Celebrated opera singer Jessye Norman dies, aged 74

US & Canada REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
OCT 1, 2019 LISTEN
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

American soprano Jessye Norman, who sang the The Marseillaise for the bicentenary of the French revolution in 1989, died Monday, her family said. She was 74 years old.

The Grammy winner died "surrounded by loved ones" at a New York hospital due to septic shock and multi-organ failure after complications from a 2015 spinal cord injury, a statement said.

Praising her "beautiful tone, extraordinary power, and musical sensitivity," New York's Metropolitan Opera, where she sang more than 80 performances, dedicated its Monday show of "Porgy and Bess" to Norman.

"Jessye Norman was one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage," said general manager Peter Gelb in a statement. "Her legacy shall forever live on."

Her notable performances include two US presidential inaugurations, the 60th birthday celebrations of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, and at the bicentennial of the French Revolution in Paris in 1989.

Born September 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, Norman grew up in the segregated American South, and discovered music at a young age.

As one of five children in a family of amateur artists, she made a foray into gospel at age four, and as a young girl began listening to radio broadcasts of performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

She studied music on a full-tuition scholarship at the historically black college Howard University in Washington before going on to the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

She established herself in Europe in the 1970s, making her operatic debut in Berlin in 1969 before dazzling audiences across on the continent including Italy.

She eventually moved to London and spent years performing recital and solo work.

Arts Centre for disadvantaged kids
She earned a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor at age 52 in 1997, and former US president Barack Obama bestowed her with a National Medal of Arts.

She was a Commander in France's Order of Arts and Letters, and also had an orchid named after her.

Jessye Norman won five Grammys, including one for her whole career in 2006.

She took on much of the cost of opening the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which provides free after-school arts programming to disadvantaged children in Georgia.

At a 2014 Metropolitan Opera Guild luncheon honoring Norman, the Nobel-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, who died earlier this year, praised the soprano's voice as a unique wonder.

"The beauty and power, the singularity of Jessye Norman's voice. I don't recall anything quite like it," Morrison said.

"I have to say that sometimes when I hear your voice, it breaks my heart," she said. "But all of the time, when I hear your voice, it healed my soul."

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