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American Opera Star Shirley Verrett Dies at 79

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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.