Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A00500 - Shirley Verrett, Opera Singer

Shirley Verrett, the vocally lustrous and dramatically compelling Americanopera singer who began as a mezzo-soprano and went on to sing soprano roles to international acclaim, died Friday morning at her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 79.
The cause was heart failure after several months of illness, said her daughter, Francesca LoMonaco.
In her prime years Ms. Verrett was a remarkably complete and distinctive operatic artist. She had a plush, rich and powerful voice, thorough musicianship, insightful dramatic skills, charisma and beauty. If she never quite reached mythic status, she came close.
After singing the soprano role of Lady Macbeth in a landmark 1975 production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at La Scala in Milan, demanding Milanese critics and impassioned Italian opera fans called her La Nera Callas (the Black Callas) and flocked to her every performance.
Her Lady Macbeth is preserved on a classic 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording, conducted by Claudio Abbado. And in the early 1980s, she was so popular in Paris that she lived there with her family for three years.


Shirley Verrett in 1973 in “Les Troyens.” CreditJack Manning/The New York Times

In the early days, like black artists before her, she experienced racial prejudice, as she recounts in her memoir, “I Never Walked Alone.” In 1959 the conductor Leopold Stokowski hired her to sing the Wood Dove in a performance of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” with the Houston Symphony, but the orchestra’s board would not allow a black soloist to appear. To make amends, a shaken Stokowski took Ms. Verrett to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Falla’s “Amor Brujo,” which led to a fine recording.
By her own admission, Ms. Verrett’s singing was inconsistent. Even some admiring critics thought that she made a mistake by singing soprano repertory after establishing herself as one of the premiere mezzo-sopranos of her generation, riveting as Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saëns’s Delila. A contingent of vocal buffs thought that her voice developed breaks and separated into distinct registers.
To Ms. Verrett the problem was not the nature of her voice but health issues. During the peak years she suffered from allergies to mold spores that could clog her bronchial tubes. She could not predict when her allergies would erupt. In 1976, just six weeks after singing Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma” at the Metropolitan Opera (a role traditionally performed by mezzo-sopranos), she sang the daunting soprano title role on tour with the Met, including a performance in Boston that earned a frenzied ovation. In his Boston Globe review, the critic Richard Dyer wrote that “what Verrett did added her Norma to that select company of contemporary performances that have enlarged the dimensions of operatic legend.”
Yet, in 1979, when New Yorkers finally had the chance to hear Ms. Verrett’s Norma at the Met, her allergies acted up and undermined her singing, as Ms. Verrett recalled in her memoir. Among her 126 performances with the Met, however, were many triumphs.
In 1973, when the company opened its historic production of Berlioz’s “Troyens,” starring Jon Vickers as Aeneas, Ms. Verrett sang not only the role of Cassandra in Part I of this epic opera, but also Dido in Part II, taking the place of the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, who had withdrawn because of an illness, a tour de force that entered Met annals.
In his New York magazine review the critic Alan Rich wrote that Ms. Verrett was “glorious to behold, and her luscious, pliant voice is at this moment in prime estate.” And in the Met’s 1978-79 season Ms. Verrett sang Tosca to Luciano Pavarotti’s Cavaradossi in a production of Puccini’s “Tosca” that was broadcast live on public television, which is available on a Decca DVD.
At her best, Ms. Verrett could sing with both mellow richness and chilling power. Her full-voiced top notes easily cut through the orchestral outbursts in Verdi’s “Aida.” Yet as Lady Macbeth, during the “Sleepwalking Scene,” she could end the character’s haunting music with an ethereal final phrase capped by soft, shimmering high D-flat.


Ms. Verrett rehearsing in 1963 at Philharmonic Hall.CreditSam Falk/The New York Times

