Monday, February 28, 2011

Jill Krementz remembers Shirley Verrett

Shirley Verrett with Julius Rudel at Metropolitan Opera Guild Luncheon on April 25, 2003.
Photograph by Jill Krementz.
Shirley Verrett
A Celebration of Her Life and Legacy

Shirley Verrett,
the great opera singer whose career spanned four decades, died in her sleep at the age of 79. Often called the Black Callas (a sobriquet first used by the Italians who dubbed her La Nera Callas), Ms. Verrett sang both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles. She performed at the Met, and on stage all over the world.

In 1994, just prior to turning 64, Ms. Verrett made her Broadway debut as Nettie Fowler in the Tony-award winning production of Rodger's & Hammerstein's Carousel in which Nettie's big moment is defined by her solo, "You'll Never Walk Alone." It was this song that she adapted as the title for her autobiography, I Never Walked Alone, published in 2003.

It was fitting that on February 23rd, a memorial service honoring Ms. Verrett was held at The Juilliard School where Ms. Verrett was once a student. Speakers honoring her life and legacy included Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, Anthony Tommasini, Chief Music Critic of The New York Times, George Shirley a former tenor at the Met and now teaching at the University of Michigan, and Plácido Domingo with whom she opened the San Francisco Opera season in 1988 in Giacomo Meyerbeer's L'Africaine.

Film excerpts of highlights of Ms. Verrett's life were shown during the tribute. In the audience, largely made up of Verrett's close friends and ardent fans, were her daughter Francesca LoMonaco, the composer Stephen Schwartz, and renowned opera singers Jessye Norman, Sherill Milnes, and Barbara Smith Conrad.
Clockwise from top left: Juilliard Commencement; Photo circa 1950s; Photo by Sedge LeBlang; 1965 publicity photo.
Clockwise from above: As Carmen (photo by Louis Melancon/Metropolitan Opera Archives); As Leonora from La Favorita (photo by James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera Archives); As Tosca (photo by James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera Archives).
Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Met, reminisced:

"I was a young assistant in the press office at the Boston Symphony when I first met Shirley Verrett. It was such a pleasure to work with her that it left me with the naive notion that working with divas was easy."

"Shirley Verrett was one of the operatic legends. When she performed in Les Troyens she sang both the mezzo and the soprano role on various occasions. She was like a switch-hitting Mickey Mantle swinging for the fences."
Warren George Wilson

"For 45 years I was pianist and coach for Shirley Verrett. We worked at her Steinway or mine. We were the closest of friends and I will miss her forever."
Plácido Domingo

"In 1969 when we met I was going to make my debut at La Scala. I was with my parents, my wife, and my small children. In a year we would make a recording together of Don Carlos.

We sang so many times together. Carmen, Samson, and every moment we had on the stage I remember as days of great friendship. It was unbelievable how she went from mezzo-soprano to soprano. She was a great artist and she made great friends.

It is destiny that the years pass by and that some of us leave too early. It's very sad that we have
lost her."
Film excerpt: "Oh ma Sélika, vous régnez sur mon âme!," L'Africaine, Giacomo Meyerbeer; San Francisco Opera, 1988; Shirley Verrett, Soprano; Plácido Domingo, Tenor; Maurizio Arena, Conductor.
Anthony Tommasini
Chief Classical Music Critic for The New York Times
Mr. Tommasini, who was suffering from a terrible cold, preceded his remarks saying that he felt that Peter Gelb should have made an announcement similar to one he often makes at the Met prior to the curtain going up when he walks out on the stage and announces that a singer is ill but will nevertheless perform and hopes for the audience's indulgence.

"And so tonight," said Tommasini, "I beg your indulgence."

He went on to say that he met Shirley Verrett when he was a student in Boston working on his doctorate (and working as a waiter). Sarah Caldwell was running the Opera Company of Boston.

"Caldwell was a waddling menace of disorder but she was a great musician and great director. She and Verrett were a great combination. I saw her in Norma three times. And as Lady MacBeth she was lyrical and classy. It was a Sunday afternoon in Boston and I can still remember when Shirley Verrett appeared in the sleepwalking scene. My other indelible memory is when she appeared with her back to the audience singing 'Ave Maria' as the achingly vulnerable Desdemona."
George Shirley sang with the Met and is now a professor of Voice at the University of Michigan. He was one of Shirley Verrett's closest friends and colleagues. They met in 1961 at the Metropolitan Opera finals and appeared many times on the stage together. Ms. Verrett was lured to the University by Mr. Shirley.

"It was my honor to recruit her to the faculty and she taught an 18-hour load. Her patrician standards were inculcated in all her students. She was one of the most regal and beautiful women I have ever known--dignity and class personified. Shirley Verrett did it her way and her legacy lives on in all those she taught. She was one of the most charismatic singers of all time."
Film excerpt: "Liebestod," Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner; Live from Lincoln Center, 1977, Shirley Verrett, Soprano; Zubin Mehta, conductor.
Alicia Hall Moran, accompanied by her husband Jason Moran, sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel.
The tribute ended with this video of Shirley Verrett singing the African American spiritual "Oh, Glory!" on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 in honor of the recently assassinated Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz
all rights reserved.