The Eternal Vocal Falcon

"Pigeonholes are only for comfortable pigeons." Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman was one of the best American opera singers that graced the face of the earth. She was passed away on September 30, 2019. Her career spanned several decades. She was born on September 15,1945 in Augusta, GA. She was the daughter of  Silas Norman and Janie King-Norman. She was one of five children and came from a musically inclined family. Both her mother and grandmother were pianist and her father sang in the city's local choir. Jessye's mother insisted that she enroll into piano lessons. As a child she began singing at Mount Calvary Baptist Church by the time she was four. She was musically  influenced by two women from the congregation. These women were Mrs. Golden and Sister Childs.

At the age of nine she was introduced to opera when she was given a radio for her birthday. She would listen to Metropolitan Opera broadcast every Saturday while cleaning her room. Additionally, she began listening to recordings from Marian Anderson Leontynne Price, both of whom she credited for  inspiring her career in opera. As she developed her craft she received formal training from vocal coach Rosa Harris Sanders Creque who was also her music teacher in junior high school.  She continued lessons from this vocal coach during high school.  Norman studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts  in opera program in Michigan. At the age of sixteen she wanted to branch out and competed in the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia. Despite losing the exposure granted her an offer and full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. During her time as a student at Howard she sang in the university's chorus and as a soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ. At this time she also studied voice with Carolyn Grant.

After graduating from college with a degree in music, she began her graduate studies. She studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, M.D. and later at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She completed her graduate studies there in 1968. She relocated to Europe to begin her stellar career in opera. In that same year she won the award for the ARD International Music Competition in Munich after she fought a judge's ruling that had arbitrary changed the rules of the competition during the second round. She signed a three year contract with the Deutsche Oper Belin.  She mad her debut as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhuaser. During each of her performances she often wore clothing that presented a royal and nobility appearance. She was also known to portray a commanding presence. 

For the duration of her career she performed concert recitals, funerals of politicians, released albums and dominated the Metropolitan Opera and theater scene in New York City.

Horse carriage escorting Ms. Norman at her funeral

Toni's Thoughts: I admit that I am ashamed to say I did not know who Jessye Norman was until I went to college. I did listen to some opera and classical music but that is was during my sustained silent reading hours in school. When I got to college I learned more about her. Initially I remembered seeing her on television and I was impressed with her regal demeanor.  I believe it is amazing that she found success in a genre most people would not expect a Black American to perform. She grew up during the Jim Crow era but she did not allow racism to stop her from achieving her dreams. She exuded confidence I love and respect that so much. Here is a link of one of her performances and interviews. Initially I intended to dedicate a post to her because she passed away right before Diahann Carroll. But I wanted more people to know who this amazing woman was. Enjoy the links below.

Stand Up Straight and Sing! Jessye Norman ( Memoir)
"The Shimmering Magnificence of Jessye Norman" by Alex Ross

Sunrise September 15, 1945
Sunset September 30, 2019

Jessye's beautiful rendition of " Deep River"


Jessye Norman BBC HardTalk Interview

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