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).

  • NYCOQ

    Excellent Enzo. Cetainly better than the TT tribute that I assumed would be on the front page of the NY Times. It made the front page of the Arts section though. I saw her perform as a teenager in the 80’s and I was FLOORED. you truly described all of the characteristics that made her one of the greats.

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    Thank you for this Enzo! I particularly loved the paper bags on the floor!

  • A wonderful tribute. Thank you, Enzo! I was particularly moved by the story of the technical crew listening to her “Vissi d’arte”.

  • Camille

    Enzo adorato —
    what a lovely and appropriate remembrance of this rare artist.

    The wonderful photo used above perfectly captures one of the things I so admire: her stance while singing. It’s the way a true diva stands.

    To my ear, Mme. Verrett was not a soprano, nor a mezzo--in spite of those El Amor Brujo low notes!--but a picture perfect example of a falcon voice, the true type that Eboli and Suleika were written for and hence her great success in incarnating these roles.

    Thanks very much for helping us all to deal with this by way of your loving thoughts about your friend. It has always been a pleasure to read you in Parterre. I wish you still posted as frequently as you once did.

  • operaman50

    Enzo, …. nothing left to say, … you said it all. A glorious tribute to a glorious artist.

  • Will

    A superb and very human-oriented tribute to w woman with whom I was honored to have spent two complete days with on two occasions. You’ve captured her perfectly.

    The lighting gel you speak of is officially called Special Lavender. It is the only gel I know of that can be used for every tone of human skin of any race and look good on all of them, which is particularly important with today’s colorblind casting. There have been many beauties on the opera stage in my time (mid-50s to now and continuing) but in my mind she was the most beautiful and elegant of all.

  • phoenix

    thanks very much Mr. Bordello …

  • Enzo, that was just gorgeous.

  • “Correction: November 6, 2010: An earlier version of this article misspelled the phrase used by Italian opera fans to describe Ms. Verrett. It is La Nera Callas, not La Negra Callas.” [NYT]

    • manou

      …and in any case if it was ever used it would have been “La Callas Nera”.

    • armerjacquino

      Reminds me of the wonderful caption in the July 2010 edition of OPERA magazine:

      ‘Ben Heppner in the title role of Jake Heggie’s ‘Moby Dick”

  • rommie

    was the Macbeth telecast not of the prima of the production in 75??

    • Belfagor

      ….with the endless applause after ‘Or tutte sorgete’ during which she managed to stay in character for an age……quite overwhelming…..

      • She’s really remarkable during that ovation — mesmerising!

  • papopera

    Sorry to hear she died. I cherish deeply her L’Africaine from San Francisco. She was a true & rare falcon.

  • orestes

    A grand tribute to a very grand singer. Thank you. And thanks for your efforts in New Orleans -- I was a regular at the opera there from ’80-’97.

    For my money, her performance of Lady Macbeth is hard to beat, gorgeous and truly chilling in its ferocity. The audience reaction is stupendous, too.

    O.

  • Thank you Enzo- what a wonderful tribute to a very great lady and magnificent artist.

  • SilvestriWoman

    Beautiful memorial -- thank you!!!

    You are so right about the buzz. As I’ve posted earlier, at SFO back in the 70s, when she stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Azucena, tickets for those two performances became hottest get in town. The only other occasion that matched it was Domingo flying in literally at the last minute for an Otello opener in the 80s.

    Shirley was truly divine.

    • Belfagor

      A friend of mine was in New York and happened to catch a Sutherland Trovatore at the Met, and Shirley Verrett was the unexpected -- and rather starry substitution -- for Azucena -- this would have been late in their careers -- about 1990, I think. I chewed my nails to the quick with jealousy. She was apparently incandescent.

  • marcello52

    Happy to see a fitting tribute to Ms. Verrett. I have never seen her live so perhaps my opinion of her is slightly bias as she always sounds perfect in both live and studio recordings. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Verrett for her contributions to my world of opera. I have had so many great operatic listening experiences courtesy of Ms. Verrett and hope to have more. I am always guaranteed a committed performance and an artist who was one with the music. I communicated with Ms. Verrett several years ago via email while she was on the faculty of Michigan. She was ever so gracious and helpful. Rest in Peace Ms. Verrett. For the short time you had on earth, you gave so so so much to the world.

  • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

    Than you, Enzo -- that was a lovely tribute.

    I was sorry not only to hear of her death but also to learn that she had endured ill-health during her final years. Condolences to her family in their great loss.

    The Times of London prints her obituary today. They mention that in Met Opera terms she did not have a good time of it in the Bing days and fared rather better after his departure. In-house politics interest me as they do many Parterrians -- maybe I’ll get my hands on her book and see what she has to say about all that.

    • richard

      Re Verrett and Bing’s Met, I remember reading an interview with Verrett in the early 70s, she stated that a lot of theaters wanted her for Amneris and Eboli and she really didn’t want to sing either role, it was too much of a battle with the orchestra. I’m not sure, but she may have also objected to being cast as Carmen everywhere.

