Verrett, Shirley 1931–
Shirley Verrett 1931–
Shirley Verrett is an American soprano who performed on the stages of the world's most famous opera houses. Best known for her roles in Aïda and Macbeth—two works by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi—Verrett enjoyed a long career with the Metropolitan Opera of New York and was an audience favorite at La Scala, Milan's fabled stage. She chronicled her life and career in I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer, published in 2003.
Shirley Verrett was born to Leon and Elvira Verrett in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1931. Her first experience singing before an audience came while performing sacred music at the Seventh-Day Adventist church where her father conducted the choir. However, her parents' religious beliefs discouraged an interest in popular or even classical music, a situation that delayed Verrett's musical education for several years. She inherited a deep dislike for the segregated South of the 1930s and 1940s from her father, and he eventually resettled the family in Oxnard, California. “I knew a family who had a cross burned on their lawn,” Verrett told Rosalyn M. Story in Opera News. “Like my father, I had in my soul this real rage. I wanted the whole South to disappear.”
Won Television Talent Show
Verrett married at the age of eighteen, which she later admitted was a desperate move to extricate herself from the strictness of her parents' home. She became a certified public accountant and real estate broker by the time she was twenty-four. She realized, however, that she was temperamentally unsuited for such work, and decided to pursue singing as a career; she also exited her marriage.
After she began working with a voice teacher, Verrett won first prize on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a CBS television series similar to American Idol. The program featured a national network of talent scouts introducing performers they had discovered, who were then rated by an audience applause meter. Verrett's win brought her to the attention of Marian Szekely-Freschl, a highly regarded voice teacher at the Juilliard School, and Szekely-Freschl helped Verrett obtain a scholarship to study at the noted New York City music conservatory.
Verrett's professional debut came in the title role of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1957, but during these early years she performed under the name “Shirley Carter.” She made her New York debut a year later at the New York City Opera as Irina in Lost in the Stars. This was a new, much-heralded work by composer Kurt Weill that was based on Alan Paton's acclaimed literary work about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country. A year later, Verrett's planned appearance with the Houston Symphony in a production under the direction of conductor Leopold Stokowski was scuttled when the orchestra's board balked at the prospect of permitting a black soloist to sing on its stage. Mortified, Stokowski hired her to appear in the Manuel de Falla opera El amor brujo with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1961, the recording of which is one of Verrett's earliest discs.
The racism Verrett encountered came during a transitional time in opera, just a few years after such African-American sopranos as Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price had broken color barriers, and shortly before a new generation of women of color, such as Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, and Verrett herself, would be regularly cast in lead roles with little or no fanfare over their respective ethnicities. Verrett did feel, however, that she was sometimes offered lesser roles, particularly by the New York Metropolitan Opera, which she rejected as a point of pride. She was also incensed when RCA, to whom she was under contract, declined to record her as Carmen in Georges Bizet's opera of the same name—a role which served as her La Scala debut in 1966. She finally won a chance to perform it in New York with the Met, which marked her debut there in September of 1968. Of her opening night, New York Times critic Allen Hughes conceded the part was a difficult one for many sopranos, but said that Verrett “has almost everything going for her. She is good-looking, and she has a beautiful voice that moves smoothly from low tones to high.… She also has an attractive stage manner and personality.”
Plagued by Inconsistent Voice
Many predicted that Verrett would become the Met's next major star in the decade to come, but her voice proved to be unreliable. She was often forced to pull out of scheduled performances due to a health issues, including a mold allergy that went undiagnosed for many years. She also underwent hormone treatments during the early 1970s to improve her chances of conceiving a child, but the male hormones given at the time deepened her voice and nearly ruined it permanently. Verrett also had a troubled relationship with the Met management, particularly during the era of Rudolf Bing, who served as its general manager until 1972. Bing had once asked her to sing a smaller, contralto role for her Met debut, which she considered a show of disrespect to her mezzo and soprano-trained voice. “I used to sing and dash, because I couldn't stand the atmosphere,” she admitted in a 1974 New York Times interview with Stephen E. Rubin. “I treated them very badly with a feeling of joy inside.” She noted in the same interview, however, that she was quite pleased with the new management.
Verrett made opera history on October 22, 1973, at the Met, when she appeared in two roles in Les Troyens ("The Trojans"), a five-hour epic opera from Hector Berlioz. She was originally cast as Cassandra in Part 1, but the singer slated to play Dido in Part 2 fell ill suddenly, and Verrett was asked to step in. It was a strenuous feat for her vocal chords, but she excelled in both parts and won rave reviews.
In the mid-1970s, after becoming a mother, Verrett took fewer international jobs in a concession to her husband's wishes that she remain closer to home. In 1975 she appeared as Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth at La Scala in Milan, and a recording was made of her performance; the Milanese house then offered her a five-year contract, but she turned it down.
At a Glance …
Born May 31, 1931, in New Orleans, LA; Leon Solomon (a construction company owner) and Elvira Harris Verrett; married, 1951 (divorced, 1959); married Lou LoMonaco (an artist), 1963; children: (with LoMonaco) Francesca. Education: Ventura Junior College, AA, 1951; graduate of Juilliard School of Music, 1961.
