John Shirley-Quirk, Elegant English Bass-Baritone, Dies at 82

AUDIO: Hear a 1980's Interview with John Shirley Quirk by WQXR host Steve Sullivan

Tuesday, April 08, 2014 - 01:57 PM

John Shirley-Quirk, a bass-baritone known for his elegant, mellow voice and acclaim in English opera roles, died on Monday in Bath, England. He was 82. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Part of a generation of gifted British opera singers after World War II, Shirley-Quirk sang in many of the major opera houses, and was particularly active as a recording artist, releasing more than 100 albums ranging from Handel and Berlioz to Mahler and Boulez.

Shirley-Quirk gave one of the more unconventional debuts in the modern history of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1974, he sang in the U.S. premiere of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, playing no fewer than six roles (as a traveler, elderly fop, gondolier, hotel manager, barber and musician), which necessitated six different costume and makeup changes in a night.

New York Times critic Harold Schonberg praised Shirley-Quirk's "well-schooled baritone," adding, “he is also a superb actor, and each of his characterizations was all but Actors’ Studio, so thoroughly did he enter into their essential qualities.”

Born in Liverpool in 1931, Shirley-Quirk began his professional career as a chemistry teacher, first at a technical college in England and later in the British air force. But all along, friends who heard him sing urged him to try that as a career instead, and when Britten heard him in the early 1960s, he picked Shirley-Quirk to create a series of roles. Over the next decade he sang in the premieres of Britten's Owen Wingrave, Curlew River and several other works.

Shirley-Quirk frequently sang the major choral works of Bach, Handel and Elgar, and songs by Vaughan Williams and Britten were staples of his concert repertoire. He never became a regular at the Met, though he returned for productions of Boris Godunov, Ariadne auf Naxos and The Magic Flute.

In 1975 Shirley-Quirk was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Late in his career, he focused teaching and served on the faculty of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore from 1992 to 2012.

Shirley-Quirk's life was also touched by tragedy: he was married to Patricia Hastings, who died in 1981; and to the conductor Sara Watkins, who died in 1997. He is survived by his third wife, the cellist Teresa Perez, and three children from his marriage to Watkins.

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The interview with John Shirley-Quirk at the top of this page aired on WQXR in the 1980s. The host was Steve Sullivan.

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Comments [4]

Richard Pairaudeau from Madrid

To echo Tim Webster’s remarks, John Shirley Quirk was a truly remarkable singer. He combined beautiful qualities of vocal tone and a rare sensibility for language. As was the case with his contemporary, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, it was difficult to say where in his performances text ended and music began, so artistic was the fusion. One of the musical high points of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham was to sing in the University Choir with Shirley Quirk as soloist, in a double bill of Delius’ “Sea Drift” and Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast”. The music of these composers, together with that of Schubert, Bach, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and many others, emerges with singular expressivity in his voice.

Apr. 16 2014 09:12 AM
Tim Webster from Baltimore

Sorry, I made a mistake in my post about hearing the late John Shirley-Quirk in concert at Carnegie Hall: The work was not Tippett's "Child of Our Time" but several of Mahler's songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" -- he and Jessye Norman sang with the BSO under Colin Davis in 1978…ah, the joys of aging and a failing memory.

Apr. 16 2014 05:11 AM
Tim Webster from Baltimore

John Shirley-Quirk was one of those musical artists that the listener always learned much from -- great insight into the piece at hand -- while being moved by the sheer beauty of its being called into creation, that process where the notations on the score are turned into a living moment. This bass-baritone possessed such skill and magic that he could do this whenever he appeared. His performance at the Met of all the nemesis roles in Britten's "Death in Venice" in the fall of 1974 is one of the best memories I have of anything I witnessed happening on that stage during three decades of attendance. And in contrast I will never forget the jollity and bonhomie of his rendition of the bass numbers in Hayden's "The Seasons" at Tanglewood a few years later. Or in further contrast the searing nature of his singing in the bass role in Tippett's "A Child of Our Time" with the Boston Symphony under Colin Davis at Carnegie Hall. I wish I had been able to hear him in recital in the UK. Thank heaven for recordings, especially his ineffably beautiful one of Vaughan Williams's "Songs of Travel."

Apr. 16 2014 03:42 AM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

May he rest in peace. My favorite recording of Handel's Messiah features John Shirley-Quirk along with Heather Harper, Helen Watts and John Wakefield with the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by the late Sir Colin Davis. That recording is a classic.

Apr. 08 2014 07:42 PM

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