Monday, November 8, 2010

In Memoriam: Shirley Verrett 1931-2010

Shirley Verrett, mezzo-soprano and soprano praised for her intensity, dedication and unwavering artistry during a career that spanned four decades, died Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 79.

Ms. Verrett was part of the second generation of African-American opera singers who followed Marian Anderson's breakthrough at the Met in 1955. Coming after Leontyne Price, she was in a small group of African-American headliners that included George Shirley, Grace Bumbry, Reri Grist and Martina Arroyo.

Anthony Tommasini writes for the New York Times:
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.
Having worked with Ms. Verrett at New Orleans Opera on a couple of occasions, a writer over at gives a very personal account of what it was like to work with this incredible Diva. In discussing her engagement as Tosca the writer says in part:
Verrett managed to charm the entire production team through her availability and capacity for hard work. Lighting designer Marty was impressed with Verrett’s attention to detail, no more so than when she consulted with him regarding the gel color he intended to use for the follow spots. She explained that the unique challenges of lighting singers of color were rarely considered by designers and she never took these issues for granted. Marty explained that he intended to use a soft, lavender color that would compliment her makeup design and costume color schemes. At the end of the run, Marty presented her with a long-term supply of the custom gels.

Marty became increasingly fascinated with Verrett and encouraged his team to check her out during rehearsals. The stage hands and lighting crew rarely took much note of what was going on onstage and were perfectly content to wait for their next cue by stepping outside for a cigarette, playing cards or snoozing in the theater manager’s office. But at the piano dress, an amazing thing happened: Marty got on the intercom system and said: “Listen folks, no more cues till the end of the act, so I want you all to go sit in the house and listen to this woman sing ‘Vissi d’arte.’ It’s her big number and you won’t regret it.” One by one, the crew took off their headsets, filed out into the auditorium and listened as instructed. They were mesmerized. At aria’s end, Verrett earned a particularly enthusiastic ovation from this gang of scruffy tough guys, moved by great singing in a way I had never witnessed previously.
To say that Ms. Verrett overcame adversity would be a gross understatement.

Shirley Verrett was born on May 31, 1931, in New Orleans. 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. However, Ms. Verrett recalls in her book that he routinely punished his children by strapping them on the legs. Her parents were encouraging of her singing, but disapproved of Opera. They wanted her to follow in the footsteps of Marian Anderson in pursuing a concert career.

Then, in 1951 she married James Carter, who was 14 years her senior. The marriage failed after Mr. Carter proved to be a controlling and abusive husband whom Ms. Verrett left after discovering a gun under his pillow.

In the early days of her career, she experienced what many African-American musicians of her generation 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 of directors would not allow a black soloist to appear. So, to make amends - and perhaps thumb his nose at Houston, Stokowski took Ms. Verrett to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Falla’s Amor Brujo.

Ms. Verrett's career was often plagued by illness brought on by an allergy to mold. This came to light in 1979 when New Yorkers were given the chance to hear much raved about Norma at the Met. The performances didn't go well. Among her 126 performances with the Met, however, were many triumphs.

In 1994, about to turn 63 and with opera triumphs well behind her, Ms. Verrett returned to the stage making 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.

Perhaps overcoming adversity is what helped to propel this determined and resolute artist to triumphantly move her audiences. From demanding Milanese critics and impassioned Italian opera fans - to a gang of scruffy tough guys and her legion of loyal fans, Verrett indeed triumphed by moving them all.

Shirley Verrett is survived by her husband of 47 years, Lou LoMonaco, her adopted daughter and a granddaughter.

What follows are some of my favorite clips featuring Shirley Verrett.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Opera scholar Wallace Cheatham has an essay on Verrett's performances of "Lady Macbeth" in the recently published collection "Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance":

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