For soprano Jessye Norman, being selected for the Kennedy Center Honors is nothing less than overwhelming. “I am very happy; it feels quite wonderful,” she says, calling the recognition “magical.”
A great admirer of the contralto Marian Anderson, who was feted when the Kennedy Center Honors bowed in 1978, Norman feels proud to be in such august company.
“I am humbled in the sight of so many previous honorees, and Marian Anderson is chief among these,” she says. “It is as though I am gaining membership in a very special society of hardworking, dedicated performers. I intend that the sum of my work shall live up to the ideals of those who have really, truly made a difference.”
Norman has been making a difference for nearly 30 years. She began her operatic career singing Wagner in Berlin, but it was in the U.S. that she learned how to sing.
A native of Augusta, Ga., the soprano studied at Howard University, the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan, where she was taught by the gifted baritone Pierre Bernac.
Norman maintains that singing has always been less a career choice than something inherent in her being. She says that “singing is fun, and also very busy work.”
But even loving her art as much as she does, she never anticipated that it would take her to such heights. “I never dreamed of what might happen to me. I could surely never have conjured up this wonderful, stimulating, challenging reality,” she says.
And, indeed, it has been a remarkable career. After triumphs in Europe, Norman made her Stateside operatic debut at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles at a 1972 concert performance of Verdi’s “A da,” with James Levine conducting.
Her debut at London’s Royal Opera House occurred the same year, and in 1973, Parisians got their first taste of the diva. In France, she became such a favorite that when the country celebrated the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, it was Statesider Norman who sang the “Marseillaise” at the official Bastille Day celebrations.
In 1983, Norman, by now one of the world’s most famous singers, made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Five years later, she made Met history when she appeared in the company’s first presentation of a one-character opera, Schoenberg’s “Ewartung.”
In addition to her success as an opera singer, Norman has enjoyed a celebrated career as a song recitalist, performing everything from Schubert lieder to U.S. spirituals with sensitivity and enthusiasm. “Songs are often mini-dramas,” she says. “And one art feeds the other in a most wonderful way.”
At 52, Norman is the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors thus far. But she certainly is no stranger to accolades. She has 28 honorary degrees to her credit and once received a 55-minute ovation at the famed Salzburg Festival.
Unlike some other Kennedy honorees, Norman is not in the twilight of her career, and so this tribute in no way marks an end to her public presence. “I have begun the wonderful process of commissioning new works,” she says of her future plans. “New challenges are always there.”