Opera singer Jessye Norman died Monday morning at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. The official cause of death was septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015. She was 74.
Her death was confirmed to NPR by a spokesperson for her family, Gwendolyn Quinn, as well as a representative from The Jesse Norman School of the Arts.
Norman was one of the leading opera figures in the world in a time when there were fewer celebrated African Americans than now. The soprano won four Grammys and the National Medal of Arts.
The Associated Press reports:
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 like 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 September 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.
Eventually she made her operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, wowing audiences around the world on stages in Milan, London and New York thanks to her shining vocals, no matter the language. The New York Times described her voice as “a grand mansion of sound.”