American Opera Star Shirley Verrett Dies at 79

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Shirley Verrett, the American opera singer known for her powerful, dark voice, exceptional range and riveting characterizations, died Friday.

Verrett was 79 and lived in Ann Arbor, MI, where she had taught at the University of Michigan since 1996. The cause was heart failure after several months of illness, according to news reports.

Part of the remarkable generation of great African-American singers who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, Verrett began her career as a mezzo-soprano. It soon became clear that her two-octave-plus range classed her as a soprano. She went on to sing acclaimed performances in everything from Purcell to Wagner, with a particular specialty in Verdi and Donizetti heroines.

Born on May 31, 1931, in New Orleans, Verrett (pronounced Ver-EHTT) studied at Juilliard in the 1950s and was a 1961 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

She was known early in her career for her blazing performances of Bizet's Carmen, which she first sang at the Spoleto Festival in 1962. She used it for her debuts at the Bolshoi (1963), La Scala (1964), New York City Opera (1964) and the Metropolitan Opera (1968). Her Met career stretched over 20 years.

“She was a very gracious lady, and also a very shy one,” recalls Fred Plotkin, the author of several books on classical music, and a performance manager at the Metropolitan Opera from 1982 to 1988.

“At the Met she was often fearful of meeting fans, in part because she was so completely drained after a performance, but also because so much of her was what we saw on the stage. There, her shyness was cast to one side on the stage, and she was sovereign. She was also a caring colleague who never hogged attention from fellow artists but, when it was her moment in the limelight, she grabbed it.”

In a memorable evening that went down in opera lore, Verrett sang both Cassandra and Dido at the first Metropolitan Opera performance of Berlioz's five-act opera Les Troyens when her co-star Christa Ludwig took ill in 1973.

Later in her career, Verrett added leading soprano roles to her repertoire including Bellini’s Norma and Puccini’s Tosca. She frequently appeared on the PBS television series Live from Lincoln Center. She joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1996, and was the James Earl Jones Distinguished University Professor of Music until retiring last May.

In 2003, Shirley Verrett published a memoir, I Never Walked Alone in which she spoke frankly about not only her singing career but also her battles with racial prejudice in a predominantly white art form.

Please share your stories and reflections about Ms. Verrett in our comments space below the video.

Tags:

More in:

Comments [18]

Angus Godwin from Ithaca, NY

Shirley and I studied at the Juilliard School at the same time, and I was honored to have her as a friend. She was blessed with a fabulous voice and impeccable intonation, as well as great acting ability. She visited my wife and me a number of times when we lived in on a farm near Trumansburg, New York. She sang lullabies to our young sons on her early visits. Her performances were riveting, but when she left the stage she was warm and unassuming, totally without a diva attitude. Whether she as singing and opera role or the spiritual "I Been In The Storm So Long" the sound came from her soul. Dear Shirley, resquiescit in pace.

Dec. 06 2013 04:37 AM
MAXOMUS

It was said for quite some time that Caballe was the successor to Callas, but I always felt it was Shirley Verrett who took the mantle; it was her overall intensity and fanatical attention to detail that recalled the Callas legacy more than any other singer in her generation. But she stood on her own legs just fine, and if her voice had a few problems during her Met Norma, I was never moved to tears during a performance by anyone, and then she sang the final "Deh non volerli"—so truthful, full of tragic grandeur. She was one of the greats, and a hell of a woman!

Aug. 14 2011 06:28 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

SHIRLEY VERRETT had squillo and focus and ping in her voice and, moreover, she sang pharyngeally as did Caruso.

Nov. 27 2010 04:27 PM
Larry Gettleman from Louisville, Kentucky

I saw Ms. Verrett perform in her home town with the New Orleans Symphony in the late 1980s. She still had family there.

The first act was operatic (acoustic), and the second was of show tunes and night club songs. She actually used a microphone for the latter, which was hardly needed. I thought that it detracted from the performance with a voice like hers. But that's the tradition.

Nov. 22 2010 02:19 PM
beppe

I heard her in the late sixties in a concert performance of Oedipus Rex. She gave
this controversial production validity and class.

Nov. 19 2010 03:57 PM
James Mackey from Jersey City, NJ

It must have been in the mid-sixties at Norfolk State University that I met Ms. Verrette. As a music major I had the honor to shake her hand and she wished me well. I was so impressed by her performance and her later achievements that I can see and hear her now. She was a role model to me and others and I am devastated beyond words to hear of her passing. May God bless her soul, for she left an indelible mark on my life.

Nov. 17 2010 10:23 PM
Fred Williams from Manhattan

I was in the house the night of her performance of both roles in Les Troyens and there when, as Timothy pointed out, she blew the roof off as Eboli. I will always remember her.

Nov. 15 2010 07:08 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

SHIRLEY VERRETT died Friday, November 5th, at age 79 of a heart attack, after months of illness. I have seen her outmatch all former interpreters of the role of Carmen in her sheer dark, sumptuous full-bodied voice combined with a physical appearance Hollywood-glamourish and powerful top notes, contending well in normally dramatic soprano territory, and a musicianship which made the most of every role she tackled. At Juilliard she studied in the late 1950s and acquired her diploma in voice in 1961. Her closest colleague in terms of voice and fame was Rise Stevens, who remained in the mezzo "fach." Both were extraordinary, as actresses, as beauties, and each had a voice of beautiful vocal timbre, Verrett's being the much larger voice. Her last public performances were as Nettie Fowler in the Rodgers & Hammerstein Carousel production at Lincoln Center which won the much-acclaimed presentation a TONY.

