“Singing is for me a physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual expression of my breath,” Jessye Norman, world-renowned soprano and American cultural icon, once said. She died at the age of 74 on Monday from septic shock and multi-organ failure.
Praised for the beauty and sheer strength of her voice, Norman once said she couldn’t remember a time she didn’t sing. “My parents told me that I started singing at the same time as I started speaking,” NPR quotes her as saying that the little girl from Augusta, Georgia, with the big voice sang in church, school and a few unusual venues. “I’d sing for the opening of a supermarket, as I always say. There was even an opening of a car wash at some point. They weren’t, sort of, very elegant settings all the time.”
Yet, listening to records at a neighbours’ house, Norman dreamt, and in the ’60 started her opera career in Europe. She debuted with Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1969, singing for roles she was much too young to take on. The next few years followed a heady rise – as her voice soared and floored people across the world.
It was always easy to lose oneself in Jessye Norman’s voice. Reviewing a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of The New York Times said her voice was “a grand mansion of sound. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous falls.”
Here are a few of her most famous performances tweeted by fans and collectives in her memory.
With performances in all of the world’s major opera houses, Norman sang God Save the Queen to Queen Elizabeth II during a celebration of her 60th birthday in 1986. When France celebrated the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, the most dramatic moment was Norman singing the Marseillaise wrapped in the colours of the French flag.
She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by former US President Barack Obama in 2009. She received numerous honorary degrees and won five Grammy Awards, according to The Washington Post.
Her 1989 performance in France made her an icon in Europe. As one Twitter user remembered, “For my generation in Europe, Jessye Norman will always be linked to that splendid rendition of La Marseillaise in 1989, to honour the anniversary of 200 years French Revolution. A black woman, at that moment in that place, was the personification of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.”
As a black woman who grew up in the Jim Crowe South, Norman had faced her own share of racism. One of the few African-American figures in opera at that time, she credited other great black singers such as Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price for paving the way for her, according to The New York Times.
“They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’” she said, the Times quotes. “Or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing Porgy and Bess.’ Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”
In the 1950s, while living in London, Norman accepted that things had changed slightly, but much more needed to be done for equal rights. “Sometimes it is very difficult for me to pack my bags and go back to London and my career when I see things that need changing in this country and in this city,” she once lamented, according to the Augusta Chronicle.
The opera singer grew up in segregated Georgia, attended Howard University on a full-tuition scholarship and later went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Peabody Conservatory.
When talking about how she gained confidence and performed around the world in front of important personalities, Norman simply said wheb she was little her mother always whispered to her before every performance that she must just “stand up straight and sing.”
Stand Up Straight and Sing! is the title of Norman’s biography, published in 2014.