BY WALTER OPINDE
The exceptionally gifted black American soprano, Jessye Norman, in 1961, received a scholarship to study at the Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she had vocal lessons from Carolyn Grant. She continued her training at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and at the University of Michigan, where her principal teachers were Pierre Bernac and Elizabeth Mannion. In 1968, she won the Munich Competition.
Jessye Norman made her operatic debut in 1969 as Elisabeth in Tannbauser at the Berlin Deutsche Oper. She appeared in the title role of L’Africaine at Florence’s Maggio Musicale in 1971, and the following year sang Aida at Milan’s La Scala and Cassandra in Les Troyens at London’s Covent Garden. Subsequently, in 1973, she made major recital debuts in London and New York. After an extensive concert tour of North America during the period between 1976 and 1977, she made her U.S.A stage debut as Jocasta in Oedipus Rex and as Purcell’s Dido on a double bill with the Opera Company of Philadelphia in November 1982. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York as Cassandra in September 1983 (or Les Troyens of Berlioz, which opened the company’s 100th anniversary season in 1983).
Numerous operatic appearances at the Metropolitan Opera followed, and the most recent of these was her celebrated portrayal of the title character in the Met’s premier production of Janacek’s The Makropulos Case in 1996. In 1986, Jessye, appeared as soloist in Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker during its tour of the U.S.A. In September 1989, she was the featured soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, in its opening concert of its 148th season, which was telecast live to the nation by PBS. In 1992, she sang Jocasta at the opening operatic production at the new Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto. In September 1995, she was again the featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; but this time under Kurt Masur’s direction, in a gala concert telecast live to the nation by PBS making the opening of the orchestra’s 53rd season.
Norman’s 1998-1999 performances included a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which had an unusual program incorporating the sacred music of Duke Ellington, scored for jazz combo, string quartet and piano, and featuring the Alvin Ailey Repertory Dance Ensemble. Other performances during the season included Das Leid von der Erde, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a television special for Christmas filmed in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, alongside a spring recital tour, which included performances in Tel Aviv. The following season also brought performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington to London and Vienna, together with a summer European tour, which included performances at the Salzburg Festival.
The rich history continues to be made as Jessye Norman brings her sumptuous sound and spontaneous passion to recital performances, operatic portrayals, and appearances with symphony orchestras and chamber music collaborators, to the delight of listeners worldwide. Her extraordinary repertory ranges from Purcell to Richard Rodgers. She sings a widely varied operatic repertoire, having appeared at La Scala, Milan; the Teatro Communale, Florence; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; the Stuttgart Opera, Vienna, and Hamburg State Operas; Opera Company of Philadelphia; The Lyric Opera of Chicago; Aix-en-Provence Festival; and the Salzburg Festival. She commended herself in Mussorgsky’s songs, which she performed in Moscow in the original Russian. In her recitals, she gave performances of the classical German repertory as well as contemporary masterpieces, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and the French moderns, which she invariably performed in the original tongue. This combination of scholarship and artistry contributed to her consistently successful career as one of the most versatile concerts and operatic singers of her time.
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