Jessye Norman, international opera singer, has died aged 74

1 October 2019, 09:09 | Updated: 1 October 2019, 11:14

Soprano Jessye Norman has died aged 74
Soprano Jessye Norman has died aged 74. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

The Grammy Award-winning soprano died in New York last night.

Jessye Norman, the international opera singer, has died aged 74 in New York.

The winner of four Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, the American soprano won the 1969 ARD International Music Competition in Munich and made her operatic debut in Berlin in Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1983 in Berlioz’s The Trojans.

Norman died in hospital in New York with septic shock and organ failure caused by complications from a historic spinal cord injury from 2015, according to family spokesperson, Gwendolyn Quinn.

In a statement released to Associated Press, it has been reported that Norman died at 7:54 a.m. EDT at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, 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,” the statement reads. “We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavours addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”

One of the rare black opera singers to achieve worldwide stardom, Norman performed in the best opera houses and with the best orchestras and conductors throughout the world, including at La Scala, with the Berlin Philharmonic and under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.

She is known for her interpretations of Strauss’ songs and operatic roles in Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Aida, among others.

Her unique voice was thought to be a ‘Falcon’, which is close to a mezzo-soprano in tone, but a technically a dramatic soprano in range.

By the 1990s, she had made the move from singing soprano parts to performing more mezzo roles, and on 11 March 2012 she performed ‘America the Beautiful’ at a service unveiling two columns of light at the site of New York’s Twin Towers.

Soprano Jessye Norman performing with conductor John Pritchard in 1980
Soprano Jessye Norman performing with conductor John Pritchard in 1980. Picture: PA

Norman was born on 15 September 1945, and grew up in a family of amateur artists, regularly singing in church from the age of four.

She studied music at Howard University in Washington DC on a scholarship, before studying at the Peabody Conservatory and University of Michigan.

In 1997, when she was 52, Norman because the youngest person ever to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honor.

She also received the national medal of arts from Barack Obama 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.

The Met has called Norman “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century” in a statement, and members of the music community and beyond have come together remembering the opera star:

“So sad to wake up to the terrible news of Jessye Norman's passing. One of the most glorious voices in history gone too soon,” writes countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim, while broadcaster, Lebo Diseko, writes, “May she rest in perfect power.”

Speaking to Classic FM in 2014 (see above), Norman said she was unable to choose her biggest achievement so far, explaining:

“Abraham Lincoln said ‘a tree is best measured when it is down’. And I think that is true of all of us. As long as we’re still breathing and growing and learning and doing, it’s quite impossible to learn what is the biggest success or the most important thing. I’m still growing.”

Inspiring words from a truly inspiring great. Jessye Norman will be dearly missed.

Funeral announcements are yet to be announced.