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Opera singer Jessye Norman ‘so grateful’ to win the Glenn Gould Prize

Opera singer Jessye Norman sings during a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washington on Dec. 11, 2013.

Cliff Owen/THE CANADIAN PRESS

“I’ve been lucky,” Jessye Norman says.

The great American opera singer and recitalist was named the winner of the 12th Glenn Gould Prize, an award given since 1987 to a living artist whose “unique lifetime achievement contribution has enriched the human condition.” The winner of the international award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, was announced at a press conference held Friday afternoon in the atrium of Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

Ms. Norman, 72, a native Georgian considered one of greatest sopranos of her time, has worked on the world’s greatest stages and has performed at some of history’s most solemn occasions. In 1994, the dramatic soprano sang at the funeral of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On March 11, 2002, she performed America the Beautiful at the site of the former World Trade Center, as a memorial for the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

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But when asked about her legacy, Ms. Norman spoke of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, an after-school program for economically disadvantaged children in her hometown of Augusta, Ga.

“I’m about art for everybody, and certainly for children,” Ms. Norman said, speaking to The Globe and Mail by phone after the announcement of the prize. “I’ve had amazing performances, and I hope to have more. But when it comes to what I’m most proud of, it’s a school for 152 kids. We have music and graphic arts and dance and photography and pottery making and everything you could imagine in the arts, at a tuition-free school that happens to bear my name.”

The Glenn Gould Prize, named in the artistic spirit of the great Canadian pianist, has previously been given to Philip Glass, Robert Lepage, Leonard Cohen, Pierre Boulez, André Previn, Yo-Yo Ma, Toru Takemitsu, Oscar Peterson, Yehudi Menuhin, R. Murray Schafer and the late Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan orchestra conductor best known for founding El Sistema, a youth orchestra system.

Ms. Norman, then, is the first female laureate in the prize’s history. “It’s a double whammy, I guess,” said the pioneering African-American singer who made her operatic debut in 1969 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. “But it’s wonderful, and I’m so grateful and so pleased.“

At the Toronto media event, the nine jury members who selected Ms. Norman were present. According to actor Viggo Mortensen, the jury chairman, the process that led to selecting the winner was “painstaking.” Asked about the other nominees for the prize, Mr. Mortensen said their names would never be revealed, and that they numbered “less than 4,386,000” and more than 30.

Mr. Mortensen said a quote from Mr. Gould helped lead him through the process of winnowing the nomination list down to the single laureate: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” Ms. Norman, the actor believed, typified that state of wonder and serenity.

The other jury members are an illustrious, diverse group. Included among them were Canadian screenwriter François Girard, German singer-actress Ute Lemper, former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice and first-time novelist Beverley McLachlin, Iranian painter Naeemeh Naeemaei, American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, Canadian composer-conductor Howard Shore, Gambian kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso and the chairman of the China Musicians’ Association, Ye Xiaogang.

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Speaking about her connection to Mr. Gould, Ms. Norman mentioned Walter Homburger, the pianist’s first manager and the first presenter to invite her to perform in Canada. “It was at Massey Hall, in 1974, with James Levine,” said the soprano. “I guess we were doing Mahler. Maybe the Wunderhorn songs.”

The Glenn Gould Prize is another in a list of significant honours for Ms. Norman, the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of Arts and five Grammy awards, including a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

At some point in the coming year, a celebration will be had in Toronto, where Ms. Norman will formally be awarded her prize and a sculpture created by Canadian artist Ruth Abernathy. “Whatever it is, it will be different than anything we’re done before,” said Brian Levine, executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation. “It will be something designed to warm her heart.”

Asked about her preference for such a celebration, Ms. Norman, a devoted mentor, expressed an interest to meet with young Canadian singers and musicians. “I’d love to talk with them,” said the singer. “I found those kind of discussions extremely beneficial when I was a student, and I love to do them now.”

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