Opera and concert singer
American soprano Jessye Norman is hailed as one of the world's greatest opera and concert singers and performers. Since the early 1970s she has starred at leading opera houses, concert halls, and music festivals throughout Europe, North America, and three other continents, and has also enjoyed a prolific recording career with over 40 albums and several Grammy Awards to her credit. Norman's voice has been resoundingly praised for its mastery of expression, technical control, and sheer power, while her diverse song repertoire spans standard and obscure operas to German lieder, avant-garde works, and even popular ballads. As a performer, she is known for her magnetic and dramatic personality, and, with her imposing physical presence, cuts an impressive figure before audiences. According to Curt Sanburn in Life, Norman on stage creates the perception of one who "veritably looms behind her lyrics."
Born into a musical family in Augusta, Georgia, Norman early on found encouragement to be a singer. Her mother, an amateur pianist, saw that all the children in the family took piano lessons, while Norman's father, a successful insurance broker, was a frequent singer in the family's Baptist church. As a young girl Norman loved singing and performed wherever she had the opportunityn church, school, Girl Scout meetings, even a supermarket opening; yet she never formally studied voice until college. Norman fell in love with opera the first time she heard a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast and soon mastered her first aria, "My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice," from Saint-Saens's Samson and Delilah. At 16 Norman traveled to Philadelphia with her school choral director for the Marian Anderson Scholarship competition and, while most of the participants were much older and she failed to win, received positive comments from the judges. On her return trip to Georgia she visited the music department of Howard University in Washington, D.O., and sang for Carolyn Grant, who would later become her vocal coach. After hearing Norman's voice, Grant recommended the budding soprano for a fulltuition four-year scholarship to the university when she came of college age.
Graduated From Howard With Honors
Norman graduated from Howard with honors in 1967 and during her university career won many fans who heard her sing in the university choral group and local church choirs. Norman went on to complete a summer of postgraduate study at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by her master's degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. While at Michigan Norman worked with two renowned teachers of voice, French baritone Pierre Bernac famous teacher of the art songnd Elizabeth Mannion. To finance her graduate school studies Norman auditioned for and received grants from various musical foundations and in 1968 received a scholarship from the Institute of International Education that allowed her to enter Bavarian Radio's International Music Competition in Munich, Germany. When Norman was on a U.S. State Department musical tour of the Caribbean and Latin America that year she received word that she had won the prestigious European contest. Subsequently, she received offers to perform and work in Europe and moved overseas in 1969, following the path of many American singers who began their careers in the celebrated concert and opera halls of Europe.
Norman enjoyed rapid success in Europe. In December of 1969 she signed a three-year contract with the venerable Deutsche Oper in West Berlin and was a sensation in her debutt the age of 23s Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser. Norman thereafter received other primary roles with the opera company, in addition to numerous offers to sing concerts and operas throughout Europe. In 1970 she made her Italian debut in Florence in Handel's Deborah and the following year her busy opera .schedule included performances in Mozart's Idomeneo in Rome, Meyerbeer's L'Africaine in Florence, and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Berlin Festival. Later in 1971 Norman auditioned for and won the opportunity to sing the role of the Countess in a Philips recording of Figaro with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of Colin Davis. The recording was a finalist for the prestigious Montreux International Record Award competition and brought Norman much exposure to music listeners in Europe and the U.S.
In 1972 Norman performed in a Berlin production of Verdi's Aida, a role in which she debuted later that year at the famed Italian opera stage, La Scala, in Milan. Also in 1972 she sang in a concert version of Aida at the Hollywood Bowl in California, followed by a performance at Wolf Trap in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra, and an acclaimed Wagner recital at the prestigious Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts.
Norman's triumphs of 1972 continued when she returned to Europe in the fall and debuted at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, England, as Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens. She also made her debut at the prestigious Edinburgh Music Festival that year. As a result of these victories much acclaim and excitement awaited her first-ever New York City recital the following year when she appeared as part of the "Great Performers" series at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Norman's performance, which included songs by Wagner, Strauss, Brahms, and Satie, was hailed by Donald Henahan in the New York Times as one of "extraordinary intelligence, taste and emotional depth."
Took Temporary Leave of Opera
In the mid-1970s, wanting to more fully develop her vocal range, Norman made the decision to stop performing operas temporarily to concentrate on concert performances. She commented to John Gruen in the New York Times on her desire to master a broad repertoire. "As for my voice, it cannot be categorizednd I like it that way, because I sing things that would be considered in the dramatic, mezzo or spinto range. I like so many different kinds of music that I've never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range."
