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October 1, 2019 8:05 AM   Subscribe

Opera singer Jessye Norman dead at 74. Norman was celebrated many times over throughout her career, including receiving five Grammys and a Kennedy Center Honor. Among her most well known performances were the title roles in Aida and Ariadne auf Naxos, a rendition of "La Marseillaise" on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day in France, and Strauss' Four Last Songs.
posted by Cash4Lead (37 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

posted by Doktor Zed at 8:13 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Appropriate: Norman performing Purcell's When I Am Laid In Earth
posted by tzikeh at 8:20 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I just learned about her today from some very musical colleagues. Her work is making the rounds on a little music email group we maintain. A colleague posted this version of "Amazing Grace" from 2011. It's phone footage, but Norman's craft comes through gorgeously...

posted by foodbedgospel at 8:27 AM on October 1, 2019

Here she is singing the aria from La Wally in the really excellent eighties French movie Diva.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:01 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

(Sorry, no, that's Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in that movie. Though I've heard it said the character was inspired by Norman.)
posted by dnash at 9:11 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sad ending.
posted by parmanparman at 9:16 AM on October 1, 2019

One year when I was in undergrad, Jessye Norman was tapped to give the commencement speech. I was going to get to see her even though I wasn't graduating, because I played in the band, and we played at commencement.

Some of the graduating seniors threw a fit because she wasn't "famous enough" (this was a university that gets Big Name speakers; the year before was Madeline Albright, and the year after was Desmond Tutu), and I remember getting so mad about that. And then it rained, and the commencement ceremony was canceled so I didn't get to see her.

I wish I had gotten to see her sing. What a loss to music and world.

posted by damayanti at 9:58 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

posted by agatha_magatha at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2019

From NYTimes:

10 of her greatest performances.
(though they were remiss in leaving out Isolde's Liebestod, if you ask me.)

Jessye Norman Was a Diva, in the Best Way.
posted by dnash at 10:02 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Have heard La Marseillaise countless times but that lady owned it. No second place winner.
posted by speug at 10:38 AM on October 1, 2019


I remember reading a story of how she was having trouble making an entrance to the stage on cue during a rehearsal for an Opera. The trouble was the sets were still being assembled and she had to squeeze through a opening and was having trouble. One of the stagehands suggested, "maybe try sideways?". She looked at him with a combination of hauteur and twinkle in her eye and said,"Honey, I ain't got no sideways!" What a voice. I never got to hear her at her peak, but the recordings do her justice. And as usual; she was a bigger deal in France than here.
posted by indianbadger1 at 10:39 AM on October 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


She was so beautiful.
posted by crush at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2019

posted by jquinby at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2019

She received an honorary doctorate from my university when I graduated, which is why my parents have one photo of me receiving my degree and about 60 of Jessye Norman receiving hers. She didn't sing but she was gracious and glorious and it was a gift for us to be in the hall. My Dad was a fan and for him she was the highlight of the day, which, when you see the clips above, is in retrospect correct. What a voice, what a career.
posted by YoungStencil at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

posted by dannyboybell at 11:32 AM on October 1, 2019

posted by LobsterMitten at 11:37 AM on October 1, 2019

I love her voice-- and I'm putting that love in the present tense, because her voice is still with us, thanks to the recordings she made with such care and such artistry. Through them, I hope she will continue to inspire young singers, as she did for me and almost every other singer I know.

Her sound always reminded me of moonlight on dark water. She could sound intimate or she could soar, but there was always a vastness to it, like a mountain lake by night, its boundaries unseen.

As a student I spent years singing all wrong, in part because I wished I could sound like her. But I don't have her voice; no other singer did or does. If you turned on the radio in mid-Met broadcast, you might struggle to identify the singers-- but not her. You heard that voice, and there was no one else it could be.

Her Strauss is justly famed, but her CD of Brahms songs with Barenboim helped me understand what Lieder were and what was possible in singing them. I can't find much of that CD on YouTube, but here's Strauss's Zueignung: one and a half minutes of great joy.

All the clips linked here are good and beautiful, but here's one that's a little different: Poulenc's Chemins de l'amour, an old torch song, sentimental and sweet-- but in Norman's hands it becomes sublime. I defy any singer to match that smooth, silvery legato. She knows exactly how much swooping the song permits, and she does it with absolute certainty and grace.

Like the entire singing world, I'll miss her. But to die at a ripe old age, having accomplished some of the greatest singing of your time, isn't so bad as life stories go.
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:03 PM on October 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

posted by allthinky at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by praemunire at 2:42 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by sfred at 3:21 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by TwoStride at 3:57 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by get off of my cloud at 4:24 PM on October 1, 2019

Appropriate: Norman performing Purcell's When I Am Laid In Earth

I watched that last week just because. It's magnificent. So happy that she had the career she wanted and was not shunted into just singing "Porgy and Bess".

posted by droplet at 5:34 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by Fizz at 6:41 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by mordax at 9:01 PM on October 1, 2019

This is hard... I had the joyous, great fortune to meet Ms. Norman when she filmed her Holiday special in Augusta, GA in the 90’s. I remember her as being much shorter than me, despite reports to the contrary and her commanding stage presence. She was endlessly charming and kind to me. We probably chatted for ten to fifteen minutes about my life as a public school, music teacher in her home town of Augusta and my studies as a baby, dramatic soprano. She was so complimentary of my height and the dress that I was wearing, it’s not often that a true star speaks with you like that and she knew exactly what I needed to hear. I will never forget how her words and the time that she spent with me made me feel. And that voice, absolutely nothing compares. Rest In Peace, Ms Norman, the world has grown a little darker today. 😔💔
posted by pearlybob at 9:50 PM on October 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:15 PM on October 1, 2019

posted by Wordshore at 2:01 AM on October 2, 2019

posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 2:48 AM on October 2, 2019

posted by camyram at 4:39 AM on October 2, 2019

The NYT article mentions in passing the school she established, but it doesn't mention what a gift that school has been for our community. My kids have been attending some of the JNSA's schoolyear and summer programs for several years, and it has been so central in our lives, all because she saw a need in our area for more arts and music education. She talks about the program here.
posted by mittens at 6:34 AM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:38 AM on October 2, 2019

When I was a young singer at Tanglewood in the 90s, we got to sit in on a dress rehearsal of Jessye Norman with the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting. There were only about 12 of us in an otherwise empty rehearsal. Norman's singing was, of course, glorious, and all the more impressive up close.

At one point, she clearly did not like Ozawa's tempo on Strauss's Four Last Songs. So, after making some increasingly frustrated faces, she turned around and STARTED CONDUCTING THE ORCHESTRA. Which of course followed her rather than Ozawa.

Brava Diva.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 3:14 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

The "no sideways" story is apocryphal and usually said to be about Ernestine Schumann-Heink much earlier in the century. I think it was brought up innocently here given that the framing has her say it with self-effacing humor, but I hate to see it in an obituary thread for a singer whose size people were not kind about. Norman sued a classical music magazine for libel for printing it about her.
posted by less of course at 8:48 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

A true singer’s singer. One of my all-time favorite concerts was Norman performing John Cage’s Song Books with the San Francisco Symphony several years ago.

posted by donatella at 9:21 PM on October 2, 2019

Jessye Norman: Such a beautiful person that her voice sang it from the rafters.
posted by mightshould at 4:15 AM on October 3, 2019

posted by radwolf76 at 12:10 PM on October 3, 2019

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