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SMTD alumna and renowned opera star Jessye Norman dies at 74

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Jessye Norman received an honorary doctorate from former U-M President Harold Shapiro in June 1987. Photo by Bob Kalmbach.

Jessye Norman, MM ’68 (voice), Sc.D.Hon ’87, died on September 30, 2019, in New York at the age of 74. Norman was one of the world’s most celebrated performing artists, acclaimed for her performances in a wide range of leading roles with the world’s premier opera companies, in solo recitals, and in concerts of her cherished classical repertoire with preeminent orchestras all over the globe.

Norman was the recipient of many awards and accolades including some 40 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges, universities, and conservatories around the world; five Grammy awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award; the National Medal of the Arts received at the White House from President Obama in 2010; and at the time in 1997, she was the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Additionally, she was a recipient of the highest recognition of the NAACP, the Spingarn Award and was a member of the British Royal Academy of Music.

Norman earned her masters of music degree at the University of Michigan in 1968 and then moved to Europe, where she quickly landed a three-year contract with the Berlin Opera, making her debut that year as Elisabeth in Richard Wagner’s Tanhäuser. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983 and would go on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met.

A bonafide opera star, Norman was often called upon to perform at many of the world’s most important events. She sang at the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton; at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday celebration; at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; at the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution; and at a ceremony honoring the victims of 9/11 when two monumental columns of light were unveiled at the site of the former World Trade Center.

Unafraid to venture onto stages beyond opera, Norman explored a wide range of musical expressions–including performances of the sacred music of Duke Ellington–and creative collaborations with artists ranging from choreographers Bill T. Jones and Alvin Ailey to the multimedia show Ask Your Mama, based on Langston Hughes work, with music composed by fellow SMTD alumna Laura Karpman (BM ’80, composition and voice). Norman’s last artistic expansion was with her jazz ensemble and extensive programming of music from American musical theatre, which she entitled American Masters.

Norman appeared 9 times between her University Musical Society debut in 1973 as part of the Ann Arbor May Festival and her final appearance in March 2012. Photo taken at a recital held at Hill Auditorium in Sept. 1993; courtesy UMS.

At SMTD, two endowment funds, funded by the Charles H. Gershenson Trust, were established in the late 1990s in her honor to benefit the Department of Voice—The Jessye Norman Graduate Fellowship in Voice provides scholarship support and the Jessye Norman Master Class Series brings world-class artists to campus to work with our voice students. Norman also had a long history of returning to campus to mentor the next generation of vocalists and performed for University events on several occasions. In 2018, she was awarded the SMTD Hall of Fame Award during SMTD’s Homecoming Weekend celebration.

“The impact of an artist like Jessye Norman can’t be measured in words,” said SMTD Dean David Gier. “Jessye was a titan of the opera world and her legacy of performance, outreach, and philanthropy will pave the way for generations of performers. Her artistry and humanity will continue to be felt by our students through the Jessye Norman Master Class and the Graduate Fellowship in Voice. We extend our deepest sympathies to her family and will continue to celebrate her beautiful life.”

Her community service included trustee board memberships at The New York Public Library, Carnegie Hall, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and The New York Botanical Gardens.

A passionately involved advocate for arts education, Norman established The Jessye Norman School of the Arts in Augusta, Georgia, that serves as a tangible, living opportunity to address the need for education in the arts for school-age children in Norman’s hometown where Norman’s own studies and training began.