Shirley Verrett

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Shirley Verrett in Milan in 1975

Shirley Verrett (May 31, 1931 – November 5, 2010)[1] was an American operatic mezzo-soprano who successfully transitioned into soprano roles making her a Soprano sfogato. Verrett enjoyed great fame from the late 1960s through the 1990s; she was particularly well known for singing the works of Verdi and Donizetti.

Early life and education[edit]

Born into an African-American family of devout Catholics in New Orleans, Louisiana, Verrett was raised in Los Angeles, California. She recalled in her memoir that her mother went from being a strict Catholic to an even stricter Seventh-Day Adventist,[2] and she and her siblings were educated in a Seventh Day Adventist school system.[3] She sang in church and showed early musical abilities,[4] but initially a singing career was frowned upon by her family.

Verrett attended Oakwood University, a private historically black Seventh-Day Adventist university in Huntsville, Alabama, for a semester in 1949, but then returned to southern California and completed an associate degree in real estate at Ventura College. Though successful as a real estate agent, Verrett reconsidered her career choice and started serious voice study. In 1955 she won in two California competitions sponsored by the Young Musicians Foundation and later that year appeared on Talent Scouts, a national television show hosted by Arthur Godfrey. Her appearance on that program led to a scholarship at the Juilliard School New York. Verrett went on to study with Anna Fitziu and with Marion Szekely Freschl at Juilliard. In 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.[5]

International career[edit]

In 1957, Verrett made her operatic debut in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia under her then-married name of Shirley Carter.[6] She later used the name Shirley Verrett-Carter, and ultimately just Shirley Verrett.[7] In 1958, she made her New York City Opera debut as Irina in Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars. In 1959, she made her European debut in Cologne, Germany in Nicolas Nabokov's Rasputins Tod. In 1962, she received critical acclaim for her Carmen in Spoleto; she repeated the role at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1963, and at the New York City Opera in 1964 (opposite Richard Cassilly and Norman Treigle). Verrett first appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1966 as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.

She appeared in the first concert ever televised from Lincoln Center in 1962,[8] and also appeared that year in the first of the Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts ever televised from that venue, in what is now Avery Fisher Hall.

She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968, with Carmen, and at La Scala in 1969 in Samson and Dalila. Verrett's mezzo roles included Cassandra and Didon (Berlioz's Les Troyens)-including the Met premiere, when she sang both roles in the same performance, Verdi's Ulrica, Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Saint-Saëns' Dalila, Donizetti's Elisabetta I (written as a soprano role) in Maria Stuarda, Leonora in La favorita, Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orpheus, and Rossini's Neocles (L'assedio di Corinto) and Sinaide (Moïse). Many of these roles were recorded, either professionally or privately.

Beginning in the late 1970s, she began to tackle soprano roles, including Selika in L'Africaine, Judith in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (Met 1977), Tosca, Norma (from Boston 1976 till Messina 1989), Aida (Boston 1980 and 1989), Desdemona (Otello) (1981), Leonore (Fidelio, Met 1983), Iphigénie (1984–85), Alceste (1985), and Médée (Cherubini) (1986). Her Tosca was televised by PBS on Live from the Met in December 1978, just six days before Christmas. She sang the role opposite the Cavaradossi of Luciano Pavarotti and the Scarpia of Cornell MacNeil.[9]

In 1990, Verrett sang Dido in Les Troyens at the inauguration of the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and added a new role to her repertoire: Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, in Siena. In 1994, she made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, playing Nettie Fowler.

In 1996, Verrett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance as a professor of Voice and the James Earl Jones Distinguished University Professor of Voice. The preceding year at the National Opera Association Gala Banquet and Concert honoring Mattiwilda Dobbs, Todd Duncan, Camilla Williams, and Robert McFerrin, Verrett said:

I'm always so happy when I can speak to young people because I remember those who were kind to me that didn't need to be. The first reason I came tonight was for the honorees because I needed to say this. The second reason I came was for you, the youth. These great people here were the trailblazers for me. I hope in my own way I did something to help your generation, and that you will help the next. This is the way it's supposed to be. You just keep passing that baton on![10]


In 2003, Shirley Verrett published a memoir, I Never Walked Alone (ISBN 0-471-20991-0), in which she spoke frankly about the racism she encountered as a black person in the American classical music world. When the conductor Leopold Stokowski invited her to sing with the Houston Symphony in the early 1960s, he had to rescind his invitation when the orchestra board refused to accept a black soloist. Stokowski later made amends by giving her a prestigious date with the Philadelphia Orchestra.[11]


Verrett married twice, first in 1951, to real estate broker and sheriff's deputy James L. Carter. However, Verrett experienced abusive treatment from her husband and they divorced in 1959.[12] In 1963, she wed artist Louis Lo Monaco. She was survived by Lo Monaco and their adopted daughter Francesca and their granddaughter.[13] A nephew is Durek Verrett.


Verrett died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aged 79, on November 5, 2010, from heart failure following an undisclosed illness.[14] An ongoing annual Shirley Verrett Award, that recognizes “a faculty member whose performance, scholarship, or service supports the success of female students or faculty in the arts who come from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds” was established in 2011 by the University of Michigan in her honor.[15]



  1. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (November 6, 2010). "Shirley Verrett, Opera Singer of Power and Grace, Is Dead at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2010.
  2. ^ Verrett, Shirley (2003). I Never Walked Alone. John Wiley & Sons. p. 6.
  3. ^ "Biography of a Legend". Web Archive. Retrieved 2024-03-03.
  4. ^ "Shirley Verrett dies at 79; acclaimed mezzo-soprano". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. November 7, 2010. Retrieved November 7, 2010.
  5. ^ "Shirley Mae Verrett". Encyclopedia of Seventh-Day Adventists. Retrieved 2024-03-03.
  6. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Music
  7. ^ Villamil, Victoria Etnier. From Johnson's Kids to Lemonade Opera, p. 246.
  8. ^ Opening Night at Lincoln Center (1962). IMDb
  9. ^ Tosca (19 Dec. 1978). IMDb
  10. ^ Nash, Elizabeth. Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853–Present. Edwin Mellen Press, 2007; ISBN 0-7734-5250-8
  11. ^ Tommasini, Anthony "MUSIC; Shirley Verrett Finally Tells Us Where She's Been", The New York Times, 2003-07-27. Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
  12. ^ "Shirley Mae Verrett". Encyclopedia of Seventh-Day Adventists. Retrieved 2024-03-03.
  13. ^ Millington, Barry (November 8, 2010). "Shirley Verrett obituary". The Guardian – via
  14. ^ "Opera trailblazer Shirley Verrett dies. Black American soprano was popular in 1970s and 1980s". Canadian Broadcast Corporation. November 7, 2010. Retrieved November 7, 2010.
  15. ^ "Shirley Mae Verrett". Encyclopedia of Seventh-Day Adventists. Retrieved 2024-03-03.
  16. ^ "Metropolitan Opera's New Star". Ebony. 24: 55. December 1968 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ "Shirley Verrett Biography". 2004-06-15. Archived from the original on 2004-06-15. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  18. ^ Robinson, Ruth (1975-04-27). "Future Social Events". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-10.
  19. ^ "Shirley Mae Verrett". Encyclopedia of Seventh-Day Adventists. Retrieved 2024-03-03.
  20. ^ "Anita Gonzalez to be honored at the 6th Annual Shirley Verrett Award Ceremony | Center for the Education of Women | University of Michigan". Retrieved 2020-06-10.

External links[edit]