Nov. 15 2010 04:17 PM
Michael from newark, nj

Shirley exemplified the character and content of excellence that opera and classical music represents. I am a new comer to these genres of music but not a novice in my love and passion for artistry. Thank you Shirley and WQXR for introducing me to what's next in my next journey into the world of music and theater.

Nov. 15 2010 04:11 PM
Shadeed Ahmad from New York, New York

The video of Shirley Verrett accompanying the above article is a childhood memory of mine that nurtured my sense of my occupational possibilities outside of the stereotypical roles available to black Americans in society.

I can't begin to explain how strongly Ms. Verrett's presence became engraved in my mind and gave courage and faith to me to continue to strive to be a positive impact on this world.

She had the courage shine her light of artistry on the world against all odds and simultaneously helped me, a black child who had little in the way of localized artistic role models to persevere because I knew greatness had been achieved by an earthly angel named, Shirley Verrett.

Rest in peace, Ms. Verrett for you endured with dignity, grace and incomparable strength trials that should have had nothing to do with your pursuing and engaging your gifts to humanity.

You embraced compassion and humility as parts of your artistic gifts to humanity and became a quintessential diva. May GOD engulf you eternally with the best of blessings.

Nov. 13 2010 04:19 PM
Shadeed Ahmad from New York, New York

The video of Shirley Verrett accompanying the above article is a childhood memory of mine that nurtured my sense of my occupational possibilities outside of the stereotypical roles available to black Americans in society.

I can't begin to explain how strongly Ms. Verrett's presence became engraved in my mind and gave courage and faith to me to continue to strive to be a positive impact on this world.

She had the courage shine her light of artistry on the world against all odds and simultaneously helped me, a black child who had little in the way of localized artistic role models to persevere because I knew greatness had been achieved by an earthly angel named, Shirley Verrett.

Rest in peace, Ms. Verrett for you endured with dignity, grace and incomparable strength trials that should have had nothing to do with your pursuing and engaging your gifts to humanity.

You embraced compassion and humility as parts of your artistic gifts to humanity and became a quintessential diva. May GOD engulf you eternally with the best of blessings.

Nov. 13 2010 04:17 PM
Robert Rosen from Pasadena, CA

Seems like yesterday, but it was in 1963, at the old auditorium in Los Angeles. Zubin Mehta had just been appointed music director of the Philarmonic. Shirley Verrett, Elinor Ross, Eddy Ruhl, and Fernando Corena in the Verdi Requiem. She was imperially slim and could she sing. So long ago.

Nov. 13 2010 01:16 AM
DAVID FROM SANTA MONICA

has anyone ever sung a more thrilling O DON FATALE? the short answer: NO!!

Nov. 11 2010 01:09 AM
Alyn Brodsky from Aventura, FL

Though basically a dramatic mezzo, she was, in fact, possibly one of the greatest sfogatos of all time. Very few sopranos can bring that off--and if proof is wanted, listen to her Lady Macbeth in the classic Claudio Abbado Veridi masterpiece of the late 1970's (the Sleepwalking Scene
is on You Tube).She was--and remains--unique. She will always be remembered. And one doubts she will ever be equalled.

Nov. 06 2010 08:26 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from www.WagnerOpera.com

SHIRLEY VERRETT died yesterday, Friday, November 5th, at age 79 of a heart attack, after months of illness. I have seen her outmatch all former interpreters of the role of Carmen in her sheer dark, sumptuous full-bodied voice combined with a physical appearance Hollywood-glamourish and powerful top notes, contending well in normally dramatic soprano territory, and a musicianship which made the most of every role she tackled. At Juilliard she studied in the late 1950s and acquired her diploma in voice in 1961. I have seen her as Eboli in Don Carlo, Dalilah, Azucena, Norma, Adalgiza, Aida, Lady Macbeth and Tosca. In each she was totally convincing, and sometimes
awesome and overpowering. I have heard of her Desdemona with the Boston Opera Company, and, to Wagnerians a major triumph, her Venus at Bayreuth. I would have wished to be at those performances,
her assaying a role being so close to definitive.
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Wagnerian heldentenor & director, the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute.
Website: WagnerOpera.com

Nov. 06 2010 02:15 PM
Timothy from Queens

She was the most riveting, ravishing Eboli I have ever been lucky to hear--and her "Oh, don fatale" positively scorched the walls of the Met before blowing the roof off.

Nov. 06 2010 12:58 PM
WQXR

Richard,
Thanks for your message. We double checked and in fact, Ms. Verrett did sing Carmen at Covent Garden in 1973. However, her debut there was much earlier, as you indicated, in a 1966 production of Un Ballo in Maschera in which she played Ulrica.

Nov. 06 2010 12:50 PM
Richard Gaddes from NYC

I think Shirley Verrett's debut at Covent Graden was much earlier than 1973 - more like 1968 surely?
RG

Nov. 06 2010 12:05 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 

 

 

 

 

Sponsored

Feeds