Cher Public

Remembering Shirley Verrett

Shirley VerrettWhen handing out the goodies, the gods weren’t stingy with Shirley Verrett.  Few opera singers were as prodigiously gifted as Verrett:  the perfect amalgam of Kunst and Stimm housed in a frame of voluptuous allure.  In addition to an instrument of stunning natural beauty and easy range, Verrett displayed superior musicianship, dramatic intelligence and searing interpretative commitment.  

She was a real stage animal, always careful not to cross the boundaries of bad taste but still reveling in the philosophy that “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”  Parterrians are familiar with the concept of “feeling the buzz” and Verrett generated it with enough regularity that it sent us back to her performances, questing for more.  If she was not able to pull her strengths into complete alignment all the time, there were usually enough on display to make you long for the total package she was capable of delivering.

It says something about her excellence that when it was announced she was forsaking her mezzo-soprano repertoire for choice soprano plumbs, protective voices howled in protest.  “I wish Verrett would listen to plain common sense,” wrote Walter Legge.  “She is by achievement the best mezzo in the world.  She should be forbidden to sing Norma . . . I adore her as an artist, her application, natural acting ability, lovely velvety timbre, agility and brilliance.  These particular qualities are so rare in one beautiful young woman that someone should lay down the law.”

While it is generally acknowledged that she rarely scored the same kind of achievement as a soprano that she enjoyed in mezzo-soprano parts, Verrett was never less than very good—and her “good” was the equivalent of most other sopranos’ “great.”  As she ventured further and further into soprano repertoire, her once clear tone became opaque and the register breaks became more pronounced.  But I am convinced this would have occurred in any event as part of the aging process and hard use, not the fallacious reasoning that singing the “wrong” repertoire had damaged her voice.

In everything she did, Verrett was the antithesis of boring, delivering performance after performance with intense dedication.  This intensity sometimes caused her to work in overdrive but it was the same kind of nervous energy that characterized the work of Ljuba Welitsch, Leonie Rysanek, Teresa Stratas and others.  With the right directorial editing or filter on the conductor’s podium, Verrett was able to hold it all in magical balance.

In seeking to capture what made Verrett distinctive, it should also be noted that she was never a singer one looked to for soothing, comfort or distraction.  She was there to distress, to disturb, to shock.  “She electrifies whatever she touches,” Andrew Porter once wrote after a performance of Meyerbeer’s L’africaine.  “The result was exciting, but constantly tense both in timbre and in musical manner.  Better that, however, than dullness.  Miss Verrett looked gleaming.  Her tones flashed and glittered.  She was splendid.”  Electrifying, exciting, tense, gleaming, flashing, glittering and splendid:  that was Verrett in a nutshell.

In writing this, I have to admit that Verrett is not simply an artistic abstraction.  She is Shirley, the generous and classy woman I worked with years ago at New Orleans Opera.  Shirley sang the title role in Tosca there during the 1983-84 season.  We were both natives of the Big Easy.  It was her second appearance with the company, after saving the day back in 1980 by agreeing to replace an ailing colleague as Carmen on very short notice.

Shirley was a evidently a card-carrying member of the Dorothy Kirsten School of Diva Comportment, always dressed impeccably in haute couture outfits made especially for her in Paris.  She wore cornrow extensions in her hair, adorned with gold and copper beading.  From the time I picked her up at the airport in my beater car to the final farewell at the stage door on closing night of the production, Shirley impressed me with her very genuine regality.  She enjoyed being a prima donna and never had to fake it.  Everyone spontaneously sat up and took notice whenever she entered the room.  She was very aware of her worth and carried herself with the stature of a goddess.

Verrett managed to charm the entire production team through her availability and capacity for hard work.  Lighting designer Marty was impressed with Verrett’s attention to detail, no more so than when she consulted with him regarding the gel color he intended to use for the follow spots.  She explained that the unique challenges of lighting singers of color were rarely considered by designers and she never took these issues for granted.  Marty explained that he intended to use a soft, lavender color that would compliment her makeup design and costume color schemes.  At the end of the run, Marty presented her with a long-term supply of the custom gels.

