Superstar singer Jessye Norman, an American soprano who showcased her majestic yet intimate voice at opera houses and orchestras around the world, died Monday, her family said. She was 74 years old.
One of the contemporary era’s most revered opera singers, the Grammy-winner died “surrounded by loved ones” at a New York hospital due to septic shock and multi-organ failure, the result of complications from a spinal cord injury sustained in 2015, according to a statement.
“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,” said her family.
Born September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, Norman grew up surrounded by music as one of five children in a family of amateur artists.
She made a foray into gospel at age four, and as a young girl began listening to radio broadcasts of performances at the Metropolitan Opera, where she would eventually become legend.
“I don’t remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t trying to sing,” she told NPR in 2014.
Growing up in the segregated American South, at five years old she sat in a “whites only” section in a train station, becoming an unknowing young activist.
“We come to Earth, I feel with a completely open heart,” she told NPR. “And then we’re told that we have to close it off to certain things. And that’s a great shame.”
A pioneering young black woman in the white world of classical music, Norman quickly became beloved for her seemingly effortless soaring voice and effervescent personality.
She studied music on a full-tuition scholarship at the historically black college Howard University in Washington before going on to the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.
She established herself in Europe in the 1970s, making her operatic debut in Berlin in 1969 before wowing elsewhere on the continent including Italy. She eventually moved to London and spent years performing recital and solo work.
Perhaps best known for her Wagnerian repertoire, the regal Norman made her Met debut in 1983 as Cassandra in Hector Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens’ during the house’s centennial season.
“Her huge voice is a velvet wonder, totally seamless when she so desires,” wrote The Washington Post’s Octavio Roca in a 1980 review.
“Yet she can also mold it to fit each style with an uncanny penchant for definitive creations.”
Her notable performances include two US presidential inaugurations, the 60th birthday celebrations of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, and at the bicentennial of the French Revolution in Paris in 1989.
The French declared the superstar singer a Commander in France’s Order of Arts and Letters, also naming an orchid after her.