Jessye Norman, international opera star, dead at 74

Jessye Norman singing
Jessye Norman performs at the 2014 John Jay College of Criminal Justice Awards in New York City.
(Noam Galai / Getty Images)

Jessye Norman, the renowned international opera star whose passionate soprano voice won her four Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor, has died while hospitalized in New York

Norman died from septic shock and multi-organ failure related to complications of a spinal cord injury she underwent in 2015, said Gwendolyn Quinn, a family spokesperson. She was 74.

“We are so proud of Jessye’s musical achievements and the inspiration that she provided to audiences around the world that will continue to be a source of joy. We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education,” a family statement read.


Norman was a trailblazing performer, and one of the rare black singers to attain worldwide stardom in the opera world, performing at such revered houses as La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, and singing title roles in works like “Carmen,” “Aida” and more.

She sang the works of Wagner, but was not limited to opera or classical music, performing songs by Duke Ellington and others as well.

Norman was born on Sept. 15, 1945 in Augusta, Georgia, in segregationist times. She grew up singing in church and around a musical family that included pianists and singers. She earned a scholarship to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study music, and later studied at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.

She made her operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, and wowed audiences around the world on stages in Milan, London and New York thanks to her shining vocals, no matter the language.

“She also has a voice — a huge, dark, rich, glorious voice that can roar like thunder one moment and whisper like a zephyr the next. It is a voice of many colors, many facets, many inclinations,” the late Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in 1992.

In 1997, at age 52, Norman became the youngest person ever to earn the Kennedy Center Honor in the organization’s 20-year history at the time. She received her National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama and has earned honorary doctorates from a number of prestigious schools, including Juilliard, Harvard and Yale.

She is a member of the British Royal Academy of Music and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Norman even has an orchid named after her in France, and the country also made her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

She has earned 15 Grammy nominations throughout her illustrious career, picking up her first at the 1985 show for best classical vocal soloist performance for “Ravel: Songs Of Maurice Ravel.” She earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.