Over the years Norman's technical expertise has been among her most critically praised attributes. In a review of one of her recitals at New York City's Carnegie Hall, New York Times contributor Allen Hughes wrote that Norman "has one of the most opulent voices before the public today, and, as discriminating listeners are aware, her performances are backed by extraordinary preparation, both musical and otherwise." Another Carnegie Hall appearance prompted these words from New York Times contributor Bernard Holland: "If one added up all the things that Jessye Norman does well as a singer, the total would assuredly exceed that of any other soprano before the public. At Miss Norman's recital... tones were produced, colors manipulated, words projected and interpretive points madell with fanatic finesse."
Norman returned to the operatic stage in 1980 in a performance of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in Hamburg, Germany, and in 1983 made her debut with New York City's Metropolitan Opera Company in its gala centennial season opener of Les Troyens. Norman shone among the star-studded cast, as the Times's Henahan wrote in his review. "Miss Norman ... is a soprano of magnificent presence who commanded the stage at every moment," he declared. "As the distraught Cassandra she sang grippingly and projects well, even when placed well back in the cavernous sets."
Although Norman has had great success performing in full-scale opera productions, her formidable physical stature has somewhat limited the availability of stage roles to her and she has increasingly directed her opera singing to condensed concert versions. A standard in her repertoire has become "Liebestod" ("Love of Death"), the finale from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, in which a despondent and soon-to-expire Isolde sings to her dead beloved, Tristan. Henahan reviewed Norman's performance of "Liebestod" at the 1989 New York Philharmonic season opener: "Although she has never sung the complete role on any stage, she has handled this fearsome 10-minute challenge with increasing vocal authority and dramatic insight.... Hers is a grandly robust voice, used with great intelligence and expression."
Ten Minutes of Applause
Another pinnacle of Norman's career came in 1987 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood; her program of Strauss songs, which featured the final scene from Strauss's opera Salome, prompted more than ten minutes of applause and ovations. Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times on the power of her performance: "Ms. Norman's voice seems to draw from a vast ocean of sound.... No matter how much volume Sieji Ozawa requested from his orchestra during the fiery scene from 'Salome,' it seemed little match for her voice. Yet, as always, what made the soprano's performance particularly remarkable was the effortlessness with which she could hover over long, soft notes. .. . And there is also the quality of sound she produces: even the loudest passages are cushioned by a velvety, seductive timbre."
Over the years Norman has not been afraid to expand her talent into less familiar areas. In 1988 she sang a concert performance of Poulenc's one-act opera La Voix Humaine ("The Human Voice"), based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play of the same name, in which a spurned actress feverishly pleads to keep her lover on the other end of a phone conversation. Although Henahan noted in the Times that Norman's "characteristic ... style puts great emphasis on tragic dignity," and that the role perhaps called for less restraint, he nonetheless admired her as among those artists "driven to branch out into unlikely roles and whole idioms that stretch their talents interestingly, if sometimes to the breaking point."
Other of Norman's diverse projects have included her 1984 album, With a Song in My Heart, which contains numbers from films and musical comedies, and a 1990 performance of American spirituals with soprano Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall. Norman commented to William Livingstone in Stereo Review that one of her objectives as a performer is "to communicate, to be understood in many ways and on many levels." In 1989 she was invited to sing the French national anthemLa Marseillaise"n Paris during the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Norman, who sings nearly flawless French, in addition to German and Italian, was particularly honored by the opportunity. "It makes you feel really good that people at home think you are worth their interest, but it's incredible to be so warmly received in a foreign country," she told Livingstone. "I love watching the faces of the people who are listening as I sing these songs and know that they understand."
Norman described to New York Times contributor Gruen the reverence with which she approaches her work. "To galvanize myself into a performance, I must be left totally alone. I must have solitude in order to concentratehich I consider a form of prayer. I work very much from the text. The words must be understood, felt and communicated. .. . If you look carefully at the words and absorb them, you're halfway home already. The rest is honestyonesty of feeling, honesty of involvement. If a performer is truly committed, then the audience will be the first to know and will respond accordingly. Of course, love is the thing that propels us all. It's what carries us alongthat's the fuel!"
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Michael E. Mueller
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