Tannhäuser and Thin Mints
Singer Jessye Norman has been described as the "virtual incarnation of the mask of tragedy" for the mournful operatic roles she has played. But these days, she's playing a more comfortable role: Healer of the soul and Girl Scout.
Several years ago, the opera singer Jessye Norman was leaving a meeting in New York and stepped out onto the sidewalk along Seventh Avenue, where a group of young teenage boys approached her.
"I bet you don't think we know who you are," one of the young men told her. "We have this teacher who teaches opera. It's kind of a history course, but she likes opera and we’ve been studying you." Another then confided: "My favorite opera is that very old one you sing, Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas."
"When that can happen, you know there is a god," 57-year-old Norman told an interviewer, recalling the event.
But it took more than a bit of divine intervention to create the greatest living legend of the opera world –- it took years of hard work, training and perseverance.
A musical journey from a baptist church to Berlin
Jessye Norman was born on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia, the daughter of an affluent family. Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother an amateur pianist. She already proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at a local baptist church. She was later offered a full scholarship to Howard University, a prestigious school founded for African-Americans in Washington, D.C., where studied music. After graduating in 1967, she studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Like many young musicians at the time, she had to move to Europe to establish herself. In 1968, she won an international singing competition sponsored by German public television. Critics described hers as the greatest voice since the German sorprano Lotte Lehmann. Soon after, she landed a three-year contract with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, making her operatic debut the same year in the role of Elisabeth in Wagner’s "Tannhäuser."
Roles quickly followed for Norman at Milan's La Scala and London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Only after she had made a name for herself at Europe's leading opera houses and festivals -- including the Salzburg Festival and the Hamburg State Opera -- did Norman set out to establish herself in the United States. And how.
In 1982, she made her American debut with a performance of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" and Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. A year later she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on the opening night of the company’s 100th season singing the role of Cassandra in Berlioz's "Les Troyens." The music world hasn’t been the same since.
"The virtual mask of tragedy"
In attempting to describe the impact Norman has made on the music world, a "Washington Post" critic once crowed in print: "There’s nobody like her, never was and probably never will be. In trying to describe Norman’s artistry, a critic inevitably finds himself falling into the lamest of clichés –- 'oceanic power,' 'force of nature,' 'larger than life presence' and so on. But in Norman’s case, all of the clichés ring true: This gigantic woman with the gigantic voice is one of a kind. Posterity will envy us for having her in our midst." The same newspaper has described her as a "virtual incarnation of the mask of tragedy" for the cursed women she has played in the operas of Wagner, Berlioz and Strauss that have become her signature.
"I'm dying always," she once quipped in an interview.