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.
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.