1931 - 2010
Shirley Verrett, world famous mezzo-soprano and soprano, was equally at home performing in opera and Broadway musicals and on the concert stage. She was one of the first African-American artists to have a lifelong, widely acclaimed career as a singer, one that spanned the last half of the 20th century.
A native of New Orleans, she was one of five children born to Leon and Elvira Verrett, devout Seventh-day Adventists. The family moved to California when she was five, and she and her siblings were educated in the church's school system. She briefly attended Oakwood College, now University, in Huntsville, Alabama.
Her father was an amateur church choir director and taught her the basics of singing. Verrett's unusual talent stood out even in her childhood, when she sang with a voice mature beyond her years. At age 17 she entered a local talent competition, where she caught the attention of John Charles Thomas, a well-known singer in Southern California and supporter of young singers. He offered to underwrite voice study for her with the famous Lotte Lehman at the Music Academy of the West, but she declined.*
Verrett married at age 18 and then attended Ventura Junior College, completing an associate degree in real estate in 1951. Although her marriage was not successful, she did not end it legally for some years because of the Adventist church's position on divorce at that time, and she was known professionally as Shirley Verrett-Carter until 1963.
Though successful in real estate, she reconsidered her career choice and started serious voice study. In 1955 Verrett won in two California competitions sponsored by the Young Musicians Foundation and later that year appeared on Talent Scouts, a national television show hosted by Arthur Godfrey.
Her appearance on that program led to a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music, where she studied voice under Marion Szčkely-Freschl. While still a student there she sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in Falla's El amor brujo and made her operatic debut in 1957. Before she graduated from JSM in 1961, she was giving recitals and concerts and was also singing in European opera, for which she was getting rave reviews.
In 1962 her performance as Carmen in the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy, created a sensation and demands for repeat appearances in that role in the world's leading opera houses. Her rich, expressive voice, beauty, and stage presence, coupled with a remarkable portrayal of this tragic figure, delighted audiences. A reprise of the role included appearances at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1963, NY City Opera in 1964, La Scala in Italy in 1966, and the Metropolitan Opera in 1968.
In 1973 Verrett made her debut at London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden, eventually returning there to play leading roles in a number of operas. In that year she also made history during the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Berlioz's Les Troyens when she sang the two leading roles, Cassandra and Dido, because of the illness of the singer scheduled to sing the latter. That feat was critically acclaimed, hailed by the New Yorker as "a landmark in American opera history."
A cascade of successes over the ensuing decades in playing some of the most difficult roles in opera firmly established her as one of America's greatest performing artists and a world famous celebrity in the world of music. She starred in operas at all of the major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe and receive highest accolades from reviewers at The New York Times, Musical America, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Verrett was a perennial favorite of opera lovers in Paris and Milan and performed often at The Paris Opera and La Scala. Over a period of 15 years, she performed in 126 Metropolitan Opera productions, singing leading roles in Tosca, II Travatore, Aida, Otello, Fidelio, and others.
An accomplished concert artist and recitalist as well, Verrett sang under a who's who of world famous conductors. Her recital repertoire was expansive and included art songs from Schubert to Ned Rorem as well as Spirituals. For many years she toured annually in the U.S. and gave recitals in the most prestigious concert halls of the world, including Carnegie Hall. She sang many times in the "Live from Lincoln Center" series.
In 1994, Verrett played a leading role in a Tony Award-winning production of Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel, a performance that earned her a nomination for the Outer Circle Critics Award. Five years later, she sang in a revival of one of the first all-black Broadway musicals, In Dahomey.
She participated in many humanitarian activities throughout her career, giving numerous benefit recitals. In 1989 she joined with Placido Domingo to present a major benefit concert for UNESCO. Six years later, she was one of the "First Ladies of Song" to participate in a program to raise money for an Eleanor Roosevelt statue.
Verrett joined the music faculty at the University of Michigan as a professor in voice in 1996 and was honored with the appointment as the James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor in 1999. She also received numerous other awards, among them the Marian Anderson Award, The Walter Naumburg International Vocal Competition Award, and the Sullivan Award. She was twice decorated by the French Government, in 1970 and 1984. Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Northeastern University in Boston, and the Juilliard School of Music awarded her honorary doctorates, the degree from JSM being awarded in 2002. She was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the time of her death at age 79.
*There is some question about whether she declined. Baker's Dictionary of Opera states that she studied voice under both John Charles Thomas and Lotte Lehmann.
Sources: Baker's Dictionary of Opera, Laura Kuhn, 2000, 849; Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West, Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Volume 1, 175; University of Michigan, School of Music Faculty and Staff Directory, Verrett biography; Ira Rosenblum, Verrett biography written at the time of the awarding of an Honorary Doctorate to her by the Juilliard School of Music in 2002; Anthony Tommasini, "Shirley Verret, Opera singer of Power and Grace, is Dead at 79," The New York Times, 6 November 2010; "Operatic star Shirley Verrett gives recital in College Place," [Walla Walla College (University)], Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, 25 April 1976; biography in Wikipedia.