Jessye Norman is one of the most admired contemporary opera singers and recitalists, and one of the highest paid performers in classical music. As one of the most versatile concert and operatic singers of her time, she is known for the direct and emotionally expressive qualities of her singing and for her formidable intellectual understanding of the music and its style, as well as first-rate musicianship.
Some vocal critics assert that Norman is not a dramatic soprano but has in fact a rare soprano voice type known as a Falcon. The Falcon voice is an intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo soprano that is similar to the dramatic soprano but with a darker-color. Norman, however, refuses to place any labels on her voice.
Jessye Norman was born on September 15, 1945 in Atlanta Georgia. She grew up in a middle class family of amateur musicians. Among them, her mother and grandmother were pianists, which probably influenced her mother's decision to start Jessye on piano lessons from an early age. At age four, she followed her father's musical footsteps by singing gospel songs in church.
In 1954, at age nine, she heard her opera on radio and became a fan. The opera singers she was most inspired by were Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. In 1961, her high school choir teacher encouraged her to enter the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia. It resulted in a full scholarship to Howard University.
She became a founding member of the Delta Nu Chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota while at Howard University. In 1966, she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. Graduating in 1967 with a degree in music, she began graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, then transferred to the University of Michigan where, in 1968, she earned a Master's Degree. Her graduate studies were financed by her winning other notable singing competitions such as the ARD International Music Competition in Munich.
Over the next ten years, she would move to Europe. In 1969, she made her operatic debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin where she was under contract. She was described as having "the greatest voice since the German soprano, Lotte Lehmann." She continued to perform with various German and Italian opera companies, frequently as lead due to her "unique, rich and powerful voice"—and her height and size helped her presentation. She has a wide voice range, from contralto to high soprano.
In 1972, appeared at the Hollywood Bowl performing a concert version of Aida. Later she performed across the U.S. in a recital tour appeared in the "Great Performers" series in Lincoln Center.
In 1975, she moved to London and focused on recital and solo works, touring Europe extensively. After she was fully established in Europe, she set out to establish herself in the U.S. In 1976 and 1977, she toured the U.S. again.
In 1979, a recording of her role in a Mozart opera was a finalist in the Montreux International Record Award competition which brought a wider exposure to listeners in Europe and the United States.
In the 1980s, she returned to the operatic stage. Her U.S. opera debut was in 1982. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, "By the mid-1980s she was one of the most popular and highly regarded dramatic soprano singers in the world."
She has performed in many memorable events. This are just a few of the highlights. In 1985, she sang at President Ronald Reagan's inauguration. In 1986, she sang at Queen Elizabeth II's sixtieth birthday celebration. In 1988, she sang a very deep and emotional "Amazing Grace" at a Tribute Concert for Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for his 70th birthday. In 1989, she sang the French national anthem in Paris and performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Center opening and gave a recital at Taiwan's National Concert Hall. She sang at the Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute. In 1996, she performed during the Summer Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Atlanta.
Since 1990, she has lived in a secluded New York estate, the White Gates, once owned by Allen Funt. She continues to sing for national recognition celebrations, opera house openings, and gala concert anniversary events around the world. In 1994, she sang at the funeral of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 1997, she sang at the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
In 1998-9, performances included at Carnegie Hall, singing sacred music of Duke Ellington which was scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano. In 2000, she released an album, considered a jazz crossover project.
In 2002, she performed "America the Beautiful" at a memorial service unveiling two columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center. Later that year, she announced plans to fund a pilot school of the arts for children in Georgia. The school opened in 2003.
In 2004, a documentary of her life and work to date was made. "It chronicles the music, the social and political issues, and the inspiration and dreams that have combined to make this singer unique in her profession."
In 2009, she curated "Honor!" It celebrates the African American cultural legacy, honoring the "courageous African American trailblazers and artists of the past with concerts, recitals, lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions hosted by Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and other sites around New York City."
She frequently works with the worlds best symphony orchestras, chamber emsembles and and other classical solo artists. She has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, London Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Stockholm Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. She has also worked with texts by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estes and others.
She no longer performs ensemble opera, but continues to perform recitals and concerts. She serves on the Boards of Directors for Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library, the New York Botanical Garden, City-Meals-on-Wheels in New York City, Dance Theatre of Harlem, National Music Foundation, and Elton John AIDS Foundation. She is a member of the board as well as National spokesperson for the LUPUS Foundation and is spokesperson for Partnership for the Homeless. And in her home town of Augusta, Georgia, she serves on the Board of Trustees of Paine College and the Augusta Opera Association.
To mention only a few of her numerous honors including the Gramophone Award; the Radcliffe Medal to honor individuals whose lives and work have had a significant impact on society; numerous Grammy's and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; the Ace Award from the National Cable Television Association; the 2009 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
She was the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors award in the performing arts in 1997 and she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
She was honored by New York's Associated Black Charities at the Annual Black History Makers Awards Dinner for her contributions to the arts and to African American culture; awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal for her work in the fight against lupus, breast cancer, AIDS, and hunger.
She was named Musical America magazine's 1982 Musician of the Year. On September 22, 2006, the city of Pasadena designated the day as "Jessye Norman Day" after she gave a performance at Blair IB Magnet High School.
She earned honorary doctorates from Howard University, Boston Conservatory of Music, University of the South, Harvard, and Julliard School of Music.
France's National Museum of Natural History named an n orchid for her. She was named Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations.
She is a lifelong member of the Girl Scouts of America and of Great Britain's Royal Academy of Music.
Throughout her career, she has always been selective about her operatic repertoire, following her own instincts and interests more than the advice of her teachers or requests of her management. Her choices have earned her the recognition of "one of those once-in-a-generation singers who isn't simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing."
Check out www.youtube.com, especially Jessye performing Mozart.
Compiled from http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ni-Pe/Norman-Jessye and Wikipedia.