Possessed of a voice that refused any categorisation other than its own lustrous sound, Jessye Norman, who has died aged 74, was an operatic force of nature. Supported by an intuitive sense of character, she was also a powerful stage presence and one of the few women in opera whose profile was comparable to that of her celebrity peers Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.
Born in Augusta, Georgia to amateur musician parents, she began singing in church and sang her first opera aria while still in school. After extensive studies, notably including spells with the vocal coach Carolyn Grant and baritone Pierre Bernac, success in competitions at home and abroad led to her professional debut, aged 23, with Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1969.
She made the first of many appearances in the UK at the 1971 BBC Proms, returning the following year for a triumphant debut at the Royal Opera House as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, prompting a now fabled headline: “Troy falls. Norman conquers.”
The following year’s Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Covent Garden confirmed her status as a star, her stage success following her on to television. The subject of a 1986 BBC Omnibus profile, in 1987 she hosted a Christmas special for Thames and was seen in the BBC’s 1999 Easter music drama The People’s Passion alongside Ron Moody, Robert Hardy and Patricia Hodge.
A noted Wagnerian and Verdian, she excelled in Mozart, German lieder, French melodies and material from the Great American Songbook, with which she made her final UK appearance at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012.
Such was her standing in the US that she sang at the second-term inaugurations of both Republican (Ronald Reagan) and Democrat (Bill Clinton) presidents, for the funeral of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and in a memorial concert for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
On disc, she will be best remembered for her glowing, ravishingly ardent account of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Leipzig orchestra.
In later years she acquired a reputation as a formidably brusque and demanding diva who did not take lightly to mistakes, oversights or imagined slights and knew her own financial value to promoters, of which she made the most, becoming one of the highest paid opera singers of her generation.
Away from the opera hall and recording studio, Norman was an active campaigner for many charitable, arts and political causes, sitting on several boards and establishing a school of the arts for underprivileged children in her native Georgia.
Jessye Mae Norman was born on September 15, 1945 and died on September 30.