ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) --- Known around the world as one of America's most renowned lyric soprano voices, opera powerhouse Jessye Norman has died at 74.
Organizers say that one of her final performances happened at the storied Atlanta Music Festival where she went back to her roots singing African-American gospel classics inside the Glenn Memorial Auditorium on Emory University’s campus in November of 2016.
Steven Darsey played a key role in getting Norman to Emory. He said the conversations about the 2016 concert began in 2013.
“The original invitation I sent her was in 2013,” said Darsey, the music director that night. “I had no idea how to reach her,” he said.
Dwight Andrews is director of the Atlanta Music Festival which started in the early 1900s to showcase underrepresented black talent. It was revitalized 21 years ago. In its 2016 concert, organizers brought in Jessye Norman as a headliner and a musical gift.
“My breath was taken away when Ms. Norman came to the stage because here was the living icon in front of us being so gracious and still being able to perform at such a high level,” Andrews said. “When you listen to Jessye Norman, it’s the quality of the sound. It’s the richness of the sound and the depth of the sound that carries not only wonderful tone, but wonderful emotion and meaning.”
Steven Darsey was musical director that November night. He says the auditorium was at capacity.
“They weren’t necessarily coming to hear me conduct or even Dwight speak,” They were there to hear Jesse Norman and they were not disappointed to put it that way. She brought the house down, four times,” Darsey told CBS46.
He had just communicated with Norman last month asking for her permission to put her performance in an upcoming CD.
“She said I apologize for the delay in responding, I’ve been in the hospital,” Darsey recalled. “I wrote back saying our prayers are with you. We in Atlanta are hoping you improve quickly and fully.”
Norman was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia. At 16, she entered Howard University on a full-tuition scholarship and earned a degree in music before going on to study at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan.
She made her operatic debut in Berlin and toured Europe extensively throughout her career.
She became the youngest person to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. She received several Grammy Awards, a National Medal of the Arts from president Barack Obama and more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees.
“In some ways by her success, her sheer virtuosity and tenacity she opens up the doors so that people don’t feel strange that an African-American woman could sing opera or would want to sing opera,” Andrews said. “We will always be grateful because she changed the landscape.”