Jessye Norman is a singer who defied fach — she sang what she wanted, when she wanted, but more importantly, she took on what felt right for her. In fact, she once stated in her youth that “pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons.” And what a blessing it is that she listened to her gut, or else one might not have ever experienced the full genius of her artistry.
Born Sept. 15, 1945, the Georgia-born singer is primarily lauded for her interpretation of lieder and other art song, though one shouldn’t downplay the impact she made on the operatic stage. To celebrate her 72nd birthday, here is a definite list of Jessye Norman’s five best opera roles (with no attention to fach or period).
Prima Donna/Ariadne — “Ariadne auf Naxos”
Of all the Ariadne’s of the 20th century, perhaps no soprano has put a more iconic stamp on the character than Norman. Delivering one of the world’s finest “Es gibt ein Reich,” it’s a role that she was undoubtedly born to sing. Thank goodness for the invention of streaming services, for future generations would have missed out on one of the greatest musical moments of all time.
Madame Lidoine — “Dialogues des Carmélites”
Poulenc’s gem has fallen in and out of obscurity since its debut in 1957, but Norman has helped elevate the production in the United States thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s 1987 production, alongside Maria Ewing and Régine Crespin. Norman is as poised and she is pious as the noblewoman-turned-nun, delivering a heartbreaking plea to her daughters of the convent in the third act.
Cassandra/Dido — “Les Troyens”
Norman made her highly anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in 1983 in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.” However, in true Jessye form, she began the run singing the prophetess Cassandra, and later Queen Dido. She has been equally commended for both roles, and has sung the opera across the globe, including Royal Opera House – Covent Garden.
Sieglinde — “Die Walküre”
Though it’s a shame Norman never performed the vivacious valkyrie Brünnhilde in full, her interpretation as Sieglinde is praised for its raw sensitivity and ardor. Most notably, she took on Sieglinde at the Met in 1989 with German dramatic soprano Hildegard Brehens and American tenor Gary Lakes. She interpreted the role again at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990, 1992, and 1993, respectively.
Elisabeth — “Tannhäuser”
Norman made her professional operatic debut in the role in 1969 in Berlin, and went on to sing the Elisabeth in four performance at the Met in 1987. One of her best showcases of her character’s most famous aria “Dich Teure Halle,” though technically not from a formal staging, was sung at Carnegie Hall’s Centennial Gala in 1991. The performance can be found on YouTube.