Jessye Norman was born September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. Her father, Silas Norman, was an insurance broker and her mother, Janie Norman, was a teacher. As a young child, Jessye began singing in church choirs. By the age of eight, she was already learning how to play the piano. Over the years, she honed her musical skills, primarily focusing on her singing.
As a result of her singing, Norman received a full scholarship to Howard University. She began her collegiate studies immediately after graduating high school. While attending Howard, she studied with voice teacher Carolyn Grant. She graduated from Howard in 1967.
In 1968, Norman entered an international music competition in Germany. Showcasing her talents, she won first prize. Her victory earned her national recognition. In 1972, she landed her first opera. She debuted in the role of Aida at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy. After her performance in this role, many more opportunities presented themselves to her.
Shortly after performing in Aida, however, Norman took a break from performing. She wanted to spend time developing her voice. She returned to the stage in 1982 in the play Oedipus Rex and Dido and Aeneas. Both plays were produced by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
Norman’s voice took her around the world. She performed throughout South America and many European countries. In 1985, she performed the folk song, Simple Gifts, at then-president Ronald Regan’s inauguration. After the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001, she was invited to sing at the memorial ceremony for the victims.
Philanthropy and Entrepreneurialism
In 2002, Norman founded a tuition-free after-school program, called Jessye Norman School of the Arts. She later curated the 2009 exhibition, Honor!: A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy. In 2014, she penned her memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!
Over the course of her career, Norman has received numerous honorary doctorate degrees for her contribution to music. In 1997, she received the Kennedy Center Honor for her charming singing and superior stage presence. At the age of 71, Jessye Norman continues her philanthropy and entrepreneurialism.
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