Shirley Verrett, Opera Singer Of Dramatic Intensity, Is Dead At 79
by Thomas Huizenga
Shirley Verrett as Delila, sings "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix."
Late on Friday, Nov. 6th, it was announced that opera singer Shirley Verrett had died at age 79. The video above shows the singer at her peak, in a 1971 BBC telecast of Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saens.
Verrett began her career as mezzo-soprano in the late 1950s, but later took on soprano roles as well. It was her much-lauded performance of the title role in Bizet's Carmen at the 1962 Spoleto Festival in Italy that sparked the beginning of her opera career.
Writing about Verrett's career at its peak in 1974, critic John Steane characterized her voice as "directed with a sharp sense of dramatic immediacy and intensity, so that it draws the listener toward it. She also offers a scrupulous attention to detail, and a virtuoso's brilliance of execution. She is to quite a remarkable extent the complete singer."
Yet perhaps not quite complete enough — at least according to Peter G. Davis, in his book The American Opera Singer.
Davis notes that although Verrett had what it took to be a superstar, perhaps at the level of her contemporary Leontyne Price, Verrett's career never quite reached those heights.
"Shirley Verrett presents a bit of a puzzle," he writes. "Voice, intelligence, musicianship, beauty, stage presence — Verrett had them all, and on any number of occasions it seemed as if she were on the verge of being propelled right up there with the greatest names of her generation."
Verrett took her smoldering Carmen to the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1968, where she also made a huge impression in Berlioz's Le Troyens in 1973 when she sang both the roles of Dido and Cassandra. She had another triumph in 1975, singing in Verdi's Macbeth at Milan's La Scala. You can hear what all the fuss was about on the recording of the opera Verrett made a year later for Deutsche Grammophon.
Verrett was part of a wave of thrillingly talented African-American singers that included Price, Grace Bumbry and Martina Arroyo.
Like Price, born ten years earlier, Verrett faced prejudice in the opera world. The board of the Houston symphony refused to engage her in 1959, even at the request of conductor Leopold Stokowski.
In an obituary in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes: "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."
Verrett died of heart failure at her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Friday morning.