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Shirley Verrett

Born: 31-May-1931
Birthplace: New Orleans, LA
Died: 5-Nov-2010
Location of death: Ann Arbor, MI
Cause of death: Heart Failure

Gender: Female
Religion: Christian [1]
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Singer
Party Affiliation: Democratic

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Mezzo-soprano at the Met

Opera diva Shirley Verrett was born in New Orleans, raised in Los Angeles, and in her teen years her family and her church had discouraged her from pursuing a career on stage. She said that one of her proudest moments was a 1962 performance of Georges Bizet's Carmen, the first time her parents had heard her perform professionally, and afterwards they apologized profusely for not backing her dreams in youth. She studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and made her professional debut in 1957, playing a supporting role in Benjamin Britten's Lucretia. She sang with the New York Metropolitan Opera for decades, fronting 126 productions.

The Met was the site of perhaps her greatest triumph ó scheduled to play Dido in a 1973 staging of Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens with Christa Ludwig as Cassandra, she instead sang both roles, not as a publicity stunt but as a late substitution when Ludwig canceled due to an illness. Verrett's dual performance received rave reviews and extended ovations, and has become legendary at the Met. In another acclaimed performance she starred as Lady Macbeth in a 1975 production of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth in Milan, Italy, where the crowds and critics called her "La Nera Callas" ó the black Maria Callas ó and every performance sold out.

She performed as a mezzo-soprano for the much of her career, in such classics as Carmen, Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, Gioacchino Rossini's The Siege of Corinth, and Camille Saint-SaŽns's Samson et Delilah. Later she sang soprano, including performances in Ludwig van Beethoven's Fidelio, Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, and Verdi's Aida and Otello.

Of course, she faced recurring racial prejudice as she came to stardom in an art traditionally dominated by white Europeans. As late as the early 1960s, she had to battle with promoters to ensure that tickets to her performances were not marketed solely to segregated all-black audiences. She was once invited to sing with the Houston Symphony, then had the invitation withdrawn when the Texans realized the "controversy" that would be caused by her blackness. She wrote of such battles in her 2003 autobiography, I Never Walked Alone, and of her rivalry and eventual friendship with another black diva, Grace Bumbry. Backstage, she was known for going out of her way to offer help and advice to younger singers.

Early in her career she performed as Shirley Verrett-Carter, but she dropped her abusive husband's name after their divorce. Her second husband, artist and writer Louis LoMonaco, created the program that was handed out at the 28 August 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. After leaving opera, Verrett taught voice at the University of Michigan until forced by illness to retire in 2009, and she died the following autumn.

[1] Broke from the Seventh Day Adventist Church upon her divorce from her first husband.

Father: Leon Solomon Verrett (building contractor)
Mother: Elvira Harris
Husband: James Carter (b. 1917, m. 1951, div.)
Husband: Louis LoMonaco (artist, m. 10-Dec-1964 until her death, one daughter)
Daughter: Francesca (social worker, adopted 1973)

    University: Oakwood College
    University: AA, Ventura Junior College (1951)
    University: Juilliard School of Music (1961)
    Professor: James Earl Jones Dist. Univ. Prof. of Music, University of Michigan (1996-2009)

    New York City Opera
    New York Metropolitan Opera (1968-90)
    Democratic National Committee
    Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

Official Website:

Author of books:
I Never Walked Alone (2003, memoir; with Christopher Brooks)

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