Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.
Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. When she was nine she was given a radio for her birthday and soon discovered the world of opera through the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which she listened to every Saturday while cleaning up her room. Norman started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, whom Norman credits as inspiring figures in her career. At age 16, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia which, although she did not win, led to an offer of a full scholarship at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, she sang in the university chorus and as a professional soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ, while studying voice with Carolyn Grant. In 1964, she became a member of Gamma Sigma Sigma.
Norman performed with German and Italian opera companies, often appearing as a princess or other noble figures. Norman was exceptional at portraying a commanding and noble bearing. This ability was partly due to her uncommon height and size, but was more a result of her unique, rich, and powerful voice. Norman's range was remarkably wide, encompassing all female voice registers from contralto to high dramatic soprano. In 1970 she made her Italian début in Florence, Italy, in Handel's Deborah. In 1971, Norman made her début at the Maggio Musicale in Florence appearing as Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. That year she also sang the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Berlin Festival and recorded that role with the BBC Orchestra under the direction of Colin Davis. The recording was a finalist for the Montreux International Record Award competition and brought Norman much exposure to music listeners in Europe and the United States.
In 1972, Norman debuted at La Scala, where she sang the title role in Verdi's Aida and at London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where she sang the role of Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens. Norman appeared as Aida again in a concert version that same year in her first well-publicized American performance at the Hollywood Bowl. This was followed by an all-Wagner concert at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a recital tour of the country, after which she went back to Europe for several engagements. Norman returned to the US briefly to give her first New York City recital as part of the "Great Performers" series at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in 1973.
In 1975 Norman moved to London and had no staged opera appearances for the next five years. She remained internationally active as a recitalist and soloist in works such as Mendelssohn's Elijah and Franck's Les Béatitudes. Norman returned to North America again in 1976 and 1977 to make an extensive concert tour, but it was not until many years later that she would make her US opera début or appear frequently in the United States. Only after Norman had established herself in Europe's leading opera houses and festivals--including the Edinburgh Festival, Salzburg Festival, Aix-en-Provence Festival, and the Stuttgart Opera--did she set out to establish herself in the United States. Norman toured Europe throughout the 1970s, giving recitals of works by Schubert, Mahler, Wagner, Brahms, Satie, Messiaen, and several contemporary American composers, to great critical acclaim.
Over the years Norman has not been afraid to expand her talent into less familiar areas. In 1988 she sang a concert performance of Poulenc's one-act opera La voix humaine ("The Human Voice"), based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 play of the same name. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Norman produced numerous award-winning recordings, and many of her performances were televised. In addition to opera, many of Norman's recordings and performances during this time focused on art songs, lieder, oratorios, and orchestral works. Her interpretation of Strauss's Four Last Songs is especially acclaimed. Its slowness is controversial, but the tonal qualities of her voice are ideal for these final works of the Romantic German lieder tradition.
Norman is also known for her performances of the Gurre-Lieder of Arnold Schoenberg and for Schoenberg's one-woman opera Erwartung. In 1989 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Erwartung that marked the company's first single-character production. It was presented in a double bill with Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, with Norman playing Judith. Both operas were broadcast nationally. That same year, she was the featured soloist with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in its opening concert of its 148th season, which PBS telecast live. Norman also performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Center opening and gave a recital at Taiwan's National Concert Hall.
Also in 1989, Norman was invited to sing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14. Her rendition was delivered at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, in a costume designed by Azzedine Alaïa as part of an elaborate pageant orchestrated by avant-garde designer Jean-Paul Goude. This event was the inspiration that led the South African poet Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu to write a poem titled "I Shall Be Heard" dedicated to Jessye Norman. The poem appears in Ndlovu's book of Poems titled "In Quiet Realm" whose foreword is penned by Ms Norman.
In 1999 Norman collaborated with choreographer-dancer Bill T. Jones in a project for New York City's Lincoln Center, called "How! Do! We! Do!" In 2000 she released an album, I Was Born in Love with You, featuring the songs of Michel Legrand. The recording, reviewed as a jazz crossover project, featured Legrand on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. In February and March 2001, Norman was featured at Carnegie Hall in a three-part concert series. With James Levine as her pianist, the concerts were a significant arts event, replete with an 80-page program booklet featuring a newly commissioned watercolor portrait of Norman by David Hockney. In 2002, Norman performed at the opening of Singapore's Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.
