Shirley Verrett (born May 31, 1931) is an American mezzo-soprano and soprano who sings opera as well as American musical theater. Verrett has enjoyed great fame since the late 1960s and is much admired for her radiant voice, beauty, and great versatility.
Born into an African-American family of devout Seventh-day Adventists in New Orleans, Louisiana, Verrett showed early musical abilities, but initially a singing career was frowned upon by her family. Later Verrett went on to study in Los Angeles, California and at the Juilliard School in New York.
Listen to an interview with Shirley Verrett, free from National Public Radio.
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's Rasputins 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. Verrett first appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1966 as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera.
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), Amneris, Eboli, Dalila, Azucena, Leonora in La Favorita, Gluck's Orpheus, and Rossini's Neocles (L'Assedio di Corinto).
Beginning in the late 1970s she began to tackle soprano roles, including Selika in L'Africaine, Lady Macbeth, Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, Tosca, Norma, Leonore (Fidelio), Iphigénie, Alceste, Médée (Cherubini), Desdemona, and Aida.
In 1990, Verrett sang Dido in Les Troyens at the inauguration of the Opera Bastille in Paris. 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, Shirley Verrett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance as a Professor of Voice.
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.