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Shirley Verrett was born on this date in 1931. She was a Black opera singer and one of the leading sopranos in the world.
She was born in New Orleans to Leon Solomon, a building contractor, and Elvira Harris Verrett; she had four brothers and a sister. She and her parents were passionate members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, an affiliation that would play a role in the development of Verrett's career. When Verrett was five, the family moved to Oxnard, CA, where her father established the Verrett Construction Company.
Verrett and her siblings were educated in Adventist schools, and for a short time, she was a student at Adventist-affiliated Oakwood College in Huntsville, AL. Although Verrett chafed at the church's restrictions, it would take a long time for her to break away. The quality of her voice was apparent from an early age. When she sang her first solo at age five, her voice sounded like that of a ten- or twelve-year-old. The family was musical; they gathered to sing religious music at home.
In 1948, when Verrett was 17, her father, who was sure of her ability to sing, encouraged her to enter a local talent competition for a John Charles Thomas Scholarship. Thomas was a popular baritone noted for his concert, radio, and film appearances and his support of young singers. One of her songs caught Thomas's attention, and he offered to pay for her to study with the celebrated singer and teacher, Lotte Lehman, at the Music Academy of the West. Verrett turned the offer down, saying she was not yet ready for serious study. This would not be the last time that she chose her own path.
At 18, Verrett married a man fourteen years her senior. The marriage lasted only a short time and would have legally ended much earlier had it not been for her church's ban on divorce. Until 1963, she combined her husband's name with hers and was known professionally as Shirley Verrett-Carter.
Verrett studied real estate law and accounting at Ventura Junior College, earning an A.A. degree in 1951, after which she began a successful career selling real estate. But she began having doubts about her career choice and sought out a music teacher in the telephone directory. The teacher she chose to train with was Anna Fitziu.
For five months, she studied intensively with Fitziu for several hours a day. Verrett also contacted the noted Black musician and choir director Hall Johnson to discuss spirituals. Johnson helped her with them but became her German teacher and worked with her on lieder singing. In 1955, Verrett won two competitions sponsored by California's Young Musicians Foundation. She also won a chance to appear on Arthur Godfrey's television show Talent Scouts in New York, on which she sang the contralto aria "Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from Saint-Saens's opera Samson and Delilah. She eventually graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
She is the recipient of many honors and awards, among them the Marian Anderson Award, the Achievement Award of the Women's Division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; fellowships from numerous foundations, including Ford; John Hay Whitney; Martha Baird Rockefeller; the Naumburg Award; and the Sullivan Award. She has received honorary doctorates from Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA, and Northeastern University in Boston. In 1970, she was decorated with the French Government's highly coveted Chevalier Des Arts et Des Lettres, and in 1984, she was again recognized with the more prestigious Commandeur Des Arts et Des Lettres.
She was a life member of the NAACP, Mu Phi Epsilon, and the Century Club. She was recently named a Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society board member. Having always loved Broadway, Verrett performed the role of Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City during the 1994-95 seasons. This production was under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, and it won five Tony Awards. It also garnered Ms. Verrett a nomination for the Outer Critics Circle Award. She was also an honoree of the Drama League.
In 1989, she and Placido Domingo sang at a major benefit concert for UNESCO in Paris to aid refugee children in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In this country, she has regularly sung at benefit concerts to raise funds for AIDS research. Verrett has also served on two White House commissions to preserve American Antiquity under the Carter and Reagan administrations. She served on the National Endowment for the Arts and on the Harlem's Boy's Choir board. In 1995, she was among the "First Ladies of Song," which was a benefit to raise money for an Eleanor Roosevelt statue. The event featured (then) First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the keynote speaker. Verrett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music as a professor of voice in September 1996.
Shirley Verrett combined beauty, intelligence, and a remarkable voice in a career in opera and recital that made her a major star. She has appeared in most of the world's principal opera houses to great acclaim, first as a mezzo-soprano and then as a soprano. Her voice defied categorization, and she would prefer to be known simply as a singer. Shirley Verrett died on November 5, 2010.
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Volume 1, ISBN #0-02-897345-3, Pg 175
Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West