History Hunt: Jessye Norman

This week, I’m taking a short break from the distant past to another still-living artist. She’s also someone who is still very well known, particularly in the world of opera. But, as we’ve seen time and time again on History Hunt, being famous in the present is no guarantee of fame in the future, so I want to do my part to make ensure this incredible musician isn’t forgotten.

So who is it I’m talking about? It’s opera singer Jessye Norman!

Norman was born September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. During this time, segregation (laws that were meant to prevent white and Black people from interacting) was still in effect. However, her parents made very sure their children knew they were worth every bit as much as white children, and the teachers at school and the members of the church Norman and her family belonged to did the same.

Right from the start, Norman showed great skill and musicality–she was only four years old when she started singing in church. Like her mother and her grandmother, she learned to play the piano, even if it wasn’t where her passion lay. And she had fun with her music: she was known to dress up in her mother’s clothes, feather boa and all, and pretend to be a famous singer.

But it wasn’t until she was ten or eleven years old that she met the music that was to change her life. She had recently been given a radio of her own as a gift, and one day, she happened to turn it on while Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti was being broadcast by the famous Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Instantly, she fell in love. She was so excited by what she heard that she made sure to listen every Saturday and did her best to share her passion with her friends at school. As she later remembered:

“Can you just imagine? You’ve got some 10- and 11-year-olds in class, one is already struggling to have their attention, then there’s somebody standing up talking about something called an opera that she listened to on the radio,” Norman chuckles. “But Carmen was a hit — you’re talking about a toreador and bullfights — oh, I had them, then!”

(Interview with Laura Battle)

But in spite of the joy she found in opera, and in the music of Nat King Cole and James Brown, it wasn’t until later that she decided to become an opera singer. When she was young, she thought she was going to become a doctor instead!

When she was sixteen, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Music Scholarship Competition, named after the great African-American opera singer (and subject of a previous History Hunt post!). Although she didn’t win, she received a great deal of encouragement from the judges. On the way back home from the competition, her high school choir teacher, who had come with her, suggested she should audition at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Luckily, Norman agreed to it, because after her audition, she was awarded a full scholarship!

After graduating two years later, Norman kept up her studies. She went to both the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Michigan. In 1968, she won an extremely important competition: the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition. As a result, she was invited to come sing in Germany at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

That was where her career really took off. She was scheduled to perform in only one role, in the opera Tannhäuser. But she impressed the director of the opera company so much that he actually knocked on her door during the intermission to hire her full time. This was (and still is!) something unheard of in the world of opera, but of everyone, Norman deserved the honour.

As a young woman, Norman not only was a powerful singer, but she knew herself and also knew to stay true to who she was. When her opera company started to push her to do roles she knew she wasn’t ready for, she didn’t go along with their demands–she left the company and started again, this time in both Italy and England.

After her debut outside of Germany, Norman toured all over Europe and also returned to the United States all throughout the 1970s. But, unlike many singers early in their career, she also knew she needed to take care of her voice. As much as she loved singing, she took a long break from touring during the end of the decade so she could come back in 1980, better than ever. And in 1983, Norman at last had the opportunity to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, the very place whose radio broadcasts had introduced her to opera when she was a girl.

Since then, Norman has sung in the inauguration ceremonies of two different presidents of the United States, sung for national anniversaries of France and Switzerland, and for Tchaikovsky’s 150th birthday. While she doesn’t perform publicly very much anymore, she still sings, speaks out against injustice, and spends a lot of time making sure her charity, Jessye Norman School of the Arts, is able to give students in her hometown the chance to study not only music, but art, dance, and theatre–for free.

And though she doesn’t talk very much about her personal life, there are plenty of rumours, including that she once received a proposal from a member of the French nobility. When asked about whether it was true, she said: “Yes, it was fascinating. It was lovely.” Even if she only lets the public in so far (as is her right), it’s clear from what we do know of Norman that she’s had and continues to have a very full and interesting life.

Below is a music video of Jessye Norman singing an aria by Richard Wagner from Tristan and Isolde, and my goodness is it incredible!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Jessye Norman on the Academy of Achievement
Jessye Norman on AllMusic.com
Lunch with the FT: Jessye Norman by Laura Battle for the Financial Times
The ‘Marvelous Living’ Of Soprano Jessye Norman on NPR Music
Jessye Norman: a powerful voice joins America’s race debate on The Guardian.com
Jessye Norman: Dress size has nothing to do with opera singing on the Telegraph.co.uk
How opera legend Jessye Norman learned to ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing’ on PBS Newshour
Jessye Norman on Encyclopædia Britannica
Jessye Norman: Why I ignore my critics on BBC World News HARDtalk.

Jessye Norman on Wikipedia.org
San Francisco Music Preview: JESSYE NORMAN IN CONCERT (Davies Symphony Hall) (Image source)


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