Remembering Shirley Verrett

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 - 12:32 PM

With the news of her death over the weekend, I found myself watching clips of Shirley Verrett on YouTube yesterday. Sadly, I never saw her perform on the opera stage. But, thanks to YouTube, I was able to get a sense of just how fabulous she was. I was absolutely blown away by what I saw. Her Delilah was to die for. And this from a woman who was known to be quite shy! Amazing. I’m still moved as I think about it this morning.

I did, however, have the opportunity to meet Shirley Verrett and spend an evening working with her on Channel 13. As it turned out, it was a night I will never forget.

We were airing one of the Three Tenors concerts for the umpteenth time and – yes – asking people to send in donations to support the station. We were at the old station which is now the trendy Hudson Hotel on 57th street and there were a hundred volunteers answering telephones behind us.

As it turns out, Placido Domingo was in town that night having dinner with a friend. He saw Miss Verrett on our air and told his friend that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t stop by to see her and help with the fundraising.

After a good deal of negotiating with the guards at the front door who were hesitant to let the surprise visitor in, Placido Domingo appeared in the doorway of "pledge central." Miss Verrett... nearly fainted! "Placy!" she screamed. This was followed by lots of hugging and kissing, etc., etc.

Through all of this, the cameras were rolling in our studios. I did my best to explain the situation to the viewers and when things calmed down a bit, the three of us began talking. I can’t even begin to remember what we talked about, but we talked... and talked... and talked. For a full thirty minutes the phones were jammed with people calling in with pledges of support. The spontaneous nature of Placido Domingo’s gesture coupled with Miss Verrett’s incredibly charismatic charm shot through the camera lens and touched thousands that night. It was – in a word – spectacular!

If you, too, never had the opportunity to see Shirley Verrett perform on the opera stage, I urge you to look at one of these clips. And then, tell us what you think. I’m also curious to know if you agree with me about the magic of YouTube. There are some amazing clips there if you know what to look for, don’t you think?

Hosted by:

Midge Woolsey


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Comments [17]

Paula V Liscio

When I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in the early 70's, a group of friends and I drove to Cincinatti to hear Ms. Verrett sing Dalilah in the summer programs at the zoo. It was a stormy night and the stage was right near the tropical bird area of the zoo. As the wind was blowing and the opera began, the birds became quite restive and began their own symphony. It was an exciting and evocative beginning to the opera. When Ms. Verrett finally appeared, she was electrifying. Her acting was pure seductiveness and her voice was pure velvet. I have never seen another Dalilah to rival hers. We were so taken by her performance that we returned the next week to hear her Carmen.
As a young mezzo soprano, she became a role model for me 2nd only to Christa Ludwig. Then there came the day when both Ms. Ludwig and Ms. Verrett were giving recitals in Manhattan at the same time. I made the difficult choice of going to Carnegie Hall to hear Ms. Verrett. What a joy!
For sheer listening pleasure, listen to the album of duets with Ms. Verrett and Montserrat Caballe. It saddens me to know that her voice has left us but there are so many recordings to remind us of her great talent.

Dec. 02 2010 11:00 AM
Blee from Vermont

I saw Shirely Verette on an interview when I was a kid and she left quite an impression on me. She came across as a lovely person - incredibly beautiful, talented, warm, friendly and down to earth. She was refreshingly humble when she spoke about how her father encoraged her to pursue alternate education (Accounting) in case it 'didn't work out' in the world of opera.

I was so taken with the interview, I asked my father to tell me about Ms. Verett. of course, accodales abounded. After seeing the interview, and I think the same to this very day, I am astounded she was not more well known.

Thank you for adding the clips, Midge, which certainly attest to Ms. Varette's many gifts and hopefully, will cause a new generation to fall in love with her, as I certainly have.

Nov. 25 2010 03:40 AM
James Bennett from Picayune, MS.

My childhood classmate taught by my Aunt Maggie and Alyce in New Orleans now rests with operatic greats beneath clear blue skies. But, for my Grandson, Jacob, and me Shirley's voice will always ring in our ears and beat within our hearts.

Nov. 22 2010 12:50 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. As a Juilliard graduate myself, I knew some of the teachers with whom she studied years after my years at the old building on Claremont Avenue. 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. I have seen Verrett as Eboli in Don Carlo, Dalilah, Azucena, Norma, Adalgiza, Aida,Lady Macbeth and Tosca. In each she was totally convincing, andsometimes awesome and overpowering. I have heard of her Desdemona with the BostonOpera 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. 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 04:15 PM
louise shalit from

I first heard Shirley Verrett on a record called (I think)" Singing through the Storm." It was a brilliant compilation of Freedom songs from many countries.This has to be

It is not easy to find. I have it on tape and , I'm still looking for the vinyl. These songs are so haunting and wonderful, and Shirley brought out every nuance. The have such impact,

If you know where I could get again I'd very grateful

Nov. 15 2010 01:56 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

I first heard Ms Verrett live with the Boston Symphony,Leinsdorf conducting,the Brahms 'Alto Rhapsody" and Prokofief"s "Alexander Nevsky'. She was gorgeous and could she sing. Completely smitten,I rushed to a record store and found the RCA recording of Spanish Songs with Charles Wadsworth. To this day,whenever I'm down,I play her rendition of "Del cabello mas sutil" by Obradors and in one minute and twenty seconds all is well again. Rest in peace,Ms. Verrett.

