Jessye Norman is “one of those once-in-a-generation singers who is not simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing” (New York Times). This rich history continues to be made as she brings her sumptuous sound, her joy of singing, and her spontaneous passion to recital performances, operatic portrayals, and appearances with symphony orchestras and chamber music collaborators to audiences around the world. The sheer size, power, and luster of her voice share equal acclaim with that of her thoughtful music making, innovative programming of the classics, and fervent advocacy of contemporary music. Miss Norman’s collaborations with artists on the cutting-edge in their fields—Robert Wilson, Andre Heller, Bill T. Jones, Steve McQueen, and Laura Karpman—serve to add new dimensions and exciting new challenges to her work.
Her recent performances of a staged version of Schubert’s Winterreise by Robert Wilson and the unique double-bill of Erwartung of Schoenberg and La voix humaine of Poulenc staged by André Heller—these two one-person operas never before performed by one singer on a single evening—allow Miss Norman to continue the singular expansion and deepening of her artistic vision.
The integrity and depth of Jessye Norman’s performances are often characterized as in a New York Times article, which stated, “This is an amazing voice, a catalogue of all that is virtuous in singing.” “The immensity of her voice struck like a thunderbolt … It was like an eruption of primal power” (Jerusalem Post).
The Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, now entering its fifth academic year, serves as a platform and unique study facility for talented middle school students in music performance, writing, drama, dance, and graphic art. The students attend this after-school program tuition-free. A fellowship and master class series in her name established recently at the University of Michigan School of Music further attest to Miss Norman’s encouragement and support of emerging talent.
Miss Norman is the recipient of many awards and honors. In December of 1997, she was invested with the United States’ highest award in the performing arts, the Kennedy Center Honor, making history as the youngest recipient in the Honors’ 20-year existence. Her many other prestigious distinctions include honorary doctorates at some 35 colleges, universities, and conservatories around the world, the most recent being the Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa from the University of North Carolina in May 2008.
In 1984 the French government bestowed upon Miss Norman the title Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris named an orchid for her. In October 1989 she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by French President Mitterand, and in June 1990 she was named Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations by UN Secretary Xavier Perez de Cuellar. Miss Norman was awarded the Radcliff Medal in June of 1997. In the autumn of 2000, Miss Norman was honored with the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in recognition of her humanitarian and civic contributions. In Augusta, Georgia, the Amphitheatre and Plaza overlooking the tranquil Savannah River have been named for her.
Miss Norman’s distinguished catalogue of recordings has won numerous awards, including France’s Grand Prix National du Disque for the music of Wagner, Schumann, Mahler and Schubert; London’s prestigious Gramophone Award for her outstanding interpretation of Strauss’s Four Last Songs; Amsterdam’s Edison Prize; and recording honors in Belgium, Spain, and Germany.
In the US, her Grammy Award–winning recordings include Songs of Maurice Ravel, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Die Walküre. Bluebeard’s Castle with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra received the Grammy Award for best opera in February 1999. She was the winner of an ACE Award from the National Academy of Cable Programming for “Jessye Norman at Notre Dame,” as seen on the Arts and Entertainment Television Network in the US.
In February of 2006, Jessye Norman became only the fourth opera/classical music singer in the 48-year history of the Grammy Awards, to be presented The Lifetime Achievement Award for Classical Music. Creating her own place in this legendary list of awardees, Miss Norman joined the illustrious company of Enrico Caruso, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price.
In May 2006, Miss Norman was awarded the Edison Prize in Amsterdam for her outstanding contribution to recorded classical music, which includes some 75 CDs of her eclectic repertoire.
In the autumn, Miss Norman’s tour in Asia included her first performances in mainland China, where she presented orchestral concerts in Shanghai and Beijing. In Beijing Miss Norman was awarded an honorary professorship at the Central Music Conservatory of Beijing.
In early 2007, Miss Norman’s European performances included a recital in Paris at the Salle Pleyel entitled Les voix françaises, her homage to the great tradition of music in France and to the special place she holds in the hearts of French music enthusiasts. She was presented in the opening performance of the Celebration of Women in the Arts in Barcelona at the Palau de la Musica and in recital for the closing performance of the Festival of Classical Music in The Hague.
Miss Norman was the Harmon-Eisner artist-in-residence at the 2007 Ideas Festival of Walter Issacson in Aspen, Colorado, where she offered three talks on her life in music to this point, the importance—indeed the absolute necessity—of arts education in the public schools, and the political and social elements required to make the arts available for all to explore and experience.
Jessye Norman was presented in Spain in a jazz concert, The Duke and The Diva, which features the music of Duke Ellington, at the Festival of Cap Roig and in recital in El Escorial.
Later in 2007, Miss Norman was heard in performance at the Opera House of Detroit and offered the official opening performance for the Grand Theatre of Aix-en-Provence, France. Again in the US, she also presented music programs in schools where arts education has been absent from the curricula.
Also in 2007, Jessye Norman was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at a ceremony at Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was made a “living landmark” of New York City by the Landmarks Conservancy, and was awarded the Nelson A. Rockefeller Award for the Arts by the State University of New York at Purchase College.
In 2008 Miss Norman presented recitals in Germany and France titled The Five Seasons: Summer, Winter, Spring, Fall, and the eternal season of Love! She brought this theme again to recitals at Carnegie Hall and Royce Hall at the University of California last May.
Miss Norman opened the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco, and The Festival of the Arts in Ohrid, Macedonia, during the summer. She offered recitals in Spain, Austria, and Poland, with orchestral concerts in France, Spain, and Korea. Miss Norman’s jazz program, The Duke and the Diva, was performed as the opening of the performing arts series for the 2008–2009 season at the University of Maryland. The Duke and the Diva was also presented at the Echternach Festival of Luxembourg. She also presented the opening concert of the Festival of Sacred Music in Dijon, France, last October.
In addition to her busy performance schedule, Miss Norman serves on the Board of Directors for the New York Public Library, and she is a member of the Board of Governors for the New York Botanical Garden. She is also on the boards of Carnegie Hall, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Howard University, the Lupus Foundation, Paine College, and the Augusta Opera Association. She is national spokesperson for the Lupus Foundation and the Partnership for the Homeless. A relentless Girl Scout cookie–seller, she is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.