Marty became increasingly fascinated with Verrett and encouraged his team to check her out during rehearsals.  The stage hands and lighting crew rarely took much note of what was going on onstage and were perfectly content to wait for their next cue by stepping outside for a cigarette, playing cards or snoozing in the theater manager’s office.  But at the piano dress, an amazing thing happened:  Marty got on the intercom system and said:  “Listen folks, no more cues till the end of the act, so I want you all to go sit in the house and listen to this woman sing ‘Vissi d’arte.’  It’s her big number and you won’t regret it.”  One by one, the crew took off their headsets, filed out into the auditorium and listened as instructed.   They were mesmerized.  At aria’s end, Verrett earned a particularly enthusiastic ovation from this gang of scruffy tough guys, moved by great singing in a way I had never witnessed previously.

As a stage manager, I came to value the importance of a singer who inspires you to work harder rather than less.  There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Shirley, including the unusual assignment of lining her entire dressing room in brown butcher block paper.  She explained that she suffered from debilitating mold allergies and thought this intervention had the effect of keeping carpet and floor dust from rising up into her breathing space.  I have no idea of the scientific validity of Shirley’s theory but if it put her mind at rest, I was happy to do it.

New Orleans Opera did not have its own costume shop and relied on rental companies for most of its productions.  These were a particular disgrace (Elizabethan collar for Tosca?) and after finishing the final dress rehearsal, Shirley calmly but firmly advised me she wasn’t wearing them.  Fine, I agreed, but what to do with only days before opening night?  Shirley instructed me to contact Charlie Riecker, an administrator at the Met, and arrange for her costumes to be shipped immediately.  These gowns were designed specifically for her and can be seen in the recently released telecast on Decca.  I felt very badly calling Mr. Riecker at home on a Sunday night but he acted as if it were the most normal thing in the world and reassured me with an almost bored casualness that the costumes would be at the theater on the afternoon of the first performance.

Shirley was fitted by the costume ladies only a short while before each act began but there were thankfully few glitches.  One problem:  the Met had forgotten to send the black velvet cape for Tosca’s entrance in Act Two.  Lori, the assistant stage manager, recalled that she had a similar cape from the previous Mardi Gras season in her apartment.  With 30 minutes to accomplish her task, Lori dashed home and returned with the necessary accessory.  The gown was trimmed in gold and clashed somewhat with the silver lining of the actual gown but the total effect was so theatrical, we reasoned no one would care.  When Shirley walked through the double doors of Scarpia’s apartment wearing a dazzling tiara and dripping rhinestones, I uttered out loud:  “Wow!”  Ecco la diva.

A few months later, I traveled to New York for the first time to hear Shirley as Eboli at the Met.  I have been blessed to hear many spectacular singers in this role (Troyanos, Bumbry, Zajcik, etc.) but none greater than Shirley.  She exuded textbook grandezza, commanding every phrase as if it had been written specifically for her.  I loved how she turned the Veil Song ornaments into the evocation of a flamenco singer’s wail.  She moved from strength to strength, culminating in an “O don fatale” of unbelievable catharsis.  How fully she delivered the ferocious self-loathing of the opening section, then profound remorse in the cantabile over Eboli’s destructive role in the drama and finally, the radiant impulse to transform evil into good that launches the “cabaletta.”  The house erupted in an ovation the likes of which I have not heard in many a season.  Backstage, she was beaming with happiness but I was also very aware of her vulnerability:  a great artist who has just bared her soul to an audience.

Towards the end of her career, I had occasion to see Verrett as Dalila, another of her signature roles.  However, she was undone by indifferent conducting and a dilapidated production.  Still, there were occasional glimpses of the temperament that endeared her to many.  As always, she was breathtakingly gorgeous.

It is hard for me to conceive of the reality that a singer as vibrant as Verrett is now dead.  If anyone might be thought an indestructible life force, it was Shirley.  I am filled with gratitude for a singer who was a fixture of my early opera going years and who shaped my sensibility and expectations of what it means to be a great operatic artist.  In the career of a singer, few are granted a true “sternstunde.”  Shirley was blessed to have many, including the following:

Les Troyens, Met, 1973:

L’assedio di Corinto, Met, 1973:

Macbeth, La Scala, 1978:

The Rossini in particular shows her at the height of her powers.  She displays an effortless trill and surprisingly facile coloratura.  The legato in the cavatina is heavenly and creates an atmosphere of repose which demonstrates she was capable of more than simply “flash.”

In words that might have been lifted right out of her autobiography, “You done good, Shirl.”  Requiescat in pace, La Verrett (1931-2010).