Opera star a trail­blazer, mul­ti­ple Grammy win­ner

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Mes­fin Fekadu

NEW YORK — Jessye Nor­man, the renowned in­ter­na­tional opera star whose pas­sion­ate so­prano voice won her four Grammy Awards, the Na­tional Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Cen­ter Honor, has died, ac­cord­ing to fam­ily spokesper­son Gwen­dolyn Quinn. She was 74.

A state­ment re­leased to The As­so­ci­ated Press said Nor­man died Mon­day from sep­tic shock and multi-or­gan fail­ure sec­ondary to com­pli­ca­tions of a spinal cord in­jury she suf­fered in 2015. She died at Mount Si­nai St. Luke’s Hos­pi­tal in New York sur­rounded by loved ones.

“We are so proud of Jessye’s mu­si­cal achieve­ments and the in­spi­ra­tion that she pro­vided to au­di­ences around the world that will con­tinue to be a source of joy. We are equally proud of her hu­man­i­tar­ian en­deav­ors ad­dress­ing mat­ters such as hunger, home­less­ness, youth devel­op­ment, and arts and cul­ture ed­u­ca­tion,” the fam­ily state­ment read.

Fu­neral ar­range­ments will be an­nounced in the com­ing days.

Nor­man was a trail­blaz­ing per­former, and one of the rare black singers to at­tain world­wide star­dom in the opera world, per­form­ing at such revered houses such as La Scala and the Metropoli­tan Opera, and singing ti­tle roles in works like “Car­men” and “Aida.” She sang the works of Wag­ner, but was not lim­ited to opera or clas­si­cal mu­sic, per­form­ing songs by Duke Elling­ton and oth­ers as well.

“I have al­ways been drawn to things other peo­ple might con­sider un­usual. I’m al­ways taken by the text and beau­ti­ful melody. It’s not im­por­tant to me who has writ­ten it. It’s just more rea­son­able to have an open mind about what beauty is,” Nor­man said in a 2002 in­ter­view with the Chicago SunTimes.

In that same in­ter­view she pro­foundly said, “Pi­geon­hol­ing is only in­ter­est­ing to pi­geons.”

Nor­man cer­tainly knew no bound­aries or lim­its. She broke bar­ri­ers and had hoped her in­dus­try would see more faces like hers.

“It is a more di­verse place, thank good­ness,” Nor­man said of the opera world in a 2004 in­ter­view with NPR, “I wish it were even more di­verse than it is.”

Nor­man was born Sept. 15, 1945, in Au­gusta, Ge­or­gia, in seg­re­ga­tion­ist times. She grew up singing in church and around a mu­si­cal fam­ily that in­cluded pi­anists and singers. She earned a schol­ar­ship to the his­tor­i­cally black col­lege Howard Uni­ver­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to study mu­sic, and later stud­ied at the Pe­abody Con­ser­va­tory and the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan.

She made her op­er­atic de­but in 1969 in Ber­lin, wow­ing au­di­ences around the world on stages in Mi­lan, Lon­don and New York thanks to her shin­ing vo­cals, no mat­ter the lan­guage. The New York Times de­scribed her voice as “a grand man­sion of sound.”

The Met Opera called Nor­man “one of the great so­pra­nos of the past half-cen­tury” in a state­ment.

In 1997, at age 52, Nor­man be­came the youngest per­son ever to earn the Kennedy Cen­ter Honor in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 20-year his­tory at the time. She re­ceived her Na­tional Medal of Arts from for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and has earned hon­orary doc­tor­ates from a num­ber of pres­ti­gious schools, in­clud­ing Juil­liard, Har­vard and Yale. She is a mem­ber of Bri­tish Royal Acad­emy of Mu­sic and Ge­or­gia Mu­sic Hall of Fame.

She earned 15 Grammy nom­i­na­tions through­out her ca­reer, pick­ing up her first at the 1985 show for best clas­si­cal vo­cal soloist per­for­mance for “Ravel: Songs Of Mau­rice Ravel.” She re­ceived a Grammy Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2006.

Nor­man also gave back, rais­ing funds to help stu­dents at­tend school, cham­pi­oning the arts in schools and cham­pi­oning di­ver­sity. The Jessye Nor­man School of the Arts opened in 2003 in Au­gusta to pro­vide a free fine arts ed­u­ca­tion to dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren. The Au­gusta Chron­i­cle re­ported that Nor­man was set to at­tend the Oct. 11 street-nam­ing cer­e­mony in her home­town on Eighth Street, where the school is lo­cated. It will be named Jessye Nor­man Boule­vard.

In 1990, Au­gusta opened the Jessye Nor­man Am­phithe­ater to honor the opera icon.

In 2004, Nor­man re­leased her mem­oir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”

She is sur­vived by two re­main­ing sib­lings, James Nor­man and Elaine Sturkey.

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