Shirley Verrett – Artistic Versatility at its Penultimate Best

Shirley Verrett
Artistic Versatility at its Penultimate Best
by
Brad Kronen

 

When one has an admired idol in an art form one is pursuing, you cannot help but feel an artistic kinship upon discovering the two of you share similar astrological traits.  Not only was the legendary opera singer Shirley Verrett born beneath the same sign as myself, we both had our Gemini Sun placed in the 11th House and opposed by our 5th House Moon. Even more significant, the two of us shared identical “markings of destiny” by us both having an Aries North Node/Libra South Node polarity positioned in the same 9th and 3rd respective Houses. With that level of karmic compatibility it only makes perfect sense in retrospect what a pivotal role Shirley Verrett played in my musical life, first as a budding opera fan and throughout the course of my singing career as an operatic tenor.

How I first discovered the world of opera along with the voice of Shirley Verrett was oddly enough when a death occurred in my immediate family. In the fall of 1986 when I was 18, my father passed away. While helping my mother go through his things I came across my father’s collection of classical records. Among them was a series of vocal compilations entitled “The Voice of Firestone” which ended up being my first introduction to that larger than life musical landscape otherwise known as Opera.

A little over a year after my father’s death, I ventured out to the only art film theater in the near vicinity to see a movie whose one word title alone piqued my curiosity. A foreign art film entitled “Aria”.

 

What shifted my gears of operatic passion from 1 to full throttle 5 was hearing the film’s soundtrack which at one point had two women singing back to back, starting with the very lowest of the female register, or contralto, to the very highest range of the human voice otherwise categorized as coloratura soprano. The juxtaposition of the vocal line from the bottom of the female range to the top does not occur in sequential order in the original piece from which both were taken. The display of extreme vocal dualism was sequentially spliced due to the artistic liberties taken by the director in order to emphasize the immense diversity of vocal range within the art form of opera. The two snippets were taken from an opera that would end up being my all time favorite, Giuseppe Verdi‘s “Un Ballo In Maschera”, in English “A Masked Ball“.

 

The lower of the two female vocal  pieces eventually gained the distinction of being my all time favorite aria.  Called the Witch’s aria, it’s a vocal piece written for the contralto role of Ulrica.  And the singer I first heard performing Ulrica on that art film’s soundtrack was none other than, you guessed it, Ms. Shirley Verrett.

 

Little did your author realize with that first hearing of the Witch’s Aria how the piece would eventually come to represent my unofficial work anthem, given what I ended up doing for a living would involve the regular use of my portentous perspective of prophecy, or if you REALLY want to take all the dramatic fun out of describing it, I can predict the future and junk just like Ulrica says. The lyrics of the Witch’s aria go as follows:

“Nulla, piu nulla ascondersi
Al guardo mio potra
Del suo tremendo amplesso
La face del futuro!”

“Nothing, but nothing is witheld
From my gaze,
The tremendous embrace of
The Face of the Future!”

 

Even a 3rd rate magician could have seen it coming that the first opera recording your author would  purchase on his own would be a boxed set of Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera” with the same cast of performers who sang on the film soundtrack of the art film he and four other people in total had just seen.

Not surprisingly, Brad made his first investment to begin building his own opera record collection when he purchased the complete RCA Victor recording of “Ballo” the following day after seeing that long forgotten art film, “Aria”.

It was with buying my first opera recording of Verdi’s “Ballo” that I noticed one of the cast members’ names sounding familiar for some strange, driven-by-kismet reason. Grabbing one of my father’s “Voice of Firestone” records, I was pleased to make the connection that a singer by the name of “Shirley Verrett” appeared on both my newly purchased recording and was also listed on the roster of vocal soloists in my father’s record collection where she sang the dramatic mezzo-soprano aria, “O Mio Fernando” from Gaetano Donizetti‘s opera “La Favorita”.

 

My head over heels love affair with both opera and the voice of Shirley Verrett had now simultaneously taken flight, propelling me to eventually look into voice instruction for myself, which, in turn, led to my singing career as a professional operatic tenor.

 

The First Generation of African-American International Opera Stars

Shirley Verrett was a trailblazer. She belonged to the first generation of African-American singers who forged their own international careers within that branch of classical music otherwise known as opera.  The majority of this generation of black opera singers which included such noteworthy vocal talent as Leontyne Price, George Shirley, Grace Bumbry, Paul Robeson, Reri Grist, & Martina Arroyo made their singing careers during the tumultuous 1960’s and 70’s in an art form associated only with the wealthy elite of white society.

