“Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons,” Jessye Norman famously told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002. The soprano died September 30 at the age of 74, leaving behind a legacy of musical performances that defied categorization.
As a black singer entering the classical arts, Ms. Norman had already proven herself to soar above confinement, looking to such predecessors as Leontyne Price and Sissieretta Jones while insisting on performing repertoire beyond Porgy and Bess or Aida. In opera productions, recitals, and recordings, she continued to keep listeners in suspense as she navigated material of various eras and dramatic weight—picking up five Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the National Medal of Arts along the way.
Below are five dynamic performances throughout Ms. Norman’s career, emphasizing her range of vocal styles and the spectrum of emotion she could convey with her voice.
Tannhauser: “Dich, Teure Halle”
The role of Elisabeth marked Ms. Norman’s professional operatic debut, becoming a standard in her repertory and soon to be joined by a number of other Wagner roles, including Die Walküre’s Sieglinde and Parsifal’s Kundry. Sixteen years after first singing Elisabeth in Berlin, Ms. Norman sang the role’s opening aria at an English National Opera gala. As made evident in the opening of the video, her appearance was a surprise—and an irrefutable delight.
Dido and Aeneas: “When I Am Laid in Earth”
Just before making her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983’s Les Troyens (opening the company’s centennial season), Ms. Norman explored Greco-Roman mythology in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. With Dido’s famed lament, she exhibits a proficiency of Baroque technique—on top of her Wagnerian drama and Mozartian coloratura talents—to implore, “Remember me, but ah, forget my fate.”
Le Nozze di Figaro: “Dove Sono”
Though Ms. Norman rose to acclaim in a variety of dramatic soprano roles, her 1971 recording of the lighter, more lyric Contessa Almaviva garnered international acclaim, foretelling a flexibility in and out of operatic styles. In this particular Mozart aria, Ms. Norman tackles lengthy legato phrases that continue into a more coloratura-focused and march-like allegro passage.
The Four Last Songs: “September”
Strauss’ song cycle comprised one of her most celebrated recordings with conductor Kurt Masur. Each piece conveys a somber tone, evoking the composer’s resignation and acceptance of death (the songs premiered eight months after he died). Rather than sinking into it, however, Ms. Norman floats above reeds and woodwinds—particularly in “September,” in which she sings of summer’s tranquil drift into sleep as “the flowers fill with cold rain.”
“He's Got the Whole World in His Hands”
Before Ms. Norman took to opera stages around the world, she was surrounded by music during her upbringing in Georgia, singing often with her Baptist church choir. Spirituals remained a standard in her recitals and recordings, with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” serving as a frequent encore. With each verse, Ms. Norman simmers toward complete jubilation: first the vowels open up, then a more pronounced staccato to offer a playful bounce, then a dramatic crescendo before she soars up the octave.