AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — International opera star Jessye Norman never forgot her home in a small Southern U.S. city. And Augusta, Georgia, never forgot the woman who grew up among many musical influences to become one of the few black opera singers to gain worldwide acclaim.
Augusta is holding four days of memorials for Norman, one of the world’s greatest sopranos, who died Sept. 30 at 74. Two days of visitation began Thursday. On Friday, the city renamed a street for her outside the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which she opened in 2003 to provide free fine arts education to disadvantaged children.
Ellis Johnson, an arts benefactor in Augusta, was on hand for the street sign unveiling. He said he approached Norman more than a decade ago asking if she would support the school and notes she enthusiastically agreed. Johnson first met Norman when she was singing a hymn in church at 11 years old “accompanied by herself,” he said.
“She has been a beautiful, faithful supporter of this school since its beginning. She remains our inspiration in excellence in performance and integrity in all things,” Johnson said.
Norman’s funeral is Saturday, followed by a benefit concert for the school Sunday.
“That voice. Oh, it was beautiful. The way she could control it — high and low — was just amazing. And it just reached out and embraced you,” said Adrena Johnson, whose parents went to school with Norman. “And she made a difference in everything she did.”
The teacher at nearby Nikai Christian Academy brought five of her students to pay their respects and learn about a woman who used her immense talents to also change the world in other ways. Norman gave her time and money to local charities to help disadvantaged children with their education and health.
Johnson joined hundreds of others over the two days of visitation — a church music director who met Norman after a concert, a woman who went to the then-segregated Lucy C. Laney High School with Norman in Augusta and remembered how even then her choir solos commanded the tiny stage, a woman who went to music school at the University of Michigan with Norman and said she had never heard anything like her before or since.
“Her voice would captivate you. You could feel exactly the emotion in her soul. And it wasn’t just opera. She could sing anything better than just about anyone else. She found her place in opera, but she was just as good singing with a pop choir in England or a gospel group here,” said Stephen Mitchell, a music director at a church in Athens, Georgia, who met Norman once — after a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, and was instantly mesmerized.
Although her fame was worldwide, Augusta is embracing Norman in its own musical heritage. Norman’s school sits a block from James Brown Boulevard, named for the Godfather of Soul who died in 2006. Brown’s daughter, Deanne Brown, paid her respects Thursday.
Norman won four Grammy Awards and was nominated 15 times. She won her first in 1985 for best classical vocal soloist performance for “Ravel: Songs of Maurice Ravel” and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
She received the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor as well. Her performance of “Amazing Grace ” at the 1995 Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Sidney Poitier brought the actor to tears.
Norman was awarded the National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama and is a member of both the British Royal Academy of Music and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. She sang the works of Wagner but also Duke Ellington.
“Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons,” Norman said in a 2002 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Norman’s influence extends through her old neighborhood and her fine arts school, which she founded because she said it was important to have more African Americans in the arts, to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and eventually reaching the point where a black opera singer was instead simply an opera singer.
Norman’s sister Elaine Sturkey remembered a woman who embraced online shopping her last few years of life and bellied the serious command she had on stage with a sense of humor she didn’t fully understand. She was a doting aunt to her nieces and nephews and also an aunt-like figure to people in her New York neighborhood.
“When she served on a foundation, she wasn’t a figurehead. She was all in, just like she was with everything,” Sturkey said.
Norman’s funeral Saturday will be livestreamed from the William Bell Auditorium in Augusta and include music from J’Nai Bridges from the Metropolitan Opera, Harolyn Blackwell and Lawrence Brownlee. Speakers will include longtime friend and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan.
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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Blackwell’s first name in last paragraph and to correct that Deanne Brown is James Brown’s daughter.