Career: Certified public accountant and real estate broker in California, mid-1950s; won Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a television talent contest; made professional opera debut as Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia, 1957; New York debut as Irina in Lost in the Stars, 1958; Teatro alla Scala (La Scala), Milan, debut as Carmen, 1966; Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen, 1968; appeared with the Opera Company of Boston, 1970s, and the Paris Opéra, early 1980s; retired from the Metropolitan Opera stage, 1990; University of Michigan, James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor of Voice, 1996—.
Awards: Naumburg Award, Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, 1958; Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, government of France, 1970; Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, government of France, 1984; honorary doctorates from Holy Cross College and Northeastern University.
Verrett had a long run of outstanding performances under conductor-director Sarah Caldwell at the Opera Company of Boston, including another Verdi classic, Aïda, the tale of an Ethiopian royal who is carried off into slavery by the Egyptians. In 1981 the Boston company staged Verdi's Otello, the tragedy of the Moorish prince, in an unusual experiment in color-blind casting. Otello was usually played by a black actor, while a white soprano was cast as his Venetian-born wife, Desdemona. However, in this case a white tenor took the title role, and Verrett was cast as the female lead. “I lightened my face up, just like a white man singing Otello darkens his face,” Verrett recalled in an interview with Albany Times Union journalist Mary Campbell. “The opera starts. They forget. You're someone playing a part. What's the big deal?”
Appeared on Broadway
Verrett spent the early 1980s living in Paris, appearing frequently with the Paris Opéra. During the 1985-86 season at the New York Met, she won excellent reviews as Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo, but her career there was winding down. Her 1990 appearance as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns's masterpiece, would be her final appearance on the Met stage.
Verrett surprised many observers a few years later when she appeared at a much different performing-arts venue, and one traditionally disdained by opera professionals: the Broadway musical stage. She was cast in a 1994 revival of Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and earned excellent reviews as Nettie. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that Verrett was “a bountiful presence and effortlessly fills the theater when she sings, rediscovering the theatricality in a couple of songs that I thought I never wanted to hear again: ‘June Is Bustin' Out All Over’ and ‘You'll Never Walk Alone.’”
That last song became the title of Verrett's 2003 memoir, I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer, which she cowrote with Christopher Brooks. She began teaching voice at the University of Michigan in 1996 and found training a new generation of students to be a fulfilling role. She ultimately viewed her mold allergies as a blessing that prevented her from overtaxing her voice and gave her insight into struggles faced by other vocalists. “I think that God gave me these allergies for a reason,” she told Story in Opera News. “When I speak to a student about what is wrong, it comes from having gone through it myself. And when they leave me, I want them to be able to teach others the way I have taught them.”
(With Christopher Brooks) I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer, John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
Falla: El amor brujo, Columbia MS, 1960.
Shirley Verrett: Carnegie Hall Recital, RCA Victor, 1965.
Verdi: La forza del destino, RCA Victor, 1965.
Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice, RCA Victor, 1966.
Singin' in the Storm, RCA Victor, 1966.
Donizetti: Maria Stuarda, MRF, 1970.
Verdi: Don Carlo, Angel, 1971.
Bellini: Norma, Audio Treasury ABC/ATS, 1974.
Rossini: Siege of Corinth, Angel, 1975.
Albany Times Union, February 16, 2000, p. B5.
New York Times, September 23, 1968, p. 41; February 24, 1974, p. A13; April 3, 1994; July 27, 2003, p. AR22.
Opera News, September 2003, p. 40.
Washington Times, November 19, 2003, p. B5.
Verrett, Shirley, noted African-American mezzosoprano, later soprano; b. New Orleans, May 31, 1931. Her father, a choirmaster at the Seventh-Day Adventist church in New Orleans, gave her rudimentary instruction in singing. Later she moved to Calif, and took voice lessons with John Charles Thomas and Lotte Lehmann. In 1955 she won the Marian Anderson Award and a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in N.Y., where she became a student of Marion Székely-Freschl; while still a student, she appeared as soloist in Falla’s El amor brujounder Stokowski (1960) and made her operatic debut as Britten’s Lucretia in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1957). In 1962 she scored a major success as Carmen at the Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto, Italy. In 1963 she made a tour of the Soviet Union and sang Carmen at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In 1966 she made her debut at Milan’s La Scala and at London’s Covent Garden. On Sept. 21, 1968, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y., again as Carmen. On Oct. 22, 1973, she undertook two parts, those of Dido and Cassandra, in Les Troyensof Berlioz, produced at the Metropolitan. As a guest artist, she also appeared in San Francisco, Boston, Paris, Vienna, and other operatic centers. In 1990 she sang Dido at the opening performance of the new Opéra de la Bastille in Paris. She won distinction in mezzo-soprano roles, and later as a soprano; thus she sang the title role in Bellini’s Norma,a soprano, and also the role of mezzo-soprano Adalgisa in the same opera. Her other roles included Tosca, Azucena, Amneris, and Dalila. She also showed her ability to cope with the difficult parts in modern operas, such as Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Her voice is of a remarkably flexible quality, encompassing lyric and dramatic parts with equal expressiveness and technical proficiency. Her concert repertory ranges from Schubert to Rorem, and also includes spirituals.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire