Opera Scotland

Jessye Norman Suggest updates

Jessye Mae Norman.

Born Augusta, Georgia. 15 September 1945.

Died Manhattan, New York, 30 September 2019.

American soprano.

Jessye Norman had a hugely successful international career.  Her extraordinary voice was difficult to categorize, being suited to a range of work from dramatic soprano down to contralto.  She always divided her time between opera and concert and recital work.  Her song repertoire emphasised German lieder (Schubert, Mahler, Wagner, Brahms) and French mélodie (Satie, Poulenc, Messiaen) as well as new works.  After the operatic phase of her career ended, she began to collaborate with several dance companies in the USA, also singing jazz and crossover material.

She studied in Washington DC with a scholarship from Howard University, training with Carolyn Grant, then at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore.    This was followed by a year at Michigan University,  Ann Arbor,  with Pierre Bernac.  She won the 1968 Bavarian Radio International Competition and made a recital tour of Germany before joining the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 1969 on an initial three year contract that was extended to 1976.  Her debut role was Elisabeth Tannhäuser, and the quality of the voice was immediately recognized.

Other operatic debuts included Florence in 1971 (Sélika L'Africaine);  La Scala, Milan (1972 Aïda);  Covent Garden (1972 Cassandra Les Troyens).  Also in 1972 she appeared at the Hollywood Bowl as Aïda and in London sang the Wesendonck Lieder at the Last Night of the Proms.

Later she appeared at Hamburg (1980 Ariadne); Philadelphia (1982 Jocasta); New York Met (1983 Cassandra and Dido); Chicago (1990 Alceste).  Later appearances  at the Met included Sieglinde,  Ariadne and Emilia Marty, introducing The Makropulos Case to New York in 1996.  Her repertoire also contained a good deal of twentieth century music, including Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Erwartung and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, for which she studied Hungarian minutely.

Jessye Norman never appeared in staged opera in Scotland, but performed there on several occasions.   She visited the Edinburgh Festival frequently from 1972, giving morning recitals at the Queen's Hall and Leith Theatre.  Usher Hall appearances included Mahler songs with the RPO under Rudolf Kempe, A Child of our Time with Alexander Gibson, and the alto parts in Saint Matthew Passion and Verdi Requiem with Claudio Abbado and the LSO.

She clearly enjoyed collaborating with Sir Alexander Gibson.   She sang with the SNO in Die Walküre Act 1, seen in Aberdeen as well as the two central belt cities.   At a Prom in Edinburgh she sang in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.  In 1983, she had been booked to tour Scotland with Gibson and the SCO in Berlioz's Les nuits d'été song cycle.  Sadly, she was indisposed and obliged to cancel - a very rare event.  In 1990, at a concert in Glasgow's new Royal Concert Hall (14 November), she performed the closing scene from Salome with Gibson and the BBC SSO.

She made many operatic recordings, beginning with Countess Almaviva in Colin Davis's 1971  Le nozze di Figaro, the success of which gave her immediate international exposure.  Her later records include Purcell (Dido and Aeneas); Gluck (Alceste);  Haydn (Rosina La vera costanza, Armida);  Beethoven (Fidelio);  Weber (Euryanthe);  Wagner (Elsa,  Sieglinde);  Verdi (Giulietta Un giorno di regno, Medora Il corsaro);  Offenbach (La belle Hélène);  Bizet (Carmen);   Bartók (Duke Bluebeard's Castle); Schoenberg (Gurrelieder);  Tippett (A Child of out Time).

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