      I don’t recall her mentioning the Met in this context but that’s certainly the rep that Bing cast her in, her first five years at the Met she sang the three big Verdi mezzo roles and Carmen. Nothing else. She started appearing more often after Bing left.

      She really did seem to ditch Amneris but still sang Eboli from time to time, I always thought that the role was almost ideal for her.

      And her Azucena was terrific, Verrett went hog wild with Azucena’s frenzy.

      But certainly after Bing’s departure she sang more often at the MEt and in much more varied rep. One of the things I saw her in was Bluebeard’s Castle. I didn’t know the work at all and the performance sort of passed over me without leaving a trace. I often wonder what it was like now that I appreciate the piece more. But I was certainly very happy to see more of Shirley, in Troyens, Siege, Norma, dialogues, and so on.

      • Belfagor

        She is very candid in her memoirs about her hot-headed-ness, realizing ruefully that walking out on her exclusive RCA recording contract was a mistake (they had just done the Price/Karajan ‘Carmen’ and weren’t going to do another, no matter how celebrated he Carmen was in the early 70’s). Which is a shame, as she never recorded a studio Azucena in her prime, she may have been Amneris on that RCA ‘Aida’ with Price -- and what a shame she was not on hand in the mid 70’s to put her prime Norma’s and Tosca’s on disc.

        Also in the memoirs, she mentions cancelling a crucial ‘Norma’ at the Met, due to her allergies and not taking a personal phone call from Levine, after which relations got very chilly……..

        Plus, her follow-up to the stellar Macbeth at La Scala, after which she was offered a 5 year contract, turned down for family stability reasons, was as Amelia in ‘Ballo’, presumably at Abbado’s urging….not really a role for her, possibly not enough dramatically to get her teeth into -- though the live recording available has some thrilling moments.

    • Enzo Bordello

      From Stephen E. Rubin’s THE NEW MET IN PROFILE, “A Met Star at Last: Shirley Verrett”

      Small wonder Shirley Verrett is fond of sayig her REAL Metropolitan Opera debut occurred in October 1973--when she blew everybody’s mind by singing a historic marathon performance of both Cassandra and Dido in THE TROJANS. It wasn’t until then she really made it big in this town, although she had formally come to the house in 1968. Actually, the black mezzzo first hit the long, rocky road to the Met in 1961 when she was invited by the Bing administration to sing less than stellar contralto parts in Wagner operas. Furious with what she considered the insulting idiocy of the offer, Miss Verrett flatly turned them down . . .

      How she likes to do things is with panache, as a star turn, and that’s why the stubborn and often hotheaded singer turned down a second offer from the House of Bing--again because she considered it unsuited to her talents. Warned, however, that three strikes means out, she finally came to terms with the Met and made her debut there in 1968 as Carmen.

      “When I talk about the Bing regime, it’s really unfair for me to say that they were terrible because there were instances when they tried to be lovely, and at those particular moments I would say the wrong things,” the mezzo reports. She cites meetings with the management when they would offer a part--such as Giulietta in THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, hardly a star vehicle--and, instead of politely saying she would think about it, Miss Verrett would then and there firmly nix the proposition. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even give them the time of day,” she continues. “Then it would almost be ‘get Shirley Verrett week.’ And then it was suggested that I sing at a gala they were having, there were people very high up in the administration who felt, ‘she’s not one of us.’ Robert Herman (former assistant manager under Bing) was one of these men. He would try to bend over backwards to be lovely, except that I always felt it wasn’t truthful and that used to get to me. Those eyes of his, ooh.”

      Aside from the displeasure over the repertory offered her, Miss Verrett also dislike the way Bingians did business and ran the company. “I used to sing and DASH, because I couldn’t stand the atmosphere,” she recalls. “I treated them very badly with a feeling of joy inside, except that it doesn’t make for a great relationship with people. I stayed away from the house for the last few years of Bing because I was hoping to come back and be part of the new regime, whom I really do truly love as people. But if it hadn’t worked out with them either, I would said forget it. I would not go to a lot of trouble again just to say I’m singing at the Metropolitan.”

      • Camille

        Just have got to express my appreciation once more for your tribute to Mme. Verrett. It was just the right thing
        at the right moment and helped us all.

        Please do not be such an infrequent guest here, enzo adorato, for I have always adored your essays and remember you fondly from the first days of parterre.

  • Are Grace Bumbry’s thoughts anywhere to be found online?

    • Bianca Castafiore

      Why do you ask? Why not ask about Horne, Domingo, Vickers reactions to her death? They were her colleagues too.

  • Here’s the Sleepwalking Scene from that legendary La Scala Macbetto.

    • pernille

      Haven’t been able to wash my hands these last few days without hearing “Una macchia ” in SV’s fabulous incantation. Thanks for the post.

  • memyselfandi

    Does anyone know of any tributes on radio, podcast etc?

  • givonnaj

    I am so glad to find this article. I was in the New Orleans Opera Chorus for the Tosca she did here. She was amazing to me personally. We had a long afternoon talk in her dressing room after the final performance. I was just in the process of writing an article myself. I will refer people to this one as well.