A prominent American soprano, Jessye Norman was the daughter of a schoolteacher and an insurance broker. She started singing spirituals at the age of four at Mount Calvary Baptist Church; one Saturday while doing her chores she heard an opera for the first time, broadcast on the radio. She became an instant opera fan and started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Nat "King" Cole was also a major inspiration for her.
When she was 16, she started studying at Howard University in Washington, where her voice teacher was Carolyn Grant. She sang in the university chorus and had a job as soloist the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ. In 1965 she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. She continued her studies at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, and at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where her most important studies were with Elizabeth Mannion and Pierre Bernac.
In 1968 she won the Munich Competition, leading to her operatic debut as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser in Berlin. A major European operatic career quickly developed: she appeared as Meyerbeer's L'Africaine at Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1971, Verdi's Aïda at La Scala in Milan in 1972, and as Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens at London's Covent Garden the same year. These roles are all princesses and bespeak a major part of her stage persona, a commanding and noble bearing, partly due to her uncommon height and size. But this is even more a function of her unique, rich, and powerful voice. She has an uncommonly wide range, encompassing all female voice registers from contralto to high dramatic soprano.
As her operatic career developed, she also made important recital debuts, including London and New York in 1973. She made an extensive North American concert debut in 1976 and 1977, but did not appear in opera in the United States until 1982. This was with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, in a double bill as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Queen Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. Her Metropolitan Opera debut was as Cassandra in 1983, the opening night of the Met's centennial season.
Her interpretation of Strauss's Four Last Songs is legendary. Its slowness is controversial, but the tonal qualities of her voice are ideal for these final works of the great Romantic German lieder tradition. She also sings the Gurrelieder of Arnold Schoenberg, and the same composer's Erwartung. She sang that opera on a memorable double bill at the Met with Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, which was broadcast nationally. She has also appeared on live broadcasts of season-opening concerts of the New York Philharmonic.
In addition to the direct and emotionally expressive qualities of her singing, her performances also impress through formidable intellectual understanding of the music and its style, as well as first-rate musicianship. She studies the languages of the music she sings, and has been acclaimed in her singing of Mussorgsky songs in the original Russian, in the German Romantic lieder repertoire, and in French music from Berlioz to contemporary composers.