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Two legendary performers, Diahann Carroll and Jessye Norman, recently passed away, and I couldn't resist paying tribute to their legacies. They were truly Divas with a capital "D," in the most positive, complimentary definition of the word, and both were pioneers in their fields. Let's begin with Ms. Carroll, who passed away from cancer on October 4th in Los Angeles at age 84. She made history as the first African-American woman to have a starring role in her own television show in a non-servant role, courtesy of her acclaimed series, "Julia," which premiered in 1968. Carroll played Julia Baker, a nurse whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. Her numerous accolades include a Tony Award for the 1959 Richard Rodgers musical, "No Strings," and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for John Berry's 1974 film, "Claudine."
On Twitter, Ava DuVernay wrote that Carroll had "blazed trails through dense forests and elegantly left diamonds along the path for the rest of us to follow." Defying the trepidation of NBC executives to air the series during the racial unrest of the 1960s, it went on to become an immediate hit, featuring a lead character that Carroll had based largely on her own life. More important, it served as a clarion call that African-Americans could carry a show where the protagonist was proudly black, middle-class, and self sufficient, while living with everyday problems that were other than gangs and violence. Some thought she was too middle-class but she paved the way for other shows that came later.
Her "No Strings" role was similarly groundbreaking: a high-fashion American model in Paris who has a love affair with a white American author. Her Tony-winning performance famously led critic Walter Kerr to described her as "a girl with a sweet smile, brilliant dark eyes and a profile regal enough to belong on a coin." She went on to tackle roles previously inhabited solely by white actresses in such plays as "Same Time, Next Year," "Agnes of God" and "Sunset Boulevard." Carroll received her Oscar-nominated showcase as a single mother of six in "Claudine" when her friend, Diana Sands, became ill and had to drop out of the project.
Other career highlights onscreen include her fan-favorite role as Dominique Deveraux in the long-running prime-time soap opera "Dynasty." Her appearance was one of the most highly anticipated on the show because her reputation for beauty and elegance was unmatched by anyone in Hollywood. The producers went out of their way to dress her in high fashion clothes with a lifestyle equal to the wealth of her character. She went toe-to-toe with Joan Collins. Not one explanation was offered for why her skin color was different from her relatives, it was just accepted.
She also shone in a brief, but mysterious turn as a fortune-teller in Kasi Lemmons' astonishing 1997 debut feature, "Eve's Bayou," which we were thrilled to present at Ebertfest. Carroll was born in New York and attended the High School for the Performing Arts. Her father was a subway conductor and her mother a homemaker. She began her career as a model, and got much of her work because of publications such as the black owned magazine Ebony.
A prize from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts TV show led to nightclub engagements, which she would return to in 2006. An early marriage to nightclub owner Monte Kay resulted in Carroll’s only child, Suzanne. Her subsequent husbands included singer Vic Damone, retail executive Freddie Glusman and Ebony magazine editor Robert DeLeon.Her memoir talks about her love affair with Sidney Poitier.
We shared hair dressers in Chicago (Leigh Jones and Emory Jones), and Beverly Hills (Elgin Charles). She was even more beautiful in person, if possible, but much more down to earth than I expected. I found her to be warm, funny and very concerned about opportunities in the industry for up and coming women and people of color. After she was treated for breast cancer in 1998, she advocated for funding research and free screening for women who couldn’t afford mammograms. Besides her daughter, she is survived by grandchildren August and Sydney.
The other artistic giant we lost in recent weeks was operatic soprano Jessye Norman, who died on September 30th in New York City at age 74. Her death was attributed to complications from a spinal cord injury she sustained in 2015. As one of five children in a middle-class African American family in Augusta, Georgia, she came of age in the Jim Crow South. Among her heroes were the African American opera singers of previous generations, such as Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Mattiwilda Dobbs. After establishing herself in Europe, Norman made her Met debut as Cassandra in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” on opening night in 1983, opposite Plácido Domingo and under the baton of conductor James Levine. She excelled in the works of the German composers Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, in Baroque operas such as Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” as well as modern works such as Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites” and Janácek’s “The Makropulos Case.” Classic roles of hers include Aida, Verdi’s Ethiopian princess, and Bizet’s gypsy Carmen.
Her many honors include four Grammy Awards for her recordings of the works of Maurice Ravel, Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and “Die Walküre,” and Bartók “Bluebeard’s Castle,” as well as a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2006. She sang at the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and was bestowed the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2009. Norman was born in Augusta as the daughter of an insurance salesman and began singing at an early age. After winning the Munich International Music Competition, she debuted in West Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.” Her civic engagement included work on behalf of AIDS research, the Girl Scouts and music education for disadvantaged youths.
Ms Norman said that she wished to see more minority musicians on the opera and concert stages. In her 2014 memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing!, she reflected on coming from “a specific place and time in the history of our nation, in the Deep South, where our people marched, bled, and soldiered their way through the civil rights movement. [...] Every voice needed to find its own place,” she wrote, “its own platform from which the cry for freedom and equality could be heard.”
As an opera lover and patron I know how emotional it was for me to see and hear her perform in all her majesty. Her stature and voice commanded the stage. She sang with such power and conviction as to leave the audience mesmerized, and she earned her many curtain calls. I was privileged to hear her sing gospel songs as well as operatic ones. And she approached them with equal gusto, letting you know that the spirit was truly in the house.
Header photos courtesy of (from left) Aaron Spelling Productions and EPA/Shutterstock.
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