassandra in the opera Les Troyens. She made her American debut as a singer at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California for its 50th anniversary in the concert version of the opera Aida. She then performed in Lenox, Massachusetts in the All-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Music Festival. She toured the United States performing before she returned to Europe to continue touring. In 1973, she performed in New York City with the “Great Performers” series in the Alice Tully Hall at the Center for the Performing Arts. Norman moved to London in 1975 but found it hard to find local performances, however, she continued to perform internationally, she even was able to perform throughout North America and the United States further building upon a legendary legacy. Norman continued to perform as a singer but didn’t perform much as an opera singer much between 1975 and 1980. In 1980, she earned the title role in the opera Ariadane Auf Naxos at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany. In 1982, she made her debut as an opera singer in the United States with the Opera Company of Philadelphia as the character Jocasta in the Opera Oedipus Rex and the opera Dido. In 1983, she returned to New York to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in the opera Les Troyens as the characters Cassandra and Dido. Norman was so spectacular that she was considered as the world’s best soprano singer. She was also invited to sing at the inauguration of then-President Ronald Regan in 1985. In 1986, she sang for Queen Elizabeth at her sixtieth birthday celebration, later she became the soloist in the opera Four Last Songs with the Berlin Philharmonic while touring in the United States.
Norman continued to perform as an opera singer but she also began producing songs and performances during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, several of her production won her awards and critical acclaim, she even earned a television performance. In 1989, she featured as the soloist with the Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as it opened its 148th season. She even performed in Hong Kong at the opening of the Hong Kong Cultural Center, as well as performing in Taiwan’s National Concert Hall. Later in 1989, Norman sang the French National Anthem for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Norman eventually moved back to the United States and lived in Croton-On-Hudson, New York, and in 1990, she was able to perform at the one hundred fiftieth birthday gala for the legendary Russian composer Tchaikovsky held in St. Petersburgh, Russia. She also made her debut in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s performance of the opera Alceste before singing at the seven hundredth celebration party for the Swiss National Day. Norman had a stellar career as a singer and became an international opera legend; sadly she died in Manhattan, New York at the age of seventy-four on September 30, 2019. During her career, she earned thirty-five honors and awards, twelve honorary doctorate degrees, thirty-eight notable leading opera roles, and performed in over twenty-six notable oratorio and orchestral performances. She was a true legend with a voice so pure that even the gods were envious to her. Ms. Jessye Mae Norman, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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