Jessye Norman would be thrilled by the four-day celebration of her life in Augusta, Georgia, the opera great’s college roommate said.
“She loved Augusta,” Joan Rucker Hillsman said, adding that her friend had planned to return home this week for a street renaming in her honor yesterday on the site of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts and its annual benefit concert tomorrow, featuring six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald.
Now, these events are part of her homegoing. Norman’s funeral will begin at 1 p.m. today at the William B. Bell Auditorium, which is being live-streamed, followed by a private burial. Norman, 74, died of complications from a 2015 spinal cord injury on Sept. 30 at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital.
Others paying tribute include fellow Augustan and actor Laurence Fishburne, soprano Harolyn Blackwell, scholar and author Michael Eric Dyson and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan. Norman’s nephew, Raymond Sturkey, will deliver the eulogy at her funeral, which will be officiated by the Rev. Dr. Clyde Hill from her home church, Mount Calvary Baptist, where public viewings were held on Thursday and Friday.
“Today our hearts are with Jessye,” said Hillsman, who was unable to travel to Augusta for health reasons. “I’m doing my own little thing, because I’m so antsy about not being there.”
Hillsman, a music educator and author of Gospel Music: An African-American Art Form, is joining others in Syracuse, New York, for a candlelit tribute where she will sing a medley of spirituals including one of Norman’s favorites, “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”
“Jessye and I stayed in touch all of the time, because we were roommates and we were Southern girls,” said Hillsman, who grew up in nearby Anderson, South Carolina. “When she was performing, she’d say, ‘Come down, and let’s chat.’”
Norman, who received a full scholarship to Howard University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music, met Hillsman, a Tubman Quadrangle senior mentor, when they were paired together in the dormitory. “They had freshmen stay with the seniors, and I had that honor,” said Hillsman, also a music major who went on to be supervisor of music for the District of Columbia Public Schools and a board member of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.
“When I would come back to the room, she was doing her voice lessons,” Hillsman recalled. “Jessye was real serious. She was quiet, very quiet. Low key.”
From the beginning, it was clear to faculty and students alike that Norman had “a gift,” Hillsman said. “It wasn’t just ordinary. It was in her. That was God-given, and her parents pushed her to go to higher heights.”
The title of Norman’s memoir comes from her mother’s words: Stand Up Straight and Sing! She attributed her musical roots to her family, inheriting the “singing spirit” of her mother, Janie King Norman, and her maternal
Grandma Mamie. Her grandparents had a “magic box” in the corner of their living room — a pedal organ or harmonium that she loved to play with her brothers.
In addition to singing in church from an early age, Norman grew up listening to opera and other genres of music on the radio. “I simply loved the whole idea of an opera performance,” Norman said in her memoir.
“And as the dreams of children know no bounds, I thought about singing this music — certainly not as a profession, but simply singing it because it was beautiful to me and I loved it as much as I loved listening to the music of everybody else on the radio.”
But opera eventually became her profession. “She went on to perfect that voice,” Hillsman said. “She never stopped training.” After graduating cum laude from Howard, she began studying music at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, at the University of Michigan, where she earned a master’s, and eventually in Europe, where she honed her talents in French and German opera.
Although she made her international operatic debut in 1969 in Berlin, singing Wagner and performing all over the world, she didn’t sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 1983. She debuted there as Cassandra in Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz.
Since then, she has been honored with the Légion d’Honneur in France in 1989; the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997; five Grammy Awards, one of them for lifetime achievement in 2006; the National Medal of the Arts by President Obama in 2009; and 40 honorary doctorates.
“She handled her career very well,” Hillsman added, praising how Norman remained humble and giving throughout her life as exemplified through her support for the school that bears her name as well as the Dance Theatre of Harlem, her alma mater and other beneficiaries.
“She soared, and she didn’t let that go to her head.”