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 top opera singers 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 Shirley 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’s 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 Dido 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, “I Never Walked Alone” — 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.