Shirley Verrett was born on May 31, 1931, in New Orleans, one of five children. Her parents were strict Seventh-day Adventists. Her father, who ran a construction company and moved the family to Los Angeles when Ms. Verrett was a young girl, was a decent man, Ms. Verrett recalled in her book, though he routinely punished his children by strapping them on the legs.
Her parents encouraged Ms. Verrett’s talent, but wanted her to pursue a concert career in the mold of Marian Anderson. They disapproved of opera. When they made their first trip to Europe in 1962 to hear their daughter sing the title role in “Carmen” at the Spoleto Festival, they “got down on their knees and prayed for forgiveness,” Ms. Verrett wrote.
In 1951, she married James Carter, who was 14 years her senior and proved a controlling and abusive husband. Ms. Verrett left that impulsive marriage when she discovered a gun under her husband’s pillow. During the first years of her career she was known as Shirley Verrett-Carter.
In 1963 she married Lou LoMonaco, an artist, who survives her, along with her daughter, who was adopted, and a granddaughter.
Her happy marriage came two years after she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, having studied at the Juilliard School. Carmen was the role of her 1968 Met debut. Other important roles with the Met included Azucena from Verdi’s “Trovatore,” Eboli from Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Leonora in Donizetti’s “Favorita” in 1978, a new production mounted for Ms. Verrett and Pavarotti.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Verrett had a close association with Sarah Caldwell, the conductor and stage director who ran the Opera Company of Boston, winning devoted fans among Boston opera buffs for her Aida, Norma, Tosca and other roles.
In 1981, in what was then a bold act of colorblind casting, Ms. Caldwell had Ms. Verrett sing Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello,” opposite the tenor James McCracken in the title role. Ms. Verrett’s skin color was only somewhat lightened to portray Desdemona. The intensity and vulnerability of her singing cut to the core of the character of the winsome, naïve Desdemona.
Ms. Verrett also sustained a lively rivalry with another black mezzo-soprano-turned-soprano, Grace Bumbry. In later years, she was a professor of voice at the University of Michigan.
In 1994, about to turn 63 and with opera well behind her, Ms. Verrett made her Broadway debut as Nettie Fowler in the Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” at Lincoln Center. Nettie’s defining moment comes when she sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which Ms. Verrett adapted for the title of her memoir.


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

Early life and education[edit]

Born into an African-American family of devout Seventh-day Adventists in New Orleans, Louisiana, Verrett was raised in Los Angeles, California. She sang in church and showed early musical abilities,[2] but initially a singing career was frowned upon by her family. Later Verrett went on to study with Anna Fitziu and with Marion Szekely Freschl at the Juilliard School in New York. In 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

International career[edit]

In 1957, Verrett made her operatic debut in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. 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 Nabokov'sRasputins Tod. In 1962, she received critical acclaim for her Carmen in Spoleto, and repeated the role at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1963, and at the NY City Opera in 1964 (opposite Richard Cassilly and Norman Treigle). Verrett first appeared at the Royal Opera HouseCovent Garden in 1966 as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.
She appeared in the first concert ever televised from Lincoln Center in 1962,[3] 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, Giuseppe Verdi's Ulrica, Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Saint-Saëns' Dalila, Donizetti's Elisabetta I in "Maria Stuarda", Leonora in La favoritaGluck's Orpheus, and Rossini's Neocles (L'assedio di Corinto) and Sinaide inMoïse. 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 Macbeth, Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (Met1977), ToscaNorma ( from Boston 1976 till Messina 1989), Aida (Boston 1980 and 1989), Desdemona (Otello) (1981), Leonore (Fidelio) (Met 1983), Iphigénie (1984–85), Alceste (1985), 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.[4]
In 1990, Verrett sang Dido in Les Troyens at the inauguration of the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and added a new role at her repertoire: Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana in Sienna. 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 University Professor of Music. The preceding year at the National Opera Association Gala Banquet and Concert honoring Mattiwilda DobbsTodd DuncanCamilla 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!"[5]


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 much better known Philadelphia Orchestra.[6]


Verrett died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aged 79, on November 5, 2010 from heart failure following an undisclosed illness.[7]


Shirley Verrett, (b. May 31, 1931, New Orleans, Louisiana - d. November 5, 2010, Ann Arbor, Michigan), an opera singer who was a mezzo-soprano who had a regal onstage presence and a colorful vocal range, she was best known in the United States and Europe for her roles as Georges Bizet's fiery Carmen, as both Dido and Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens, and as Azucena in Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore.  

Verrett studied  (1955) singing in Los Angeles before continuing her education at the Juilliard School, New York City.  She made her operatic debut in Ohio in 1957 in Benjamin Brittens The Rape of Lucretia.  Two years later she made her European debut in Cologne, Germany, where she portrayed the gypsy in Nicolas Nabokov's Rasputin's End.  Her first appearance at La Scala, in Milan, came in 1966, and she continued to perform there until 1984.  Italians dubbed her "La Nera Callas" ("The Black Callas").  By the late 1980s, however, her vocal quality was becoming inconsistent.  From 1996 to 2010, Verrett taught at the University of Michigan School of Music.  Her autobiography, I Never Walked Alone (written with Christopher Brooks), was published in 2003.


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