By Erick Johnson
The world is celebrating the life of renowned soprano Jessye Norman. After an illustrious career at New York’s esteemed Metropolitan Opera and opera houses around the world, Norman died on September 30, two weeks after celebrating her 74th birthday.
A diva who at one point in her celebrated career owned homes in New York and London, she wowed the world many times over in sold-out opera houses. She sang before royalty and presidents at grand events and galas.
While Norman was one of the most sought after artists on the world stage, few remember that Norman performed for years in Chicago before she made her famous 1983 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where she gave at least 80 memorable performances. And the Crusader often reported on her rise to superstardom.
Six years after gaining the attention of the opera world, Norman made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall on March 21, 1974. For three consecutive days, she performed composer Robert Schumman’s “Das Paradies und die Per, Opus 50.”
Norman first performed at the Ravinia Festival on August 9, 1975, where she sang Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’ ete, Opus 7. In 1978 at Ravinia, Norman performed with Kathleen Battle, another rising Black soprano who a year prior, made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
In 1991, Norman and Battle performed a special concert of African American Spirituals at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Today, a CD of “Concert Spirituals,” remains a popular item on Amazon with five-star reviews. That same year, Norman gave eight performances of Alceste performed at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
In 2009, Norman recorded “A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy.” In 2010, Norman released “Roots: My Life, My Song.”
But Orchestra Hall was Norman’s most frequented venue in Chicago. In all, she gave 26 performances there as a vocal soloist and narrator. She performed a total of nine times at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Her last performance in Chicago was in 2002 at a recital with Pianist Mark Markham.
In the Crusader archives is an old undated press release promoting Norman’s upcoming performance at the defunct Rose Records at 214 South Wabash.
In 1985, Norman performed at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. The next year she performed for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday at the Royal Opera House. In 1986, France chose to Norman to sing “La Marsellaise” in Paris for the 100th anniversary of the city’s gift to the United States.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1983, she credited other great Black singers for paving the way for her, including Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price.
In her memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” in 2014, Norman recounted meeting instances of racism in the opera industry.
Norman transcended color barriers with her mesmerizing voice that won millions of fans on the world stage. She won five Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.
In 2017, Norman was interviewed by Chicago HistoryMakers for a permanent file in the organization’s national database record on America’s Black achievers.
Her favorite season of the year was fall and she died one day before it was to officially begin.
Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia on September 15, 1945. The city was segregated at the time and Norman’s family remained a tight knit group. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist and Norman’s father Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker at North Carolina Mutual.
She received a bachelor’s degree in music from Howard University and studied at the University of Michigan and Peabody Institute. She gained attention after she won a first-place prize at the Munich International Music Competition in 1968. The next year, she made her debut on an opera stage at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” as Elisabeth.