Nov. 13 2010 12:43 PM
Patrick Shea

Exactly fourty years ago, Ms. Verrett

sang a luscious Dalila one week & an

exquiiste Carmen the next at the old

(outdoors--partially) Cincy Summer

Opera, which was smack in the mid-

dle of the goddam zoo.

While I preferred her in the mezzo

repertory, she always lent her great

dramatic artistry in anything she

attempted. She 'guested' with La Scala

at the JFK Ctr in DC, during the bicen-

tennial celebration. She was a marve-

elous Lady MacBeth--also recorded

it with Muti, I believe,

And she equally marvelous in 'Carou-



Nov. 12 2010 01:50 PM
Robert Elden from New York City

Hey Midge....
If you would like to give your radio audience a special treat, may I suggest an opera recording that displays Shirley Verrett in all of her dramatic mezzo splendor. It is the 1971 Angel/EMI recording of Verdi's "Don Carlo," the Domingo-Caballe-Giulini rendition in which Ms. Verrett sings the role of Eboli. I have in mind the Act Four, Scene 1 aria, "O don fatale, o don crudel." I should also mention from the same recording the Act Two, Scene 2 aria, "Nei giardin del bello...," for its beauty. May I also go on to recommend the Act Two, Scene 1 Preziosilla aria, "Al suon del tamburo," from the RCA 1964, Price-Tucker-Schippers recording of Verdi's, La Forza del Destino," in which she sings with great verve and spirit.

I pass these thoughts on to you because they have been, and are still, very special recordings for me which I would like to share with you and your audience; they have fortunately been reissued on CDs. Happy listening!

Nov. 12 2010 01:46 PM
Katie from Boston

The passing of a singer like Ms. Verrett, expecially in light of so many that have passed in the last five years, is a great loss to the art form. But it further serves to highlight that not many singers have risen since to rival these artists in terms of vocal excellence and compelling stange presense. This might be due to a decline in opera attendance, which is, thankfully, changing, but there are a number of other distressing factors that may play into it. Either way, it's a sad day for music. I am thankful that she lived in the age of recording so that her voice does not have to die with her.

Nov. 12 2010 01:20 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

She was a great singing actress. Beautiful as well.

Nov. 12 2010 01:01 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I have noticed that since WQXR went public there has a been a bit more emphasis on vocal selections. That's good and I enjoy it. But why do we learn of these vocal stars and their accomplishments after their passing?

I don't recall ever hearing any of Ms. Verrett's music on the radio. And while it is sad to have one less star in the sky, her passing may have been more meaningful to the public if she (and other vocals) was heard more often.

Nov. 11 2010 08:16 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

I was a junior at Williams College when I decided to attend a free recital by a woman I had never heard of, Shirley Verette. I was deeply moved by the event, which included French and German songs, plus American Spirituals.

I have followed her career ever since, albeit at a distance. I cheered when she announced she would no longer sing "Carmen," the archetypal "black mezzo" role, just as Leontyne Price came to reject "Aida." I applauded her insistence on being a "singer," rather than a "mezzo" or a "soprano," let alone a "black mezzo."

I went to "Carousel" expecting to be thrilled by her voice, and I was not disappointed. As long as history values beautiful singing, Shirley Verette will never walk alone.

Nov. 11 2010 04:51 AM
Michael Meltzer


Nov. 11 2010 01:10 AM
Paul from Clark, NJ

When you announced the passing of Shirley Verrett I remembered she performed on a recording of Lucrezia Borgia that I have. I'll have to go back and listen in her honor.

Nov. 11 2010 12:19 AM
Robert Elden from New York City

I had the good fortune to hear Ms. Verrett many times throughout her career - both at the Metropolitan Opera House and at Covent Garden. Each and every performance was thrilling as she did indeed possess a most beautiful voice capable of conveying many colorings and shadings. That said, one of my most delightful memories took place at Carnegie Hall many years ago. Some very clever artist managers put together a joint recital by both Ms. Verrett and Grace Bumbry, who were supposed rivals, but in fact were not. The recital was presented in honor of Marian Anderson who was regally present in a box overlooking the stage.

Ms. Bumbry and Ms. Verrett sang mostly arias from their respective reportoires, both in the mezzo and soprano ranges. The highlight of the evening was at the very end when they twice sang the Norma duet, each taking a turn at the roles of Norma and Adalgisa. As you can imagine, they brought down the house! A most cherished memory.

Nov. 10 2010 06:52 PM

Hi, Jake -

As a general rule, you can pretty much count on me for being WAY behind the times. I've always been that way.

Thanks for setting me straight.

Did you listen to either YouTube clip?


Nov. 10 2010 03:33 PM
jake from Teterboro, NJ


I love listening to your program while I work through Friendly tip: When you write a new blog post, it's described as "I just posted a new blog entry," or "I just blogged" Not "I just posted a new blog." Minor, I know, but to the internet cognescenti, it's a big thing (although most of us prefer to "tweet" on twitter these days)

Nov. 10 2010 03:09 PM

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