Saturday, November 6, 2010 'Shirley Verrett, Opera Singer of Power and Grace, Is Dead at 79'

[TOP: Shirley Verret in Verdi - Macbeth; Deutsche Grammophon (1979); BOTTOM: Shirley Verrett in 1973 in “Les Troyens.” (Jack Manning/The New York Times)]
Published: November 6, 2010
“Shirley Verrett, the vocally lustrous and dramatically compelling American opera singer who began as a mezzo-soprano and went on to sing soprano roles to international acclaim, died Friday morning at her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 79. The cause was heart failure after several months of illness, said her daughter, Francesca LoMonaco.

“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 Negra Callas (the Black Callas) and flocked to her every performance. Her Lady Macbeth is preserved on a classic 1976 Deutsche Grammophon recording, conducted by Claudio Abbado. And in the early 1980s, she was so popular in Paris that she lived there with her family for three years.

“In the early days, like black artists before her, she 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 would not allow a black soloist to appear. To make amends, a shaken Stokowski took Ms. Verrett to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Falla’s 'Amor Brujo,' which led to a fine recording.”

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