Jessye Norman - "When I am laid in Earth"
In honor of Black History Month all the posts for this month will feature artists of color.
In the 1980s, Jessye Norman’s roles in Aïda and Les Troyen made her one of the most popular and highest paid soprano opera singers worldwide.
The exceptionally gifted black American soprano, Jessye Norman, received in 1961 a scholarship to study at Howard Univversity 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 she made in 1973 major recital debuts in London and New York. After an extensive concert tour of North America during 1976-1977, she made her USA 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, 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 she appeared as soloist in Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker during its tour of the USA. 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, 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.
Jessye Norman’s 1998-1999 performances included a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which had an unusual program incorporating 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, as well as 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.
This rich history continues to be made as Jessye Norman e 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 concert and operatic singers of her time.
The vocal phenomenon that is Jessye Norman has long been acknowledged as possessing one of the world’s most beautiful voices. The sheer size, power, and luster of her voice share equal acclaim with that for her thoughtful, provocative music-making, prompting one writer to observe that "her vocal phrasing moves beyond mere seamlessness to convey a more ardent, spontaneous passion." Often cited for her innovative programming and fervent advocacy of contemporary music, she has earned the recognition of another writer who describes her as "one of those once –in-a-generation singers who isn’t simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing."
In December 1997, Jessye Norman was invested with the USA's highest award in the performing arts, the Kennedy Center Honro, making history as the youngest recipient in the Honors’ 20-year existence. Her many other prestigious awards and distinctions include honorary doctorates at the some thirty colleges, universities and conservatories around the world. In 1984 the French Government bestowed upon her the title "Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris named an orchid for her. In October 1989 she was awarded the "Legion d’Honneur" by French President Mitterand, and in June 1990 she was named Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations by U.N. Secretary Xavier Perez de Cueller.
Norman authored her memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, in 2014. She received forty-five honorary doctorates from institutions such as Howard University, Juilliard School of Music and Harvard University. She was also the recipient of five Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Vocal Soloist Performance and a lifetime achievement award.
Needless to say the size of her impact on the musical world can’t be measured. She literally shifted what it was to think about classical singers. Hers is a voice that can shift from Folk Songs, Hymns, to Haydn in moments.
So today, with awe in my eyes, I choose Jessye Norman’s version of Purcell’s "When I am laid in Earth" as my, crack open the sky, crisp and clean, like seeds cracking from their winter womb, song for a, fight for your life, tear down the walls you’ve built, out of difficulties grow miracles, Wednesday.
As a treat, I’m also giving you her rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. It’s purity and crystal clear squillo resonates through her body.