Majestic American Soprano Jessye Norman Dies At 74 The singer crafted a distinctive career that spanned decades and styles. Though a leading figure in her field, Norman's repertoire, fanbase and achievements stretched far beyond the opera house.
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Majestic American Soprano Jessye Norman Dies At 74

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Majestic American Soprano Jessye Norman Dies At 74

Majestic American Soprano Jessye Norman Dies At 74

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Opera fans are mourning one of the world's most revered voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VILLANELLE")

JESSYE NORMAN: (Singing in French).

KELLY: Soprano Jessye Norman. She died Monday in New York. She was 74. Praised for the beauty and opulence of her voice, Norman crafted a distinctive career that spanned decades and styles of music. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this remembrance.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Jessye Norman couldn't recall a time when she didn't sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN: My parents told me that I started singing about the same time as I started speaking.

HUIZENGA: The little girl from Augusta, Ga., with a big voice sang in church, school and, as she told me in 2014, a few unusual venues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NORMAN: I'd sing for the opening of a supermarket. I think there was even an opening for a car wash at some point.

HUIZENGA: She went on to develop a singular sound that rang out in the world's top opera houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NICHT SEHRE DICH SORGE UM MICH")

NORMAN: (Singing in German).

RENEE FLEMING: Honestly, I can't think of a single other soprano or mezzo soprano with anything remotely approaching her sound.

HUIZENGA: Soprano Renee Fleming counts herself a fan.

FLEMING: It was almost like a wall of sound coming at us, but extremely beautiful and consistent.

HUIZENGA: Norman's career began in Berlin in 1969 singing Wagner. With a large, attractive voice, Norman was offered roles she knew she was too young to sing, so she decided to take a self-imposed hiatus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN: I thought I needed to go away from the opera house and allow my voice to mature. I wanted to save myself. I wanted to do this for the long term. I knew that already at 24.

HUIZENGA: Instead, she honed her skills as a recitalist. She sang German and French songs and always included spirituals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL CITY")

NORMAN: (Singing) Oh, what a beautiful city. Oh, what a beautiful city. Oh, what a beautiful city. Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah.

HUIZENGA: Jessye Norman grew up in the Jim Crow South and knew racism. She helped integrate local stores, sitting at whites-only lunch counters. We ordered food, daring the staff not to serve us, she wrote in her 2014 memoir "Stand Up Straight And Sing." Eleven years earlier, she founded the Jessye Norman School for the Arts in her hometown, as she told NPR in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NORMAN: It's important to give back, and I find it really disquieting for me to see how little we pay attention to arts education for our students these days.

HUIZENGA: By then, Norman was already a commanding star, having made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in 1983. That same year, she released perhaps her most beloved recording, Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN")

NORMAN: (Singing in German).

HUIZENGA: Norman's repertoire was broad, from baroque music to modernists, pop songs and blues to her beloved Duke Ellington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT DON'T MEAN A THING")

NORMAN: (Singing) It don't mean a thing. All you got to do is sing.

HUIZENGA: And Norman's fans extended beyond the opera world. Her passing drew tweets from celebrities like Wendell Pierce, Whoopi Goldberg and Al Roker, who called her an American treasure. Norman was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor, five Grammys, honorary doctorates and France's Legion of Honor, and she was still singing in public last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORMAN: As long as I'm able to make a noise - not necessarily in public - I want to sing for as long as I have breath.

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ES GIBT EIN REICH")

NORMAN: (Singing in German).

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