A Farewell to Shirley Verrett
Shirley Verrett was one of those enigmatic singers whose voice defied labels, and because of that, she earned the one that I would think pleased her the most: not Diva, or Goddess, but simply SINGER. Sometimes, the easiest labels are the hardest to earn…
Shirley Verrett was born in New Orleans and by the age of 33 she had already conquered stages on both sides of the Atlantic, a feat that she would continue doing for the nest 3 decades in an ever expanding list of roles that just like her, defied expectations and surprised everyone.Triumph she did, and on she went trailing her own path and taking no prisoners in her way.
Shirley Verrett had a voice of unique quality, and that voice allowed her to to triumph is roles that seemed polar opposites. After starting singing roles more associated with the mezzo-soprano and contralto voice, she gradually took on roles that kept getting higher and higher; until there was no mistaking it, Sopranos beware, there was a new player in town. The rules were not the same for a long time, to the enjoyment of the audience and the despair of sopranos the world over.
This switch still inflames passions on both sides of the opera divide, mainly because we like our singers, specially our female ones to fit neatly into the niches that we believe there are: Soprano, Mezzo & Contralto. Eventually Verrett sang all of them, in some she was just magnificent and in some, well, she ruled.
Long ago, I came to realize that the French had it easier and better when they apply a very esoteric label to singers of the Verrettt mold: Falcon. The label, born out of the career of Marie Cornélie Falcon is applied in France to female singers who ride the divide of the Soprano-mezzo line. Their voices sit right in between, with a definite soprano coloration, but sometimes the extreme high notes are not there, or not for long.
So, just like the French, I made peace with the fact that Verret’s voice defied labels and I applied one myself. After all, if the French use it, why not me? For me, Verret was not merely a mezzo or a soprano, she was a Falcon; and like a falcon she soared to heights mezzos could only dream of; and she visited depths many sopranos would give a right arm to visit. In all of that, she walked, jumped and danced on a tight rope with no safety netting and no balancing stick. Proving that she had the spirit and the balls to do it, always with a smile on her face. If we needed proof, well, how about the high D she nailed at the end of Act I of Norma in Boston.
Verrett, unlike many sopranos who claim to be able to but ultimately fail, was able to sing just about everything. She sang a very sexy Carmen, a hair rising Azucena (“The best I saw” was how my friend Ronizetti described her), a dignified Leonora in La favorita and Fidelio. In time she was an equally successful Tosca, a touching Desdemona, Alceste, Cassandra and Didon (the last 2 sung on the same night at the Met). But it was both her a sinister Lady Macbeth, and the scorned Eboli the roles that will forever define her. In these 2 roles, so seemingly different that she showed what a solid belcantista she was.
As the years passed by she continued to defy preconceived notions and as if thinking she had something to prove she continued to alternate polar opposite roles, like Amneris and Aida; and to tackle ones that people would not associate with her voice or temperament, but even in those she proved them wrong; like when she sand Desdemona, a role not associated with women of a certain “temperament” but she sang it just as beautifully as anyone else.
Her solid technique allowed her to sing roles from Gluck, through Rossini, to Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, she even tackled Broadway, in a production of Carousel! In concert, we even got to sample several might-have-beens when she tackled Dich teure Halle and the Liebestod, making us wish she had sung at least Venus and Isolde; one because she could and the other because she WAS such a beautiful woman, how could a tenor wish to leave her presence?
The wonderful thing about Shirley Verret is hat she was active when artists were still receiving recordings contracts and when fan were willing to risk anything to capture artists in performances; and houses willing to turn a blind eye without calling the copyright police. Thanks to that we have a treasure trove of both commercial and live recordings in which to bask in her artistry and her generosity as a performer.
Any savvy internet surfer should not have problems finding performances both to download and to purchase with this irreplaceable artist. Like a 1991 Trovatore with her as Azucena and Kabaivanska as Leonora. Or a 1972 Verdi Requiem with her singing the mezzo part and Martina Arroyo singing the soprano part. Or a 1984 Don Carlo that has her Eboli competing for the love of the Carlos of Giulianno Cianella against the Elizabetta of Montserrat Caballe. (Hear ye, hear ye! Like Turandot’s riddles, this one 3 parts it also has; and just like Turandot’s, you will not win if you do not answer all 3). Even the generous people at Opera Depot are offering a free download of her as Lady Macbeth
As her career drew to a close and the accolades and farewells rained on, she turned her thoughts on those early years and how hard it was for her back then. A flame to pass on the knowledge grew into a full fledged and all consuming fire. In 1995, at the National Opera Association Gala Banquet and Concert honoring Mattiwilda Dobbs and Camilla Williams among others, Verrett had said: “I’m always happy when I can speak to young people because I remember those who were kind to me that didn’t need to be. The first reason I came tonight was for the honorees because I needed to say this. The second reason I came was for you, the youth. These great people here were the trailblazers for me. I hope in my own way I did something to help your generation… ” This passion materialized in 1996 when she joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music as a Professor of Voice.
I will leave the last words to a dear friend, we’ll call her IndyMary out of respect to her privacy. IndyMary was one of those people who drank from Shirley Verrett’s fountain of knowledge and she learned the news shortly before I send her a quick email. I asked IndyMary if she would like to write some words about Verrett to help me eulogize her and in the middle of the hustle and bustle that her days are, she left it all on the paper and I want to share it with you, dear readers and with her, even if in spirit. Take it over IndyMary:
She was so generous to her students, often to the extent that she would show up to staging and music rehearsals for the opera so she could give you notes. Incredible. She was so focused on the health of singers and great technique and was so committed to learning how to communicate that in her teaching. I loved her energy and valued her advice as a seasoned performer and communicator.
She started teaching in the fall of 1996 and I started at Michigan that Fall as one of her first students. I treasure the time I had with her and the gems of instruction and advice I keep with me and use today. A Diva of supreme talent, committed teacher, warm-hearted, spit-fire of a woman whom I will miss.
We should be so lucky to be remembered this way. And so with that, there is only one thing that is left to say:
Thank you Shirley Verret. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.