Shirley, George Irving 1934–
George Irving Shirley 1934–
Opera singer, educator
The first black member of the U.S. Army Chorus, George Shirley went on to become the first African-American tenor placed under contract by the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout his career, Shirley has performed in the world’s most prestigious opera houses and been accompanied by the most distinguishes orchestras in the world. In addition to performing and recording, he has also worked as a music educator.
Shirley was born on April 18, 1934, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He grew up in a musical household. Shirley’s father, Irving Ewing, played guitar, piano, and violin, and his mother, Daisy Shirley, sang. At age of five, Shirley entered a radio contest, singing a popular Bing Crosby song. As a prize, he was given the first recording of himself. When his parents moved to Detroit, Shirley continued to sing in church and school. He also played baritone horn in a community band. In addition, Shirley attended the Ebersol School of Music for six years. As a youth, Shirley never considered a career in opera. Rather, he was interested in music education.
Shirley attended Wayne State University, earning his B.S. degree in music education in 1955. He spent a year in Wayne State’s graduate program, and taught school before joining the army in 1956. Shirley and his high school sweetheart, Gladys Lee Ishop, were married on June 24, 1956.
Shirley considered joining the army band program, but then he decided to audition for the U.S. Army Chorus. The audition was successful, and Shirley became the first black member of the famed touring and performing ensemble. He spent three years with the Army Chorus, also singing regularly with the choir at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. In 1959 Shirley heard from an Army Chorus friend, Ara Berberian, who also later developed an operatic career, that the Turnau Opera Company was looking for a tenor to perform at a summer resort in New York’s Catskill mountains. Shirley was hired and he made his operatic debut Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
Shirley caught the attention of Boris Goldovsky, a renowned opera conductor, and Goldovsky urged him to attend the Tanglewood Music Center. Goldovsky also suggested that Shirley participate in his summer opera school. With Goldovsky’s encouragement, Shirley entered and won the American Opera Auditions in Cincinnati. Shirley was then offered the chance to sing in Milan and Florence. It was in Milan that he made his European debut, taking on the role of Rodolpho in Puccini’s La Bohème.
Shirley returned to America, claiming first prize in auditions at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1961. He was the first black tenor to win this competition. The prize entailed a $2,000 scholarship and the chance to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Following a performance on the television show, The Bell Telephone Hour, and he made his debut with Metropolitan Opera in October of 1961, appearing in the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.
At a Glance …
Born born on April 18, 1934, in Indianapolis, IN; son of Irving Ewing and Daisy Shirley; married Gladys Lee Ishop, 1956; children: Olwyn, Lyle, Education: Wayne State University, B.S., 1955., graduate study, 1955-56.
Career: Opera singer, educator. Detroit Board of Education, music teacher, 1955- 56; debut as Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus, Woodstock, New York, 1959; Italian debut as Rodolfo at Teatro Nuovo, Milan, 1960; New York City Opera debut as Rodolfo, 1961; Metropolitan Opera, leading tenor, 1961-73; Glyndebourne debut as Tarmino, 1966; Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, leading tenor, 1967-79; Aiwa in Lulu, Santa Fe, 1973; University of MD, voice professor, 1981-87; Deutsche Opera, West Berlin, leading tenor, 1983; University of MI, voice professor, director of Vocal Arts Division, 1987-; Staten Island Community College; Morgan State College, Baltimore, Artist-in-Residence.
Memberships: National Association of Teachers of Singing; American Guild of Musical Artists; AFTRA; National Association of Negro Musicians; Wayne State University Alumni Association; board of directors, University of MI Musical Society; Alpha Phi Alpha; Phi Mu Alpha; Phi Kappa Phi; Omicron Delta Kappa; Pi Kappa Lambda.
Awards: National Arts Club award, 1960; Grammy Award, for performance in recording of Mozart’s Cosìì Fan Tutte, 1968; named one of Distinguished Scholar-Teachers, University of MD, 1985-86; Alumni Association Award, Arts Achievement Award, Black Alumni Achievement Award, Wayne State University; honorary degrees: Wilberforce University, H.D.H., 1967; Montclair State College, L.L.D., 1984; Lake Forest College, D.F.A., 1988.
Addresses: Office —School of Music, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Ml 48109 (734) 764-5595. Email —firstname.lastname@example.org. Agent— Ann Summers International, Box 188 Station A, Toronto M5W 1B2 (416) 362-1422.