 

Shirley Verrett’s stunning voice not only achieved fame and glowing accolades but also the sternest of criticism from both fans and critics alike when she began performing some of the most vocally demanding roles written for both the soprano AND mezzo-soprano voice.

 

In the opera world, you simply ARE your voice type, or “Fach“. Switching voice types is almost never done, and if this next to unheard of vocal shift actually does take place, more often than not a singer is either in the dawn or twilight of their operatic career.

 

True to Gemini form, Shirley Verrett switched voice types in the middle of her singing career. Why? She had become bored interpreting the mezzo-soprano repertoire, which for the most part consisted of roles where one played either a dude (better known as “pants parts”), the lead soprano’s quirky best friend, or the doddering but suffocatingly smothering mother of the lead tenor.

 

The mezzo-soprano whose dark, seductively compelling interpretations of “Carmen” and “Dalilah” were considered the best of her generation was now a soprano. And not just any dime a dozen, run of the mill, lyric variation of the highest register of the human voice, Verrett tackled some of the most fiendishly difficult soprano roles ever written; vocally shredding parts that were formidable due to their combinations of fast moving florid lines, skyscraper high notes, and dramatic darkness of tone, all of which the Gemini artist possessed in vast reserve.

 

Voi Siete Demente?

By far, Shirley Verrett’s greatest transitional triumph into the soprano repertoire was a role greatly admired and feared for its difficulty of vocal production and dramatic display – Lady Macbeth in Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic homage to Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”, Macbeth.

 

Lady Macbeth is the epitome of duality twistedly transformed for the self-serving intent of murderous manipulation. The psyche of Macbeth’s cheerleading-for-murder spouse juxtaposingly splits: in public, she can rouse the patriotic fervor of her people in a banquet drinking song, while in private, she can rouse her mate into being the cause of untimely death not just for his loyal colleague but also for the victim’s immediate and extended family members as well.

 

In the opera’s Great Hall scene, Macbeth, now newly crowned King of Scotland asks his Queen to welcome their subjects to their celebratory feast with a drinking toast where Verrett’s voice is then heard brightly beaming with enthusiasm. My favorite line of the opera (actually it’s my favorite only when Shirley does it), is while in the middle of this largely attended banquet Macbeth has a seizure-like panic attack after screaming aloud that he cannot be seated due to the specter of his freshly murdered royal competitor Banquo taking the liberty of seating himself at his throne. Horrified and mortified her hubby has just unraveled in front of a full house with his public display of guilt, Lady Macbeth approaches her profusely sweaty prostrate husband and asks “Voi Siete Demente?” “Are you demented?”

 

In the 1979 Deutsche Grammaphone studio recording, Verrett makes this inquiry under her breath but the question is spiked with a “Just you wait til I get you alone” intensity.  She literally hisses the question at her husband with a hushed tone of seething rage.

 

Shirley Verrett’s performances of Lady Macbeth made audiences delirious with her chameleon-like dramatic ability to show the juxtaposing sides of the female lead role’s power-starved psyche. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the composer’s homeland of Italy. Verrett’s Lady Macbeth was so well received at La Scala, the Milanese dubbed her with their own triumphant title of dualistic distinction, “La Nera Callas”, “The Black Callas” (Although between you and me, in my humble opinion that singer’s Lady M pales in comparison to Shirley’s masterful interpretation of the role).

 

Fach Off!

When Shirley Verrett switched fachs from mezzo-soprano to soprano much of the opera world didn’t know what to think since hardly ever did a singer make such a drastic transition while still in their vocal prime.  One can only assume the constant hemming and hawing from those associated with such a pristine art form that got shaken up over the slightest bit of change must have worn out La Verrett over time. I made this presumption after walking along the fountained plaza of Lincoln Center one day in the late 1980’s to observe banners being newly put on display along the cultural center’s entire perimeter which stated in big bold letters:

 

“SHIRLEY VERRETT – SINGER”

 

To which I murmured aloud, “What vocal coglioni!”
(If you’re not sure what that foreign word means, good.)

 

Through those simply worded banners, Shirley Verrett was telling every nay-sayer in the classical world in no uncertain terms to Fach Off.

 

To Fric One’s Frac

La Verrett’s defiance of being pidgeon-holed through vocal categorization as well as her bravery to boldly jump into treacherous artistic landscapes were the deciding factors when I was presented with my own operatic dilemma back in my day as a professional singer. I was cast in the role of Lambertuccio in a comic opera by Franz von Suppe called “Boccaccio”. Since this piece was rarely performed on stage, the production I was in was generating a lot of buzz, so much so, we were told a number of press people would be attending the dress rehearsal before the show opened 2 days later. At 3PM on the day of the final dress rehearsal, I received a phone call from the conductor who opened the conversation with “Kronen, how good are you at improv?”.

