SHIRLEY VERRETT (1931 – 2010) was an internationally renowned opera singer. Born May 31, 1931, into a devout family of Seventh-Day Adventists in New Orleans, she began singing in the church at a young age. Raised in Southern California, Shirley graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York before winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Shirley made her operatic debut in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia before being hired by composer Leopold Stokowski in 1959 for Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder with the Houston Symphony. The orchestra’s board, however, would not allow a black soloist to perform, and Stokowski cast Shirley in a performance of Falla’s Amor Brujo with the Philadelphia Orchestra instead.
Although her religious family initially disapproved of Shirley’s singing career, they eventually hoped she’d follow in the footsteps of Marian Anderson, rather than opera. In 1962, they made their first trip to Europe and heard her sing the title role in Carmen. She wrote that they “got down on their knees and prayed for forgiveness”.
Known as Shirley Verrett-Carter in the first few years of her career after marrying James Carter in 1951, she divorced her controlling and abusive husband after finding a gun under his pillow. In 1963, she married artist/writer Lou LoMonaco and adopted a daughter, Francesca.
In 1962, Shirley appeared in the first concert ever televised from Lincoln Center in New York, but it wasn’t until six years later that she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Carmen before also performing over 40 roles at the world’s great opera houses including La Scala in Milan, London’s Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, the Paris Opera and the Vienna Staatsoper.
She would go on to have 126 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, which included a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca opposite Luciano Pavarotti that was broadcast live by PBS in December 1978 and has since been made available online.
In 1990, Shirley opened the Bastille Opera with a commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution’s Bastille Day, before making her Broadway debut as Nettie Fowler in the Tony Award-winning production of Carousel in 1994. Two years later, she had joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music as professor of voice. The following is an excerpt of an inspirational speech she gave a freshman class:
. . . Not all of you who come through these portals will become major opera ingers or renowned scholars. However, every one of you should leave this university as an educated person . . . I have now come to believe specializing too early is counter-productive and can stunt your growth. I have heard many a voice professor talk about “the voice” as if it were detached from the physical body, the emotions, and especially the mind. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Your mind is your greatest asset. . . My mother, Elvira Verrett, always told my brothers, sister and me to “learn everything you can because you’ll never know when you will need it. . . .” You may face your own moral crisis where your personal development or views may place you in conflict with those of your family, your friends, or “tradition.” I can’t advise you how to handle such a dilemma should it arise, however I can encourage you to be honest in your reflections. But don’t let the fear of rejection slow down your intellectual curiosity or your personal development.
Shirley received countless awards and honors during her career, including being named a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and serving on two White House commissions to preserve American Antiquity under the Carter and Reagan administrations, as well as participating in numerous charitable and humanitarian efforts around the world. In 2003, she published her autobiography I Never Walked Alone, which reflected the trials and triumphs of her long career as well as other issues such as religion vs. art; family vs. career and African American artists in the predominantly European and European American world of opera. On November 5, 2010, at the age of 79, Shirley Verrett died from heart failure following an undisclosed illness at her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is survived by her husband of 47 years, daughter and granddaughter.