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Jessye Norman, legendary opera star, dies at 74

Her passionate soprano voice won her four Grammy Awards and the National Medal of Arts.

This AP file photo shows American opera singer Jessye Norman performing on the Stravinski Hall stage at the 44th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2010.
This AP file photo shows American opera singer Jessye Norman performing on the Stravinski Hall stage at the 44th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2010.
AP

NEW YORK — Jessye Norman, the renowned international opera star whose passionate soprano voice won her four Grammy Awards and the National Medal of Arts, has died, according to family spokesperson Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 74.

A statement released to The Associated Press on Monday said Norman died at 7:54 a.m. from septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015. She died at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, and was surrounded by loved ones.

“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. We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education,” a family statement read.

Norman was a trailblazing performer, and one of the rare black singers to attain worldwide stardom in the opera world, performing at such revered houses like La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, and singing 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 was born on September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia, in segregationist times. She grew up singing in church and around a musical family that included pianists and singers. She earned a scholarship to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study music, and later studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

Eventually she made her operatic debut in ”Tannhauser” in 1969 in Berlin, soon wowing audiences around the world on stages in Milan, London and New York thanks to her shining vocals, no matter the language. The New York Times described her voice as “a grand mansion of sound.”

”It defines an extraordinary space. It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous falls,” the Times’ Edward Rothstein wrote.

In 1997, at age 52, Norman became the youngest person ever to earn the Kennedy Center Honor in the organization’s 20-year history at the time. She received her National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama and has earned honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious schools, including Juilliard, Harvard and Yale. She is a member of British Royal Academy of Music and Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Norman even has orchid named after her in France, and the country also made her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Jessye Norman performs the title role in “Alceste” at Lyric Opera in 1990.
Jessye Norman performs the title role in “Alceste” at Lyric Opera in 1990.

Norman performed at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the 1990-91 season, in the title role in “Alceste,” by Gluck. She also performed on numerous occasions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra both at Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, where she appeared 12 times between 1975 and 2009, nine with the orchestra, and three recitals in the Martin Theatre.

She appeared on three albums in conjunction with the CSO, including the Grammy-winning “Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125,” recorded in Chicago’s Medinah Temple in 1986, and “Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle” recorded in Orchestra Hal in 1993.

She earned 15 Grammy nominations throughout her illustrious career, picking up her first at the 1985 show for best classical vocal soloist performance for “Ravel: Songs Of Maurice Ravel.” She earned Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

Andrea Zopp (then-president of the Chicago Urban League) is joined by Vanessa Williams and Jessye Norman at the Leagues’ 53rd Annual Golden Fellowship Dinner in 2014 where Norman was honored.
Andrea Zopp (then-president of the Chicago Urban League) is joined by Vanessa Williams and Jessye Norman at the Leagues’ 53rd Annual Golden Fellowship Dinner in 2014 where Norman was honored.
Courtesy Chicago Urban League

Norman was honored in Chicago in 2014 when she was awarded the Chicago Urban League’s Edwin C. “Bill” Berry Civil Rights Award for her perseverance and creativity.

In a 2002 interview with the Sun-Times, she explained her love of many music genres, from spirituals and French chansons to German lieder and jazz: “I have always been drawn to things other people might consider unusual. I’m always taken by the text and beautiful melody. It’s not important to me who has written it. It’s just more reasonable to have an open mind about what beauty is. It’s important for classical musicians to stretch and think beyond the three B’s [Bach, Beethoven and Brahms]. They were wonderful composers, but they went to the great beyond a long time ago. There’s lots of music that will live for a very long time.”

Jessye Norman at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington in 2010. Norman died Monday at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. She was 74.
Jessye Norman at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington in 2010. Norman died Monday at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. She was 74.
AP

As a young African American woman entering the very white world of opera, Norman was unfazed, she told the Sun-Times in that same 2002 interview. “Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons. ... I was raised in a very nurturing atmosphere, but I also wasn’t singled out as being especially talented. Everyone was very kind about my abilities, but I was part of a group of kids in Augusta where I was completely interchangeable. If one of us couldn’t show up to sing, then the other person would take our place. It kept us grounded. We knew we had talent, but it was not exploited in a way that made us think we were more special than our friends. It was a very healthy, humbling way to grow up. Everybody has a gift of some sort and some of us were fortunate enough to have help nourishing it.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio, Sun-Times staff reporter

This image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” in New York in 1984.
This image released by the Metropolitan Opera shows Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” in New York in 1984.
Erika Davidson/Metropolitan Opera via AP