Jessye Norman, who died on Monday, had a grand-diva façade that concealed a restless, exploratory spirit.
Photograph by Philippe Wojazer / AFP / Getty
When Jessye Norman was ten years old, she heard a recording of the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson singing Brahms’s “Alto Rhapsody.” Norman later told the critic Matthew Gurewitsch, “I listened, thinking, ‘But this can’t just be a voice! A voice doesn’t sound this rich and beautiful.’ It was quite a revelation. And I wept, not knowing anything about what it meant. I just thought, ‘It must be terribly important, this music.’ ”
Norman, who died on Monday, at the age of seventy-four, is herself an object of disbelieving awe—a phenomenon over which singers of the future can wonder and weep. In her prime, she let loose sounds of shimmering magnificence. Her timbre carried with it a sonic chiaroscuro: pure tones gleamed out of depth and shadow. I remember the dazed bliss I felt on first hearing her recording of “Im Abendrot” (“At Dusk”), from Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” There was something superhuman or even extra-human about the lustre of the voice. It painted of its own accord the image that the song conjures: a sky glowing red against the encroaching dark.
This most regal of singers was born in 1945 into the Jim Crow South, beginning her life in a segregated wing of Augusta University Hospital, in Augusta, Georgia. Marian Anderson was one of the reigning symbols of African-American achievement: in Norman’s childhood, memories were still fresh of the contralto’s legendary performance at the Lincoln Memorial, in 1939, before a vast crowd. The racial barriers that had blocked Anderson’s operatic career were lifting by the time Norman began making her way. Still, like Anderson and many others before her, she found fame in Europe first. While she was still in her twenties, she was winning acclaim at the Deutsche Oper, La Scala, and Covent Garden. Her Met début did not come until 1983.
Early on, Norman laid claim to weighty German repertory, which suited the innate power and capacious range of her voice. The Interlochen Center of the Arts has released an electrifying 1968 recording of her singing “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” from “Tannhäuser”; she was all of twenty-two. She made her stage début in “Tannhäuser” the following year, in Berlin. This Germanic orientation was not unprecedented among African-American singers: Simon Estes was making his name in Wagner in the same period; Grace Bumbry had sung “Tannhäuser” in Bayreuth in 1961; and, back at the turn of the century, the contralto Luranah Aldridge had an abbreviated career specializing in Wagner.
Norman brought to bear an inborn authority, which had the effect of reconfiguring the racial tensions surrounding Wagner’s music. Among the most word-conscious of singers, she mastered the German language and immersed herself in the texts. She justly took pride in the precision of her diction. One peculiarly touching document of her career is an account of Isolde’s Transfiguration, the final monologue of “Tristan,” with Herbert von Karajan leading the Vienna Philharmonic. The aged maestro, conducting this music for the last time, is obviously in love with the sound of Norman’s voice, to the point of becoming distracted.
Jessye Norman in Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aneas,” in 1984.
Photograph from AFP / Getty
Sadly, her prime years were somewhat brief. She began encountering vocal difficulties in the nineties, particularly in her upper range. When I started regularly attending concerts and opera in New York, in 1992, problems had already set in. I recall a sometimes thrilling, sometimes excruciating attempt at Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene” with the New York Philharmonic, in 1995. Veteran critics like Peter G. Davis, of New York, complained of a mounting tendency toward grandiose posturing. Her hauteur was immortalized in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film, “Diva,” where police, gangsters, and connoisseurs go in pursuit of an illicit tape of an aloof opera star named Cynthia Hawkins. Closer to home, Jessye Normous, the alter ego of the performer Shequida Hall, has long been a fixture of the New York drag-queen circuit.
The grand-diva façade concealed a restless, exploratory spirit. In later years, Norman became increasingly adventurous in her choice of repertory; in 1995, I heard her give a charged, sensuous reading of Messiaen’s “Poèmes pour Mi.” She presented programs of spirituals, gospel, and blues; she filled the huge space of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with selections from Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts.” I last saw her perform, in 2012, when she participated in a San Francisco Symphony performance of John Cage’s “Songbooks,” forming an improbable trio with the vocalist-composers Meredith Monk and Joan La Barbara. In keeping with Cage’s instructions, the majestic soprano sat at a typewriter and repeatedly banged out a sentence from Erik Satie, in French: “The artist has no right to waste the audience’s time.”
All this week, links to beloved Norman performances have bounced around social media. Some recurring favorites are her hyper-radiant unfurling of “O hehrstes Wunder,” from “Die Walküre”; her voice-of-eternity turn in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”; her hysterically bombastic enactment of the “Marseillaise,” at the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution; her shiver-inducing rendition of Ernest Chausson’s “Poème de l’amour et de la mer”; and her imposing Cassandre in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” the occasion of her Met début.
“Im Abendrot” is mentioned more often than most. Norman made her classic recording of the Four Last Songs in 1983, with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. (There is also a video of a 1979 performance with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.) No performance should be described as definitive—particularly not one as idiosyncratic as this. The tempo is exceedingly slow; Norman luxuriates in the music for a full ten minutes, while singers on the order of Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp, and Gundula Janowitz need only six or seven. The manner is monumental; there is little fragility or vulnerability. Still, Norman’s version is too much a part of my own emotional history to yield to any other. After Norman’s death, it became clear that many people feel the same.
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The topic is death. Strauss set Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem to music at the end of his long life, and, lest anyone miss the fact that he was contemplating his own twilight, he inserted a quotation from his youthful tone poem “Death and Transfiguration.” The final lines are these:
O broad, tranquil peace!
So deep in the dusk!
How tired we are from travel—
Is this perhaps death?
Under Norman’s aegis, “Im Abendrot” becomes a fantasy of the kind of death we all wish we could have. Before the last silence, with birdcalls in the woodwinds, there is a spell of absolute fulfillment, of all-embracing spiritual warmth. In the video with Sawallisch, the singer closes her eyes and assumes a mask of supreme wisdom.
Let’s hope that Norman found a few such moments of repose toward the end. She suffered a spinal-cord injury in 2015, and spent her last years in a wheelchair. Still, she kept on singing, travelling, and holding forth. A video from Atlanta, in 2016, shows her glorying in one of her signature encores, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” She then exits in her wheelchair, which has become another kind of throne.