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Jessye Norman (1945–2019), Grammy-winning opera singer

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The five-time Grammy winner sang at presidential inaugurations and at France's bicentennial celebration

Jessye Norman was an operatic soprano known for her matchless voice and for her signature roles including Strauss’ Ariadne. She made her debut on the operatic stage in 1969, portraying Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in Berlin. Inspired as a girl by listening to performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on the radio, Norman made her debut at the Met in 1983, singing the part of Cassandre in “Les Troyens” by Berlioz. She would go on to sing at the Met more than 80 times. Norman performed at the second inaugurations of presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and she sang at England’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday as well as at the bicentennial of the French Revolution. She won five Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997, and was honored with the National Medal of Arts in 2009.

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Died: September 30, 2019 (Who else died on September 30?)

Details of death: Died in New York of complications of a spinal cord injury at the age of 74.


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Norman’s influences: After discovering opera via the radio broadcasts of the Met Opera, Norman began seeking out recordings of fellow African-American women singing opera. She found inspiration in the work of Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, and Leontyne Price, who paved the way for a young black girl like Norman to be able to pursue a career in opera. Among Norman’s later projects was developing the multimedia project “Sissieretta Jones: Call Her by Her Name!” The project pays tribute to Jones, a 19th-century soprano who became the first African-American artist to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1892.

Norman on racial prejudice and the African-American opera singers who inspired her: “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.”’ 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.”

What people said about her: “Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage. Her legacy shall forever live on.” —Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera

I don’t yet have the words to capture the power and effect Jessye Norman had on my life. She was one of two women who inspired my collegiate path, serving as an example of possibility. What a talent. What virtuoso. What a woman. May she forever rest.” —Uzo Aduba, “Orange Is the New Black” star

“We live in an age where we need art more than ever, to uplift our world with the beauty of the human spirit. Few could summon the angels like the soprano Jessye Norman. A uniquely American voice that broke barriers and moved hearts.” —Dan Rather

Full obituary: New York Times

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