Prima Donna Absoluta!
Shirley Verrett Anointed Audiences with Her Magic
A Magnificent Diva Departs the Stage
I will never forget the performance by Shirley Verrette which I attended in London during the Christmas holidays in 1981. I hadn’t really wanted to go because it was my twins Samori and Makeda’s first Christmas. Nevertheless I had to fly to London on the 27th, because I was trying to put together a boxing match for the Undisputed Middle Weight Championship of the world between the champ “Marvelous Marvin” Hagler, and challenger “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Olympic Gold Medalist and Undisputed World Welter-Weight Champion. I had to be there because all of the potential investors would be in the city on holiday.
Just Before Departing for London
As it turned out my London host Mr. Henry Faulkner, head of the Euro-Investment Group, was an Opera lover and told me about the great African America Diva who was performing the title role in Saint-Saens’s Sampson and Delilah. I knew of Ms. Verrette’s work but I had never seen her perform in person. So I groomed and decorated myself to the height of fashion, smoked some high grade Sensimillah bud imported from the mountains of Humboldt county in Northern California, and proceeded to the theater to witness Ms. Verrette make her magic. On this occasion she was performing with the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet at the elegant Covent Garden; it was a magnificent production where nothing was spared in terms of sets and costumes. Ms Verrett appeared onstage in an African gown, exquisitely tailored for her voluptuous curvaceous physique, and she wore her hair in the au natural Afro style.
I thought she was stunning! When she began to sing the beautiful passionate aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” in that wondrous voice that seemed a special concoction of the God’s when they were trying to outdo each other, I was captivated from the first note. As the opera unfolded it turned into a sexy colorful spectacle whose visual extravagance greatly enriched the musical offering and Ms. Verrett sang with such deep spiritual power and sheer sonic beauty she seemed to metamorphose into the Yoruba Goddess Oshun, as she touched our souls with her singing.
She sang with the hypnotic power of the Sirens in Greek mythology whose voices could send men willing to their doom. But I saw only life in its highest expression in this noble Africoid songbird, and my spirit danced to her song. I imagine it is this charged feeling that permeates the concert halls where she sings that the critics are referring to when the speak of Ms Verrett’s “blazing intensity.” The audience showered her with love and applause throughout the performance, and in the end they gave the cast a standing ovation…yet I could not escape the feeling that the ovation was really meant for Ms. Verrett.
If Shakespeare was right and “all the world is a stage,” Shirley Verrette has played every corner of it. As one of the great classical singers of the twentieth century she was in demand by producers of Grand Opera around the world. A beautiful woman with a prodigious gift, Ms. Verrett sang the Mezzo and Soprano repertoire. She was at home in the most difficult roles in the literature of classical European music, performing the works of great composers in German and Italian, from Mozart and Wagner to Puccini, Verdi and Bizet. By any measure this is a great accomplishment in its own right for anyone. Yet it was especially impressive for an African American woman like Ms. Verrett.
Given the Darwinian character of the Opera world in general, which is filled with highly motivated well trained ambitious singers who have practiced and studied for a lifetime waiting on their chance to finally get on stage, it is twice as hard to get a shot when an artist also has to overcome a racial caste system, in which their talent and preparation is premptorily discounted because of the color of their skin. That’s what Ms. Verrette faced at the beginning of her career, but she believed in her talent and forged ahead. It is impossible to know how many outstanding black classical singers just quit rather than face the unfairness of it all.
Many of these classical musicians made careers teaching in African American high schools and colleges, passing on their knowledge to the next generation in the hope that their students would one day get the break they didn’t. I heard many of them as a boy; they seemed to be everywhere. We even had an all black Chopin society. My Aunt Marie was a pianist, organist and choir master. Plus there was a black college in my town that was privately owned by the Baptist convention. And there were some excellent musicians on campus, so great musicians who played and sang the literature of European classical music were commonplace.
Some of the most gifted artist simply left the racist nightmare in the USA and made careers in Europe. This is what singers like the great contralto Marian Anderson – of whose voice the Italian Maestro Aturo Tosconini said “is heard once in a century!” – did as she concertized in Scandinavia where her artistry was lionized. But in Ms Verrette’s generation black female classical singers began to break through and others continue to follow.
One could argue there were no greater classical singers of the last half of the twentieth century than Leyontine Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo (who is Afro-Puerto Rican ) and Ms Verrette. The generation of African American Diva’s who followed them – like the great dramatic soprano Jessye Norman and the mesmerizing coloratura Kathleen Battle – held to the elevated standard they set. Some people say that the reason these artists are so super is because they knew they had to be better than their white counterparts; everybody in their community kept telling them they had to be “twice as good.” Dr. Condoleezza Rice attributes this attitude as a major motivation for the kind of spectacular achievements she attained, as does General Daniel “Chappie” James and many other African Americans who did outstanding things in spite of the tyranny of the racist white majority.
Soprano Leontyne Price
In the title role of Verdi’s Aieda
Since Opera is musical drama it is not enough to be merely a great singer, one must also dramatize the role, get into character so to speak. In this Ms. Verrette was also superb. In her 1968 debut at the Metropolitan Opera – the summit of the Operatic universe – in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen,” Allen Hughes, the New York Times critic, seemed as impressed with her as I was thirteen years later. “”She is good-looking, and she has a beautiful voice that moves smoothly from low tones to high and plays around freely in the treacherous middle without audible shifting of vocal gears” he gushed. “She also has an attractive stage manner and personality. She laughs easily and convincingly, flirts beguilingly and registers changes of attitude and feeling without hamming or posing.”
