Jessye Norman, MM ’68 (voice), Sc.D.Hon ’87, died on September 30, 2019, in New York at the age of 74. Norman was one of the world’s most celebrated performing artists, acclaimed for her performances in a wide range of leading roles with the world’s premier opera companies, in solo recitals, and in concerts of her cherished classical repertoire with preeminent orchestras all over the globe.
Norman was the recipient of many awards and accolades including some 40 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges, universities, and conservatories around the world; five Grammy awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award; the National Medal of the Arts received at the White House from President Obama in 2010; and at the time in 1997, she was the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Additionally, she was a recipient of the highest recognition of the NAACP, the Spingarn Award and was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music.
Norman earned her masters of music degree at the University of Michigan in 1968 and then moved to Europe, where she quickly landed a three-year contract with the Berlin Opera, making her debut that year as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tanhäuser. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983 and would go on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met.
A bonafide opera star, Norman was often called upon to perform at many of the world’s most important events. She sang at the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday celebration; at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; at the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution; and at a ceremony honoring the victims of 9/11 when two monumental columns of light were unveiled at the site of the former World Trade Center.
Unafraid to venture onto stages beyond opera, Norman explored a wide range of musical expressions–including performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington–and creative collaborations with artists ranging from choreographers Bill T. Jones and Alvin Ailey to the multimedia show Ask Your Mama, based on Langston Hughes work, with music composed by fellow SMTD alumna Laura Karpman (BM ’80, composition and voice). Norman’s last artistic expansion was with her jazz ensemble and extensive programming of music from American musical theatre, which she entitled American Masters.
At SMTD, two endowment funds, funded by the Charles H. Gershenson Trust, were established in the late 1990s in her honor to benefit the Department of Voice—The Jessye Norman Graduate Fellowship in Voice provides scholarship support and the Jessye Norman Master Class Series brings world-class artists to campus to work with our voice students. Norman also had a long history of returning to campus to mentor the next generation of vocalists and performed for University events on several occasions. In 2018, she was awarded the SMTD Hall of Fame Award during SMTD’s Homecoming Weekend celebration.
“The impact of an artist like Jessye Norman can’t be measured in words. Jessye was a titan of the opera world and her legacy of performance, outreach, and philanthropy will pave the way for generations of performers,” said Dean David Gier. “Her artistry and humanity will continue to be felt by our students through the Jessye Norman Master Class and the Graduate Fellowship in Voice. We extend our deepest sympathies to her family and will continue to celebrate her beautiful life.”
Her community service included trustee board memberships at The New York Public Library, Carnegie Hall, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and The New York Botanical Gardens.
A passionately involved advocate for arts education, Norman established The Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, Georgia, that serves as a tangible, living opportunity to address the need for education in the arts for school-age children in Norman’s hometown where Norman’s own studies and training began.
*Our friends at the Interlochen Center for the Arts shared this archival audio of Jessye Norman performing “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau!” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Kresge Auditorium on Aug. 3, 1968. Norman performed with the University Orchestra as a concerto competition winner. Norman received a two-minute standing ovation at the end of her performance. In 1968, Norman spent her summer at Interlochen Arts Camp as a postgraduate student while pursuing her MM at SMTD.*
Jessye Norman. Legend. ?
Below is a newspaper clipping w/ her at the 1968 @MetOpera National Council Finals, which she competed in while attaining her masters at @umichsmtd in #AnnArbor.
Ms. Norman perfs scattered throughout @WKAR’s Tues. 10/1 playlist starting at 9am. pic.twitter.com/kegb3SsfF1
— Jamie Paisley (@JamiePaisley) September 30, 2019
— BlackPhysicists (@BlackPhysicists) September 30, 2019
— Micheline Maynard (@MickiMaynard) September 30, 2019
I’ll never forget seeing Jessye Norman (@umichsmtd grad!) in recital at Hill Auditorium deep in the winter of 1985. The most moving, ecstatic concert I’ve ever seen; perfect for me at that moment. Her voice resounds in my memory. https://t.co/7YLQlwrEu8
— Tim McKay (@TimMcKayUM) October 1, 2019
I remember when she came to the University of Michigan @umichsmtd and a group of us got to sit in the cafe with her and simply talk. She was kind, she was warm, she was a living example of how great artists can also be great and real people. Ever grateful for her gifts. RIP.
— Andrew Lippa (@lippaofficial) October 1, 2019
RIP Jessye Norman. I had the honor of meeting her in 2012 following a performance of Lost in the Stars at The @GOpera She was so generous with her time and we shared @umichsmtd stories. She truly was one of the… https://t.co/4kD4NTNYeK
— Sean Panikkar (@seanpanikkar) October 1, 2019