Global opera star Jessye Norman has died | Music | DW | 01.10.2019
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Music

Global opera star Jessye Norman has died

One of the contemporary era's most revered opera singers, Jessye Norman has died at the age of 74. A pioneering young black woman in the white world of classical music, she started her career in Berlin.

Trailblazing performer Jessye Norman, one of the rare black singers to attain international stardom in the opera world, has died at the age of 74 due to septic shock and multi-organ failure, the result of complications from a spinal cord injury from 2015.

Over the course of her career, the soprano won four Grammys for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received a National Medal of Arts from former US President Barack Obama and earned honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious schools, including Juilliard, Harvard and Yale.  

"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," her family wrote in a statement.

New York Metropolitan Opera Jessye Norman (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera)

Jessye Norman as Cassandre in Berlioz' "Les Troyens," the role of her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in 1983

Born on September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, in segregationist times, Norman grew up in a family of amateur artists. She started singing gospel in church at age four and during her childhood she listened to radio broadcasts of performances at the Metropolitan Opera, where she would later star in more than 80 performances. 

She obtained a scholarship to study music at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later pursued her studies at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

Norman made her operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, playing the part of Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper. The soprano then shined on stages in Milan, London and New York, performing in different languages with her spectacular voice described by The New York Times as "a grand mansion of sound."

Tributes to a legend

News of her death prompted an outpouring of tributes.

"Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage," said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. "Her legacy shall forever live on."

"What a stunning, saddening loss," US opera star Renee Fleming wrote on Twitter.

"The world has lost one of the greatest voices that we have ever had and heard," singer Rufus Wainwright wrote.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson described her voice as "too perfect for this world."

Norman collected title roles in works like Carmen, Aida and various Wagner works, but wasn't limited to opera or classical music, performing songs by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and others as well.

"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," Norman said in a 2002 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, adding "Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons."

eg/als (dpa, AFP, AP)

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