A high compliment indeed from a first rate opera critic, but then Ms. Verrette was not only richly gifted by the muse of song: she was also very well trained. By the time of her maiden voyage at the MET, Ms. Verrette had studied voice at the Prestigious Julliard School and won the much coveted Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She had wowed the crowds at the Opera Mecca’s of Europe such as Italy’s Spoleto Festival, where she first performed Carmen in 1962, and in her 1966 debut with the Royal Opera in London, she sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” i.e. “At The Masked Ball.”
In spite of the racism she encountered early on Ms. Verrette kept her eyes on the prize and won the world with her personal grace and gift of song. Although I am an avowed atheist, I believe if there is any such thing as a divine force in the world then great music is the voice of the Gods. A pagan by sensibility and choice, if I were to believe in a divine force it would not resemble the grim and angry God of the Semitic monotheist; there would many Gods like the Gods of my polytheistic father’s fathers. Gods who loved wine, song and women just like me; in whose image I am cast. And there would surely be goddesses, because from what I have learned from my daughter Makeda’s investigations into the subject, the Goddess’ are enchanting; hence I am certain that I would bask in their beauty, power and intelligence, just as I have done with their mortal sisters ever since I first began to notice them as a young boy and fell hopelessly in love with my piano teacher. Thus in my Pantheon, or in any culture that practice Goddess worship, Ms. Verrette and her sable sisters in song would all be Goddesses.
I even know some devout Christians that believe a gift such as theirs can only come from God. They believe that no amount of training can elevate the merely talented to the height of artistic excellence we hear in singers like Ms. Verrette and the other Divas mentioned here. This was made clear to me on trip to Florida not so long ago. I was talking to my boyhood friend Gerald Hammond, himself among the musically gifted. In fact, Gerald was from a musically gifted family like the Marsalis Family or the family of Hubert Law’s.
Gerald lived next door to me and all five siblings played musical instruments well, some were multi-instrumentalist and the all sang like a band of angels, including the mother and father, who were church musicians. throughout the day I heard strains of Shuberts’s Ava Maria, or snatches of a Chopin Polinaise, or some thunderous passage from John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” playen on the brass. All five children won full music scholarships to Florida A&M, which was much coveted in those days by gifted African American musicians all over the nation – Africa and the Carribean too - and competition for them was steep. Anyone who has heard the world renowned musicians Julian and Nat Adderly perform will know the quality of artist the program produced.
I had returned to the beautiful old Spanish Town of St. Augustine Florida – the oldest and easily the loveliest city in North America – for the Easter holidays and I discovered that a beautiful young black lady was scheduled to sing at the town’s Easter Sunrise Service held downtown on the magnificent Castillio de San Marcos. Such a thing was unheard of in the racist city that I fled many years before. When I found out that the young singer also had a degree from Julliard, I was shocked that she would be singing in Gerald’s choir at St. Paul’s AME Church, where he was Minister Of Music.
When I asked him why she was not in New York plying her trade in the big time, since black Divas were dominating the operatic stage, he said that while she was beautiful, talented and well trained: “she does not have that gift from god that all truly great musicians must have.” And since Gerald was not only a great singer – a powerful basso profundo – but also a brass player, he told me as a matter of fact: “Wynton Marsalis is a Julliard dropout, but he is changing what we previously believed was possible on the trumpet. That’s because he dose have that gift from God!”
Ms. Verrette certainly has that gift from God that Gerald was talking about if there is any such thing. But if you are a believer in things divine just listen to Ms. Verrette’s rendition of Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate,” and her duet with the marvelous Wagnerian Dramatic soprano Grace Bumbry. The worst crime of our media, schools and churches is that these women are better known to European audiences that to Americans…including African Americans alas! Yet no finer example of the talent, dignity, elegance in style and manner, of American womanhood exist. Ms. Verrette represents the best in African American culture; the exaltation of excellence, and respect for the intelligence and work it requires.
Grace Bumbry: Wagnerian Soprano
Prima Donna Absoluta
The world of music will surely miss this great artist and fine lady, who spent her reclining years as a professor of Music at the University Of Michigan, one of America’s wealthiest and most influential institutions of higher learning. The beautiful little college town of Ann Arbor was an excellent place for her to spend her final years, ensconced in a community of pedagogues and their eager students. Ms. Verrett had many valuable lessons to teach beyond music; like how to go forth and make your way in the world of men without ever losing that feminine touch; how to make female intelligence and prowess sexy. Fortunately for us, through the alchemy of You Tube we can watch her perform forever!
A note to African American aspiring opera singers
‘To young singers who desire careers, I say, “Be ultra-prepared.” In studying, build perfection in layers. Solidify your vocal technique; master every detail and nuance of every language you sing in; know the score as perfectly as the conductor; develop your interpretative ideas from the score and libretto so that you don’t arrive at the first rehearsal an empty vessel waiting to be filled; in sum, don’t give anyone a legitimate opportunity to criticize any aspect of your artistry. A tall order? Yes, but not impossible! See to those things you can do to become competitive, and don’t sweat the petty stuff!
Barriers of one sort or another will always be players in this game; given this verity, one must determine to destroy, go around, go over, or go through them in order to realize one’s potential and live the life one is given. Under no circumstances should one throw in the towel until life itself dictates it must be done; until such time, my advice to young singers of color is to pursue your dream come hell or tsunami!”
World renowned Afro-American Tenor
Distinguished Professor of vocal Music
University of Michigan
Colleague of Shirley Verrett
Videos Of Some Of My Favorite Performances!
(Click the video onto full screen for best viewing)
Double Click to see Shirley Verrett
Double Click to View Ms. Verrett in Performance
Double Click for Marion Anderson
Double Click for Ms. Bumbry
Double Click For Ms. Price
Double Click For Jessye Norman
Double Click for Kathleen Battle
Double Click For Martina Arroyo
Double Click For Don Shirley
Harlem New York
November 9, 2010