The Diva (Part Two): Shirley Verrett

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Long ago, when this blog was new, my second post was called “The Diva (part one).” I optimistically promised to write part two and, eighty posts later, here it is.

Friday is the 88th anniversary of the birth of Maria Callas (born on December 2, 1923 in Manhattan). It would be easy to use this coincidence to discuss Callas as diva, but she is very well-documented by myself and most writers and speakers who deal with opera. So, happy birthday Maria.

Forty years after Callas, to the day, writer Ann Patchett was born. She is the author of several outstanding books. One of them, the best-selling Bel Canto, has one of the finest depictions of a diva ever put in print. If you have not read it yet, what are you waiting for? The book has been discussed as source material for a film, and it would be a good one, but I think it would be even better as an opera. Its central character, Roxanne Coss, has often been described as resembling Renée Fleming, but if Bel Canto the opera were to be written now, I think it would require a singer whose public persona is less familiar to audiences. Three distinct choices would be Natalie Dessay, Marina Poplavskaya or Takesha Meshé Kizart.

When Passion Was in Fashion

While there are numerous fine singers, mostly sopranos, I could point to for further discussion of divadom, I have chosen Shirley Verrett (1931-2010), the marvelous American mezzo-soprano who sang certain soprano roles as well. She is one of a generation of singers whose work was admired in its time and whose artistry is much-missed now. It is not that we don’t have excellent singers now, a few of whom could be called divas. But Verrett’s generation was more steeped in the kind of training to be an overall artist that is sorely missing today. 

Verrett, and contemporaries such as Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas, Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig and Evelyn Lear, to name very few, all had the kind of passionate professionalism seldom seen now. The approach among contemporary opera stars seems several notches cooler and more businesslike. We are in so many ways chilled compared to a generation ago, in the arts and in life. It is as if passion is messy and it is better to be ironic. How many current film and theater actors can you name who are passionate or, at least, are willing to make that part of their artistic message?

Here is the first segment of a long interview Shirley Verrett gave to British television forty years ago. You can find links to the rest of it if you wish to watch. Notice the clarity, conviction and unforced self-awareness with which Verrett speaks.

I knew Ms. Verrett somewhat in a professional context. She was a beautiful, radiant woman, and quite private. I respected that about her because she seemed to draw on a deep reserve of intellect and emotion that had to be protected. To use a well-worn but apt expression, Shirley Verrett chose to “save it for the stage.” In performance she gave 110 percent, imbuing each character with her personal stamp, even though each one was distinct. Compare this to a great film diva, Katharine Hepburn. Audiences loved her, in part because every character was an extension of Hepburn. By contrast, Verrett put a different part of herself into each role she played.

Verrett was part of the first great generation of African-American female opera singers that also included Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Grace Bumbry. It was to the latter that she was most often compared in that they shared some roles, much as Arroyo and Price covered similar repertory. I think it is unfair that they were all matched this way, as all four were magnificent artists on their own. Verrett could just as easily have been compared to Rysanek, both women of extraordinary beauty, temperament and artistry who were often called the only viable heirs to the Callas mantle.

A Bumbry or a Verrett?

There was a famous concert at Carnegie Hall (on January 31, 1982, if memory serves) that featured Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett. The hall was sold out and crackled with excitement even before the two ladies took the stage. Next to me was a veteran African-American operagoer named Chloe whom I knew by sight. She turned to me and posed a question that could be from Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She asked, “Are you a Bumbry or a Verrett?” I liked both but, when thinking in those terms, I arrived that evening as a Bumbry. She had done some of the great performances (Orfeo, Carmen, Tosca) of my early operagoing life and they made their mark. I had only seen Verrett once by then and wanted more. Chloe folded her arms primly and said, “Well, I am a Verrett.”  

Here they are in a 1984 concert performance of “Mira, o Norma” duet from Norma, at London’s Covent. It is more satisfying for all, I think, to be a Bumbry and a Verrett. Prolonged exposure to both in common roles such as Eboli, Carmen, Tosca, Amneris and Orfeo would prove that, like any great artists, they were distinct and brought different strengths to each character.

A Verrett Sampler

Watch Verrett in the Judgment Scene from Aïda. This is a narrow set on which she is confined, much as Radames (about whom she sings) is in a confined unseen place offstage. Her acting and gestures may seem large, almost as if from a silent film, but they are specific to music and words. Amneris is a princess, let us never forget, but also passionately volatile. We see and hear all of that, noting the variety she gives to the performance with her eyes.

Another of her achievements was an extraordinary Lady Macbeth. The role is vocally daunting and can spill over into caricature if not done right. Yet, with conductor Claudio Abbado and stage director Giorgio Strehler, she created an unforgettable interpretation that is the first thing I heard her do live, at La Scala in the 1970s. She brought the house down. Notice the prolonged applause she received. This how audiences responded to performances by divas; one seldom encounters this level of passion nowadays.

Consider a 1977 concert version of Isolde’s Liebestod, conducted by Zubin Mehta. She had never sung the role and Wagner was far from her core repertory. And yet she created something extraordinary with this music by applying her artistry. Notice how something seems to switch off in her eyes at about 7:49 even if she keeps them open for another 8 seconds or so. It is as if she is telling us, showing us, the moment Isolde dies.

Now watch an interview with Verrett right after singing the Liebestod for the first time. She talks about tamping down her “fiery temperament” onstage to sing this particular music. There is a bit of a grande dame tone to her presentation here, yet it is fitting and sincere. That is part of what being a diva is -- a sense of self, and no hesitation to represent that. Listen too, how she analyzed people she met by their walk. And how she fiercely protects her family’s privacy.

“Strange Fruit” is Billie Holiday’s unforgettable song about lynching in the American South. I think this version is a bit over-produced musically, but Verrett’s direct presentation of the words and the affectless use of her voice make this a powerful performance.

Grace Bumbry received, and deserved, the Kennedy Center honor in 2009. I know that many people, myself included, felt that Shirley Verrett deserved one too. Certainly it should have gone to her before Jessye Norman, fourteen years her junior, who received it at the age of 52 in 1997. Norman was still in her active career and would have years ahead of her for such accolades. I believe that senior artists should be given precedence for career honors. For example, Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters seem likely recipients of the Kennedy Center honor, but it must go to Carol Channing first.

Verrett died six months after those 2009 awards. Her recordings and all of her students remain an important part of her legacy. Listen to, and admire, her haunting version of  “When I am laid in earth,” Dido’s Lament in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.