There are so many things to think about as we celebrate the legacy of Jessye Norman’s life. Her passing this week came as such an unwelcomed shock to me not because of anything I knew about her health, but because as I entered adulthood in the 1980s, Jessye Norman had always been someone I could count on to be there. Many people who know her roles in opera or heard her perform live, know of the velvety, warm sonic soundscape of her voice. But it was much more than just a voice—she embodied a presence for me, and, I suspect, for many others.

Her voice took up space—no matter where I was in the concert hall or opera house (and I heard her most frequently in the large space of the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City), you felt her voice as she sang. She was a formidable presence on stage as she was both tall and stately. But what made me feel so discombobulated after hearing that she died this past Monday afternoon was that the presence I took for granted—through her voice, scholarly ventures, humanitarian efforts, and educational outreach—would no longer be guiding and moving us forward. I always knew that Ms. Norman was quite involved with helping the Girl Scouts; I since learned that she served on many boards for homelessness and HIV/AIDS, and helped found, open, and sustain the Jessye Norman School of the Arts—an after-school program for economically disadvantaged young people in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia.