Shirley Verrett dies at 79; acclaimed mezzo-soprano

Shirley Verrett, an acclaimed American mezzo-soprano and soprano praised for her blazing intensity during a career that spanned four decades, died Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 79.

Verrett, one of the


of the 1970s and '80s, had been suffering from heart trouble, said Jack Mastroianni of IMG Artists, who was notified of her death by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

Born in 1931 in New Orleans and raised mostly in

Los Angeles

, where she sang hymns in a Seventh-day Adventist church, Verrett was renowned for her intense performances as a mezzo for much of her career and a soprano in her later years. During a long biracial marriage, she battled racial prejudice in a predominantly white European-centered art form, according to her autobiography.

Verrett studied at the Juilliard School in

New York

and was a 1961 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Known early in her career as


Verrett-Carter — when she was married to James Carter — she made her professional debut in 1957. A year later she appeared for the first time at the

New York City

Opera as Irina in

Kurt Weill

's "Lost in the Stars." She also appeared in the first televised Young People's Concert conducted by

Leonard Bernstein

at the

Lincoln Center

for the Performing Arts.

In 1966, she made her debut at London's Royal Opera as Ulrica in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." Two years later she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role of Bizet's "Carmen," a role she sang to acclaim at the Spoleto Festival in 1962 and in her La Scala debut in 1966.

Verrett was part of the second generation of black opera singers who followed

Marian Anderson


breakthrough at the Met in 1955. Coming after

Leontyne Price

, Verrett was among a small group of black headliners who included George Shirley, Grace Bumbry, Reri Grist and Martina Arroyo.

Verrett's Met career lasted until 1990, and she sang soprano parts that included the title roles in Puccini's "Tosca" (opposite

Luciano Pavarotti

), Bellini's "Norma" and Verdi's "Aida" and Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio" and Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello."

In 1975, Verrett joined

Beverly Sills

and Justino Diaz at the Met for the U.S. premiere of Rossini's "The Siege of Corinth" under the baton of Thomas Schippers — Sills' long-delayed Met debut.

Verrett performed


in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" at the opening of Paris' Bastille Opera in 1990 and sang Nettie Fowler on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" in 1994.

Her autobiography,

— the title echoes the song she performed in "Carousel" — was published in 2003.

Verrett joined the

University of Michigan

School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1996 and was its

James Earl Jones

Distinguished University Professor of Music when she retired last May.

She is survived by her husband of 47 years, Lou LoMonaco; her daughter; and her granddaughter.