February 13, 2013 7:00 pm
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Jessye Norman is one of the most celebrated artists of our century. She is also among the most distinguished in a long line of American sopranos who refused to believe in limits, a shining member of an artistic pantheon that has included Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and now this daughter of Augusta, Georgia. “Pigeonholing,” said Norman, “is only interesting to pigeons.” Norman’s dreams are limitless, and she has turned many of them into realities in a dazzling career that has been one of the most satisfying musical spectacles of our time.
She has been equally at home in American spirituals, French chansons or German Lieder. In opera, she has made her own Wagner’s Sieglinde and Elisabeth but also Gluck’s Alceste, Mozart’s Countess Almaviva, Strauss’ Ariadne and Stravinsky’s Jocasta. She has conquered centuries of musical styles, bringing to life not only Purcell’s Dido but the Dido of Berlioz, Beethoven’s Leonore and also Bizet’s Carmen. She has been an earthy temptress in the opera Parsifal, an unfortunate bride in Bluebeard’s Castle and a wise old nun in Dialogues of the Carmelites. From Haydn to Mahler to Schoenberg and Berg, from Satie and Poulenc to Gershwin and Bernstein, the range of Norman’s musical reach has been and continues to be breathtaking. No matter what the language, she makes every word matter, every note tell. She is a diva in the truest sense , in that there is something of the divine in the music she makes.
“The greatness of music speaks for itself when Jessye Norman sings,’’ wrote Octavio Roca in The Washington Post after one of Jessye Norman’s early Kennedy Center recitals, reflecting years later in The Washington Times that “listening to Jessye Norman find her way into a song is like watching in wonder as a beautiful morning reaches the climax of noon. Warmth and blinding light are everywhere in her voice.” That same formidable voice was described by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times as “a grand mansion of sound. It defines an extraordinary space. It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous falls.”
She was born into a musical family, learned the piano when she could barely walk and sang “Jesus Is Calling” in public when she was only six. Norman pursued her formal musical studies at Howard University, then later at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan. She made her operatic debut in a 1969 production of Tannhaeuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a now legendary series of performances that placed the music world at the young American’s feet. Norman, word soon spread, was not just another sensation but the real thing. She was showered with invitations for operas and recitals, and she soon conquered stages from Lincoln Center to Covent Garden, Carnegie Hall to the Musikverein, from La Scala to the Paris Opera and the Vienna State Opera, from Tokyo to San Francisco, Houston and Boston, from Granada to Graz and from Salzburg to Hong Kong.
The French, who named an orchid after Jessye Norman, also made her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and followed this by awarding her the Legion of Honor. She is an honorary fellow of Harvard and Cambridge universities, and she has received honorary doctorates from, among others, Juilliard, Howard, Harvard and Yale. In 1990 Jessye Norman was named honorary ambassador to the United Nations by U.N. secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. She made Metropolitan Opera history by singing both Cassandra and Dido in a historic production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz during the Met’s centennial season. She embodied the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity in France’s own bicentennial by singing “La Marseillaise” at the Place de la Concorde. She is a lifelong member of the Girls Scouts of America as well as of Great Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, she swims one hundred laps a day, and she is possessed of a laughter that is at least as irresistible as her voice.
That voice has been a sweet caress for audiences all over the world. But perhaps her caresses are warmest when she sings right here at home. Jessye Norman said not long ago that she simply “would like it to be that it made a difference to some people that I came and went, that I was here.” She has made a difference to anyone who loves music, and indeed it matters quite a lot that she is here: Jessye Norman, a great American singer.