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International Opera Star Jessye Norman Dead at Age 74

By Tyronda James

Jessye Norman performs with pianist Mark Markham at the Eastman Theatre in 2013 on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Eastman School of Music. Photo by Keith Walters, University of Rochester

International opera star Jessye Norman died Monday at the age of 74. The official cause of death was septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015.

She is survived by two siblings, James H. Norman, longtime president & CEO (retired) of Action for a Better Community, Inc. and Elaine Sturkey.

Norman became a leading figure both in the opera house and on the recital stage. She has performed in some of Europe’s most celebrated opera houses, including La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, and the Paris Opera.

Here in our beloved city, Norman received an honorary doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in 2013.

“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”, the Norman’s family spokesperson, Gwendolyn Quinn said in a statement. “We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”

Jessye Norman, the eldest of five siblings, was born on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. She grew up in a musical family, where all the children took piano lessons. Both her mother and grandmother were pianists.

She began singing at an early age, including at church, entering her first vocal competition at 7.

Norman earned a scholarship to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied voice. She graduated in 1967. She later studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the University of Michigan.

Norman is internationally renowned for her leading role in Aida. She made her New York Metropolitan Opera Stage (the Met) debut in 1983 as Cassandre in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.”  She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. In 1983 she also released her most beloved recording — Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs.
Norman possesses an expansive repertoire, ranging from baroque music to modernists, pop songs and blues, classical, and black spirituals. She made dozens of appearances at the Met before her final performance there in 2002.

Norman won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She earned 15 Grammy nominations throughout her career, her first in 1985 for best classical vocal soloist performance for “Ravel: Songs of Maurice Ravel.”

Norman received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and was the youngest person ever to earn the honor in the organization’s 20-year history at the time. In 2009, she received the National Medal of Arts, presented to her from former President Barack Obama.

She produced numerous award-winning recordings, and many of her performances were televised.

She has earned honorary doctorates from schools, including Juilliard, Harvard and Yale. She is a member of British Royal Academy of Music and Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

Norman has performed title roles in works like “Carmen,” ?Aida” and more. She sang the works of Wagner, but was not limited to opera or classical music, performing songs by Duke Ellington and others as well.

Norman’s community engagement work included AIDS research, the Girl Scouts and music education for disadvantaged youths.

In 2002, Norman founded the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, providing free fine arts education to disadvantaged children. In 1990, the Jessye Norman Amphitheater opened in Augusta to honor her.

The Jessye Norman School for the Arts said in a statement its faculty, staff and students “are tremendously saddened” by their founder’s death.

Norman would often raise funds to help students attend school, championing the arts in schools and championing diversity.

A heartfelt message can be found on the school’s website, “On behalf of the Board of Directors, Friends of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, faculty, staff and especially the students of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, we are tremendously saddened by Ms. Norman’s passing. As an opera superstar, she commanded the world’s stages, but here in Augusta, she quietly used the arts to make a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of children each year. The world knew her voice and our school knew her kindness and generous heart. She challenged all of us to live up to our full potential and to represent something larger than ourselves. She will be greatly missed.”

In her memoir 2014 released memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!, Norman expresses, “I sing and I truly enjoy doing so and have done so practically all of my time here on this earth. I lived a blessed life, filled with sounds of music. I take an enormous pleasure in seeing the effect that music can have on the emotions and spirits of people.”

Jessye Norman is celebrated and will be missed by operatic fans internationally.

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