 

Going by the intense tone in his voice, I assumed this wasn’t a parlor game.

 

My character in this opera was part of a Fric/Frac combo, where we were on stage next to each other for most of the time, singing in tricky 2 tenor harmony. I can remember almost responding without thinking “Well, I AM a Gemini, we’re naturally equipped for that sort of thing.” The conductor then proceeded to ask me forthright if I could sing the other part for the dress rehearsal, the role of Lotteringhi, since the tenor singing the role had just gotten into a car accident and my understudy was being contacted to sing my part.

 

This meant I was being asked to perform a role I had never looked at before, with a full 40 piece orchestra AND in front of a live audience, where I would be singing in lower harmony against the music I had already learned and committed to memory. I didn’t even know if I would fit in the other guy’s costume (I did, except for the shoes, grrrrr.)! The conductor’s last portion of grim tidings before ending the conversation so that I could ponder every possible factor of ever mounting pressure was to let me know that if I didn’t step in to sing Fric to my Frac, the dress rehearsal would be cancelled.  And if that occurred there would be no way of informing any members of the press until they physically arrived at the theater, which would, in effect, tinge the reputation of the entire opera company…..No Big Operatic Whoop, right?

 

Then, from out of nowhere, an image of La Verrett came to me…..

 

Wonder Gemini Twin Powers, Opera-ate!

The date was October 22nd and the year was 1973.  It was the Premiere Performance of Hector Berlioz‘s epic opera, “Les Troyens” “The Trojans” being staged for the first time ever that night at NYC’s Metropolitan Opera. Shirley Verrett was singing the soprano role of the mythic prophetess, Cassandra, whose part spans the first 1/2 of the 5 hour 30 minute opera. On the afternoon of the premiere’s opening night, Shirley was told her co-star, the German mezzo-soprano, Christa Ludwig, had suddenly fallen ill and would not be able to sing the opera’s other female lead character, Didon, Queen of Carthage, who takes over the 2nd half of the show. Having already sung the role of Didon back in her mezzo days, Shirley Verrett dualistically dove in, singing both the soprano and mezzo parts in that evening’s performance.  Being physically on stage for nearly 5 hours, the art form’s most versatile artist elevated NYC’s premiere of “Les Troyens” to the stuff of operatic legend.

Remembering this vocal feat which made operatic history was accomplished by a fellow Twin, I agreed to sing Fric to my Frac. With score in hand, wearing an unaltered costume with badly fitting shoes, I managed to perform the dualistic dilemma with a grand total of 3 mistakes.  When that stressful dress rehearsal was finally sang and done, yours truly was placed on the shoulders of fellow cast and crew members as everyone cheered in a standing ovation of great excitement and even greater relief.

Thinking from the perspective of La Verrett, I treated my own highly pressure filled vocal event as if just another day’s Mercurial work for the Gemini singer.

 

Black Don’t Crack

Your author was given the glorious opportunity of hearing his vocal idol perform live. It was Valentine’s Day, 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC and Shirley Verrett was singing the very first mezzo role she fully performed on stage in the late 1950’s, the Biblical hussy and girlfriend you did not want touching your hair, Dalilah. Little did I know this would be La Verrett’s final year to grace the stage of the Metropolitan and her 2nd to last role she would ever perform.

 

Shirley was singing opposite the Sampson of singing colleague and good friend, Placido Domingo. Their dynamic together on stage was electrifying and what I remember most of Shirley’s performance that night was how ALIVE and PRESENT she was on stage. In the scene where Dalilah agrees to betray Sampson by cutting off his hair, she joined upraised hands with the head high priest as the curtain came down for intermission. It was here Shirley threw her head back and maniacally laughed out loud, the sound of which could be heard slightly past the closing of the great stage curtain, her character was so sardonically inspired to deceive the mighty Hero.

 

That mid-February night in NYC was positively Arctic, yet I was determined to meet my Gemini vocal idol no matter the sub-freezing temperature. Thus I waited in a line outside the stage door in the viciously bitter cold with a bunch of other mentally deranged New Yorkers who called themselves opera fans. Placido Domingo soon emerged, the superstar tenor displayed his reputed good nature and unassuming kindness by speaking with every fan and signing every piece of paraphernalia screamingly placed in front of him before making his mannerly exit.

