Shirley Verrett

Born into a large family where music played a significant role in the household, Verrett sang solo for the first time in church (both her parents were Seventh Day Adventists) when she was five. Her disciplinarian father was a building contractor who, unable to find work in the racially segregated South, moved the family to Oxnard, California, where work was easier to come by. When Verrett was seventeen she entered a talent contest: one of the judges offered to pay for her to study with Lotte Lehmann, but she declined and pursued a career in accounting and real estate instead. Although successful, this career palled and in her mid-twenties she sought out Anna Fitziu for singing lessons. After winning a Californian talent competition, she appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s New York television show Talent Scouts and was heard by another teacher, Marian Szekely-Freschl, who brought her to the Juilliard School.

Verrett’s operatic stage debut came in 1957 as Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Yellow Springs, Ohio; and the following year she appeared (under her first married name of Shirley Carter) with the New York City Opera as Irina in Weill’s Lost in the Stars. She made her European debut in 1959 with the Cologne Opera as the Gypsy in Nabokov’s Rasputin’s End; but at this point her interest was concert singing rather than opera. Her role model was Marian Anderson, reflecting her strong interest in civil rights: in 1960, when touring the South, she refused to sing to segregated audiences. (When Leopold Stokowski invited her to sing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the board overruled him, but he later invited Verrett to sing and record Falla’s El amor brujo with himself and the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Following study with Boris Goldovsky at Tanglewood, Verrett’s interest in opera increased. In 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and in 1962 triumphed in the title role of Carmen at the Spoleto Festival with Gian-Carlo Menotti conducting. Further performances of this role followed at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow (1963), New York City Opera (1964) and La Scala, Milan (1966). Verrett remarried in 1963 and made her debut at the Royal Opera House, London in 1966 as Ulrica / Un ballo in maschera. She returned often to London, as Eboli / Don Carlo (1968), Azucena / Il trovatore (1970), Amneris / Aida (1971), Orfeo / Orfeo ed Euridice (1972), Carmen (1973, new production with Solti conducting), the title parts in Norma (1979) and Tosca (1980) and Dalila / Samson et Dalila (1981 and 1983).

At the Metropolitan Opera, Verrett’s first appearances were as Carmen and Eboli in 1968, followed by a single Amneris in 1970 and Azucena in 1971. For the first night of the 1973 new production of Les Troyens she sang Cassandra as scheduled and replaced a sick Christa Ludwig as Dido: an extraordinary feat which was hailed by the critic Alan Rich as ‘one of the great personal “tours de force” in the company’s history’. Later Met roles included Judith / Bluebeard’s Castle (1974), Neocle / The Siege of Corinth (L’assiedo di Corinto) (1975), Adalgisa / Norma (1976), Madame Lidoine / Dialogues des Carmélites (1977), Leonora / La favorita (1978), Tosca (1978), Norma (1979), Dalila (1981), Leonore / Fidelio (1982) and Lady Macbeth / Macbeth (1988). Her final appearance at the Met was as Azucena in 1990.

Her performance as Lady Macbeth at La Scala in 1975 with Abbado conducting, for which she was hailed as ‘La nera Callas’ (‘The black Callas’), marked Verrett’s move into the dramatic soprano repertory, which balanced with her mezzo repertoire for the remainder of her career. Among the soprano roles she sang were the title roles in Aida and Cherubini’s Medée, and Desdemona / Otello. She was extremely popular in Italy and France during the 1980s and sang Berlioz’s Dido in the opening production of the Bastille Opera in 1990.

As Verrett’s operatic career drew to a close she moved with success to Broadway, appearing as Nettie Fowler in Carousel in 1994. From 1996 she taught at the University of Michigan. Her death, which came after several months of illness, was caused by heart failure.

Always immaculately presented, Verrett was a true ‘diva’. Possessing a voice of extraordinary range, she sang with both vocal richness and dramatic insight, dominating the stage with ease and authority.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).