Jessye Norman’s voice soared as much when she was a child as it has in the decades since.
The 73-year-old Augusta native sang in church when she was young, and with her mother and grandmother, who both played piano.
Since then, the opera singer’s voice has been well-celebrated. She will be honored this month with the Glenn Gould Prize, which in announcing her win last year celebrated “the sheer size, power and luster of her voice” as well as her thoughtful music-making and “fervent advocacy” of contemporary music. She’s just the 12th person to win the award in more than 30 years.
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Norman has won a number of accolades over more than 40 years of singing, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a lifetime achievement Grammy Award and the National Medal of Arts. She performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and a birthday party for Queen Elizabeth II.
But she had far more humble beginnings.
“Jessye came from the segregated South,” said Ellis Johnson, a friend of Norman’s who grew up with her in Augusta. “She had to overcome many barriers to get to where she is today.”
By Norman’s telling, her path to success was “all fairy tales.” In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, she recounted stopping in Washington, D.C., as a 16-year-old after singing in a competition in Philadelphia. She lost the competition, she said, but left Washington with a scholarship to Howard University after meeting with a voice professor there. All the students at her Augusta school contributed their lunch money to help her get to the competition; the Board of Education paid for their food that day.
Norman went on to study at Howard and the University of Michigan, as well as the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She had her opera debut in Berlin, in 1969.
Johnson called her a trailblazer and said he recognized her talent from the start.
“Anybody who knew Jessye knew she had that big voice,” he said. “She was always so willing to lend her voice.”
Norman is also known in Augusta and elsewhere for her generosity. She lent her name to the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, where executive director Gary Dennis said she has frequently volunteered her time and helped secure donations that help keep the school financially stable. Her Grammys are displayed in his office, and Dennis said he often hands them to children to inspire them to succeed.
More than 400 fifth- through 12th-graders go through the after-school programs and summer camps at the center annually, and Dennis said Norman is mobbed whenever she visits. He said more than 70 percent of the students are of low to moderate income, and Norman is a strong believer in the need to gain an education, no matter who you are. He called her “uplifting.”
“She’s bigger than life in almost everything she does,” he said. “I have never known her to be anything other than selflessly generous.”
Norman has performed in every major opera house or concert hall in the world, Johnson said, reaching the pinnacle of success. She grew up listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio, she said in the interview with the Academy of Achievement. She’s fluent in German, Spanish and Italian, and sings in Hebrew as well. Famously, Norman said, “I think that pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons.”
To that end, she also has released jazz and other albums.
“I just think she is an extraordinary person,” Johnson said. “It’s the voice of a century.”
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