 

Time passed. And some more time. New York opera fans are known for being tough as nails, but not this night. Almost all of them decided to leave since waiting in the dead of winter accompanied by an unusually brutal Arctic wind sweeping down the snow hardened streets of Manhattan was simply too much, even for the likes of them. It all came down to just me and a 72 year old fan of legendary repute, a Jewish woman named Lois who possessed 3 heaping bags of opera paraphernalia and had the aggression of a starved pit bull with a toothache when it came to keeping her prized position of now being the first in the receiving line, when the stage door opened.

 

Nothing could prepare me for the striking vision that had just presented itself…..

 

Shirley Verrett was a sight more glamorous than any Hollywood A- list movie star could ever hope to achieve. She emerged from the stage door dressed in a sleeveless, body fitting evening gown made entirely of black crushed velvet with a half cape mink stole draped over her shoulders and her hair was completely swept back and went straight up into a dramatic spike on the top of her head, clasped at the base by a diamond encrusted broach. As if that wasn’t brain anurism causing enough, the diva looked at both of us, saying, “I am so sorry to have taken so long my dears, I have to make an appearance at a formal dinner and need to dash. Lois, darling, so good to see you again!”

 

Dashing or not, Shirley proceeded to sign EVERY single 3 bagged item Lois forcefully placed in front of her, while graciously conversing with the intimidating opera fan. Even while this transpired, I didn’t have enough time to recover. Ms. Verrett then came to me saying “Aren’t you brave to wait in the cold like this.” To which I tried to say “Good evening, Ms. Verrett.” but all that could be heard coming out of my slackjawed face was “Guh”.  The woman must have been quite used to this incomprehensible reaction of gibberish her god-like presence must have repeatedly caused since she signed my program without hesitating followed by asking me if I enjoyed the performance (to which I could only flail my head up and down, which was the closest thing to a nod I could pull off given my incapacitated state of star struck fan shock).

 

The operatic goddess then wished Lois and myself a lovely evening before being ushered into her limo by her driver who proceeded to make their way to a formal dining engagement in the clouds where Princes, Kings, and Presidents awaited La Verrett’s illustrious presence (or so Brad whimsically imagined).

 

What rendered me the gibberish emoting mess I was that night was of course the overall vision of sheer beauty that was Shirley Verrett, but in particular, her luminescent skin. I met the operatic great when she was practically 60, and I had never before seen such flawless skin! I was relating this to my voice teacher the next day, a dear woman with a heart of gold and the mouth of a truck driver who also had an impressive operatic career of her own and was herself, African-American named Betty Jones, to which she said “Honey, Don’t you know? Black don’t crack.”

How could I forget?

 

La Verrett’s Final Curtain

Jumping further ahead in time with the locale instead being the City of Angels, a friend dropped by my home with a good friend of his he wanted me to meet. His last name was Verrett to which I said “the person who made me a singer has the same last name, Have you ever heard of Shirley?” As a matter of fact, he had.

She was his aunt.

I didn’t even respond. I simply went into the next room and snatched the first 10 or so CD’s that had Shirley’s name in the title or cast listing. I must admit, it was amusing to see the same slackjawed reaction from Shirley’s nephew when he saw just how serious a fan I was, that his aunt had garnered from me when I was in her presence. He stated that his aunt and I simply must get together the next time she was in town visiting him.

 

But twas not to be. The cycle of Shirley’s magical influence in my life ended in the same way it began, with a death in my family. My brother John died at the age of 47 in October of 2010. Two weeks later, Shirley Verrett died on November 5th. The next day I began to peruse the flood of on-line write ups that celebrated my vocal idol’s career and life story along with the numerous expressions of deepest sorrow and gratitude from her countless fans from around the globe. A goodly portion of these condolences were dated the day following Shirley’s death, November 6th, the same date my father, the owner of those old vinyl records that were to be my first exposure to the world of opera and the glorious voice of Shirley Verrett, had died.

 

The cosmic circle of Shirley Verrett’s influence in my life was made complete.

 

Shirley Verrett sings Lady Macbeth’s “Sleepwalking Scene” in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” in the composer’s hometown of Milan at La Scala, November, 1976.

 

 

With deepest admiration, love, and thanks for your incomparable artistry.
Shirley Verrett
May 31st, 1931 – November 5th, 2010

 

 

 

Brad Kronen has written a large variety of astrological books ranging from its role in historical events to astrological dating guides for each sign of the Zodiac.  For a complete listing of  Brad’s books go to amazon.com or click on the link listed below:

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=brad+kronen&i=stripbooks&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

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