George Shirley

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George Shirley, 1961

George Irving Shirley (born April 18, 1934) is an American operatic tenor, and was the first African-American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Early life[edit]

Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Wayne State University in 1955 and then was drafted into the Army, where he became the first Black member of the United States Army Chorus.[1] He was also the first African American hired to teach music in Detroit high schools.[2][3]


After continuing voice studies with Therny Georgi, he moved to New York and began his professional career as a singer. His debut was with a small opera group in Woodstock as Eisenstein in Strauss's Die Fledermaus in 1959,[3] and his European debut in Italy as Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème.[1] In 1960, at 26, he won a National Arts Club scholarship competition,[4] and the following April he was the first Black singer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions scholarship competition.[5] Shirley is the first Black tenor and the second Black male to sing leading roles for the Metropolitan Opera.[2] He sang there for 11 seasons.

Shirley has also appeared at The Royal Opera, London; the Deutsche Oper Berlin; the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam; Opéra de Monte-Carlo; the New York City Opera; the Scottish Opera; the Lyric Opera of Chicago; the Washington National Opera; the Michigan Opera Theatre; the San Francisco Opera; and the Santa Fe Opera and Glyndebourne Festival summer seasons, as well as with numerous orchestras in the United States and Europe.[6] He has sung more than 80 roles.[7]

He was on the faculty of the University of Maryland from 1980 to 1987, when he moved to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where he was Director of the Vocal Arts Division. He currently serves as the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music, and still maintains a studio at the school.[1]

Awards and recognition[edit]

In 1968, Shirley won a Grammy Award for his performance in the role Ferrando in the RCA recording of Mozart's Così fan tutte.[1] He has three times been a master teacher in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program for Young NATS Teachers, and taught dozens of up-and-coming vocalists for ten years at the Aspen Music Festival and School.[7] Shirley produced a series of programs for WQXR-FM radio in New York on Classical Music and the Afro-American[2] and hosted a four-program series on WETA-FM radio in Washington, D.C. called Unheard, Unsung.[6] Shirley has been awarded honorary degrees by Wilberforce University, Montclair State College, Lake Forest College, and the University of Northern Iowa.[2] He is a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.[2][6][8] In 2013, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, of which he is a member, named him a Signature Sinfonian, an award recognizing exceptional accomplishment in the fraternity member's chosen field.[9] One his highest honors came in 2015 when Mr. Shirley received the National Medal of Arts, bestowed upon him by US President Barack Obama.[10] The following year in 2016, he was a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award during the National Opera Association's annual convention.[11]


[Composer: work (other singers; ensembles; conductor), label, recording or publication date.]


  1. ^ a b c d Randye Jones, "George Shirley (b. 1934)", Afrocentric Voices, retrieved June 10, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e "George Shirley: Tenor and Narrator", Ann Summers International, Archived July 16, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ a b "Surviving Odds to Become a Star: George Shirley", Baltimore Afro-American, March 3, 1981, p. 17.
  4. ^ "Tenor Gets $500 Award; George Shirley Wins National Arts Club Competition", The New York Times, November 15, 1960.
  5. ^ Allen Hughes, "George Shirley, Tenor, Wins 'Met' Auditions and a Contract", The New York Times, April 7, 1961.
  6. ^ a b c "George Shirley", Opera Music Theater International, retrieved June 10, 2014.
  7. ^ a b George Shirley: Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice Archived 2008-06-30 at the Wayback Machine, University of Michigan, retrieved June 10, 2014.
  8. ^ "Welcome". Archived from the original on 27 January 2010. Retrieved 23 September 2015.
  9. ^ Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, "Signature Sinfonian". Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  10. ^ Perfect Pitch: Highest Honor. Retrieved January 12, 2016.
  11. ^ NOA Lifetime Achievement Award, National Opera Association. Retrieved January 18, 2018.

External links[edit]