On March 11, 2002, Norman performed "America the Beautiful" at a service unveiling two monumental columns of light at the site of the former World Trade Center, as a memorial for the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. In 2002 she returned to Augusta to announce that she would fund a pilot school of the arts for children in Richmond County. Classes commenced at St. John United Methodist Church in the fall of 2003. In November 2004, a documentary about Norman's life and work was created. The film, directed by André Heller, with Othmar Schmiderer as director of photography and produced by DOR-Film of Vienna, chronicles the music, the social and political issues, and the inspiration and dreams that combined to make her unique in her profession. In 2006, Norman collaborated with the modern dance choreographer Trey McIntyre for a special performance during the summer at the Vail, Colorado Dance Festival.
In March 2009, Norman curated Honor!, a celebration of the African-American cultural legacy. The festival honored African-American trailblazers and artists with concerts, recitals, lectures, panel discussions, and exhibitions hosted by Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and other sites around New York City.
Throughout her career, Norman has spent much of her time giving recitals and concerts encompassing the classical German repertory as well as contemporary masterpieces, such as Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder and the French moderns, which she invariably performs in the original tongue. This combination of scholarship and artistry contributed to her consistently successful career as one of the most versatile concert and operatic singers of her time. Often cited for her innovative programming and fervent advocacy of contemporary music, she has earned recognition as "one of those once-in-a-generation singers who isn't simply following in the footsteps of others, but is staking out her own niche in the history of singing."
Norman is most often considered a dramatic soprano but unlike most dramatic sopranos, she has become known for roles more traditionally sung by other types of voices. From her student days Norman was selective about her repertoire, heeding her own instincts and interests more than the advice of her teachers or requests of her management. In the beginning of her career, this tendency put her at odds with the Deutsche Oper and compelled her to seek out musical works on her own that she felt better suited her. Norman told John Gruen of the New York Times: "As for my voice, it cannot be categorized--and I like it that way, because I sing things that would be considered in the dramatic, mezzo or spinto range. I like so many different kinds of music that I've never allowed myself the limitations of one particular range."
Some vocal critics say that Norman is not a dramatic soprano but in fact has a rare soprano voice type known as a Falcon. The Falcon voice is closer to a mezzo-soprano timbre, but closer to a dramatic soprano tessitura. Falcon roles specifically refer to parts written to be sung by sopranos instead of mezzos, as was written for Falcon. The roles are thus often sung by lyric mezzos. This mix of sound is why many fans, conductors, and critics unhesitatingly refer to her as a soprano or a mezzo. At age 23, when asked by an interviewer in Germany how she would characterize her voice, she replied that "pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons."
Over the years Norman's technical expertise has been among her most critically praised attributes. In a review of one of her recitals at New York City's Carnegie Hall, New York Times contributor Allen Hughes wrote that Norman "has one of the most opulent voices before the public today, and, as discriminating listeners are aware, her performances are backed by extraordinary preparation, both musical and otherwise." Another Carnegie Hall appearance prompted these words from New York Times contributor Bernard Holland: "If one added up all the things that Jessye Norman does well as a singer, the total would assuredly exceed that of any other soprano before the public. At Miss Norman's recital ... tones were produced, colors manipulated, words projected and interpretive points made--all with fanatic finesse."
Jessye Norman: Edinburgh International Festival 1972 (Brahms, Ravel, Schubert, Strauss) (Arkadia)
An Evening with Jessye Norman (Purcell, Wagner-Wesendonck Lieder, Mahler-Rückert Lieder, Ravel-Mélodies hébraïques, Spitituals, Wolf, Debussy), piano Irwin Gage (non mentionné sur le cd) (live, années 70 - Opera d'oro)
Live at Hohenems (1987) (Haendel, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Spirituals), piano Geoffrey Parsons (Philips)
Jessye Norman Live - Geoffrey Parsons (1987) (Haydn, Haendel, Berg, Mahler, Strauss, Spirituals, Ravel) (Philips)