While in New York, Shirley began studying with Cornelius Reid. When the Metropolitan Opera placed him under contract, he became the first black singer to perform under contract at the Met. Shirley remained a regular performer there for the next 11 years. During this time, he won major roles in more than twenty operas, including Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, Fenton in Falstaff, Rodolpho in La Bohème, and Don Jose in Carmen. Shirley also appeared regularly at the New York City Opera, Opera Society of Washington, D.C., the Santa Fe Opera, and the Spring Opera in San Francisco. He also performed abroad, appearing in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden in London and in The Magic Flute at the Glyndebourne Festival. In addition, Shirley performed with such renowned orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony.
Shirley found himself facing a professional setback in 1972. He had been asked to substitute for the Italian tenor Franco Corelli at the Metropolitan Opera. At the opening of the fall season, Shirley took the stage in the title role of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Although he was vocally prepared for the role, he did not feel mentally ready. The performance was sharply criticized New York Times, and Shirley’s confidence was shaken. It was only after a period of self-examination that Shirley was able to return to the stage.
After recording several successful performances, Shirley found himself in demand once again. In 1975 he sang in the American premiere of Cavalli’s L’Egisto. He also appeared at London’s Royal Opera, taking on the role of Loge in Das Rheingold. For this 1976 performance, Shirley worked under the direction of Colin Davis. In 1977, Shirley appeared in the role of Romilayu at the New York City Opera’s world premiere of Kirchner’s Lily, and also appeared in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Houston Symphony. Also in 1977, he debuted at Milan’s prestigious opera house, La Scala, taking on the role of Pellé;as in Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande.
Shirley has been featured regularly with the Deutsche Opera of Berlin, joining them on a 1988 tour of Japan and, in 1990, singing the role of Pluto in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Also in 1990, he sang in the premiere of Richard Strauss’s Friedenstag at Carnegie Hall and performed as soloist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on CBS radio.
Shirley has recorded for several record labels, including RCA, Columbia, Decca, Angel, Vanguard, and Phillips Records. He has also recorded tenor arias for Music Minus One records’ Laureate Series. In 1968 he received a Grammy Award for his performance in the prize-winning recording of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. In addition to performing and recording, Shirley has worked as a professor of voice and a member of the artist faculty of the University of Michigan since 1987. He has also served as director of the university’s Vocal Arts Division. He has also worked as adjunct professor of voice at Long Island Community College, artist-in-residence at Morgan State College, humanist-in-residence at Howard University, and professor of voice at the University of Maryland from 1980 to 1987. Shirley and Therman Bailey, a New York singer and voice teacher, have formed an organization, Independent Black Singers, to assist young aspiring singers.
In 1999 Shirley appeared at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. For this performance, he took on the role of Eumete in the Monteverdi opera, II Ritorno d’Ulisse. That same year, he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, narrating Three Places in New England by Charles Ives. This was not Shirley’s first work as a narrator, however. A 1996 recording featured his narration of two James Forsyth poems: “Spirit of St. Louis” and “Ruth.”
Throughout his career, Shirley has achieved many firsts. He was Detroit’s first black high school music teacher, the first African-American member of the U.S. Army Chorus, the first black tenor to win the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and the first African-American tenor to sing under contract at the Metropolitan Opera. Also, in many of the theaters in which he has performed, Shirley was the first black to sing major operatic roles. Shirley has appeared in over eighty operas.
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Amsterdam News, November 4, 1995.
Black Perspective in Music, Spring 1981, pp. 73-90.
Ebony, January 1966, pp. 84-91.
Opera News, January 1971, pp. 6-13; December 1976, p. 7.
The Washington Post Magazine, July 29, 1979, pp. 10-13.
Biography Resource Center, Gale Group, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
Ann Summers International, http://www.sumarts.com (February 14, 2002).
University of Michigan, http://www.music.umich.edu/faculty/shirley.george.html (February 14, 2002).
Additional material for this profile was obtained from an e-mail from George Shirley to Darius Thieme, February 1998; a letter from Shirley to Darius L. Thieme, February 16, 1998; and an interview with Shirley conducted by Darius L. Thieme, February 16, 1998.
—Darius L. Theime and Jennifer M. York
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Shirley, George (Irving)
"Shirley, George (Irving)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shirley-george-irving
"Shirley, George (Irving)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved May 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shirley-george-irving