Multiple Grammy Award-winning soprano Jessye Norman died on Monday (September 30) at age 74. She died at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City from “septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015,” family spokesperson Gwendolyn Quinn reported to People.
Norman’s operatic career ran across half a century and began when she made her debut in 1969 at the Deutsche Opera Berlin. The Howard University graduate and National Medal of Arts recipient performed concerts worldwide, but didn’t make her United States stage debut until 1982, when she sang at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. The following year, she debuted at The Metropolitan Opera’s centennial Opening Night, as Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.” She went on to sing more than 80 performances with the company.
“Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage,” Peter Gelb, The Met’s general manager, said in the opera house’s official condolence statement.
Watch a video of Norman as Madame Lidoine in “Ave Maria,” from Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, on April 4, 1987, courtesy of the Met, via YouTube.
Born in segregated Augusta, Georgia, in 1945, Norman never apologized for her Blackness and consistently gave credit to her predecessors: Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price. In a 1983 interview with The New York Times, she said, “They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera or I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing “Porgy and Bess,”’ Norman told The Times. “Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my Blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”
Norman retold stories of the racism she encountered growing up and performing, but also of the power of the Black community in her 2015 memoir “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” During the promotion of the book at the 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival, Norman retold a story from her childhood of seeing an empty “Whites Only” section that she decided to play in with little care for politics. “In my mind, I decided that if only people understood and left one another alone, that we would be just fine and that we will come to a conclusion very soon, I told myself, that these signs would come down,” Norman told the audience.