At 87, opera pioneer George Shirley continues to mentor students, perform

Traveling into the night nearly 70 years ago to audition for the US Army Chorus, George Shirley, a Wayne State University graduate who would become New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s first black tenor, had no guarantee that he would be admitted.

Shirley, who served in the army in the 1950s, could sing but still. The choir had no black members. This has never been the case.

After arriving with two friends from Wayne State in Washington, DC, Shirley remembers waiting until after her audition. And wait. Thirty minutes later, he got the word: he had been accepted, making him the first black man to be admitted to the choir. He had to wait so long because the conductor had to call the Pentagon to get approval to admit him.

“He said, ‘We’ve decided we’d like you to join us if that’s what you really want,'” Shirley recalled. “I said, ‘Sir, if this wasn’t what I really wanted, I wouldn’t have traveled all night to get here. “”

It’s just one accomplishment in an extraordinary life full of accomplishments for Shirley, now 87, who takes the stage this weekend and next week at the Detroit Opera for her production of the Puccini classic. , “Bohemian”. And yet, none of this was planned, insists Shirley, who lives in Ann Arbor. He believes a higher power has made his way and he just followed it.

“I believe I’ve had the career I’ve had in order to share with young people what I’ve been able to learn from the great musicians and colleagues I’ve worked with,” said Shirley, who still teaches booming opera. part-time students at the University of Michigan.

Still, he says he couldn’t think of his pioneering role or the pressure that came with it during his career. Along with being the Met’s first black star, he won a Grammy for his recorded rendition of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and the National Medal of Arts, presented by former President Barack Obama.

The pressure “was there but I couldn’t think of it,” said Shirley, sitting in a conference room at the Detroit Opera offices before a rehearsal last week. “I couldn’t afford to think about it. I could only afford to think about doing my best with what I was given.”

Detroit audiences will have the chance to see Shirley on April 2, 6 and 10 as part of the Detroit Opera’s “La bohème”. Shirley won’t sing but he will act as the narrator in the production which will have its own unique twist under the direction of artistic director Yuval Sharon.

Shirley never imagined herself an opera singer. The Indianapolis native who moved to Detroit as a child with his parents wanted to be a Detroit public school music teacher. He began his career as a teacher, but eventually took a detour after being drafted in the 1950s and joining the US Army chorus.

In 2015, Wayne State graduate tenor George Shirley received the 2014 National Medal of Arts in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Wayne Brown, president and CEO of the Detroit Opera – who met Shirley while in high school in Detroit; “He walked on water. I was amazed,” he said – calling him “an amazing individual and artist”.

“To have such an incredible performer appearing on opera stages around the world for so many years is an affirmation,” Brown said.

Brown said when he met Shirley he had no idea what it would bring to her personally, the art form, Detroit and beyond.

“And to this day, he continues to nurture young talent and he’s such an inspiration to the young – and the young at heart,” Brown said.

Shirley has fond memories of “La bohème”, calling it one of her favorites. He said he performed it in his first opera season in a small company in Woodstock, New York.

“It was a small theatre, about 200 people, no orchestra, two pianos. We had no choir. The company was made up of seven singers,” he said.

The following summer, Shirley won a competition which took him and other winners to Italy to make their debut, where he again performed “La bohème” as Rodolfo. It was his first experience in Italian, and the company was shocked that he sang without a prompter, which he had been trained to do.

Critics later said the pronunciation of Italian was excellent, “the highest praise they could have given us – that we respected their language enough”, Shirley said.

After her success in Europe, Shirley returned to the United States to win the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1961, with a performance of “Nessun dorma”, according to Opera Wire. He then spent 11 seasons at the Met, 28 of them at the top. roles in 26 operas. In the 1960s he appeared on stage more than any other tenor.

He has also made appearances at the Royal Opera House, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and Scottish Opera.

In the 1980s, Shirley and his wife moved back to Michigan so he could take up a position at the University of Michigan. A former director of the vocal arts division of UM’s School of Music, Theater and Dance, he retired in 2007 but still teaches some classes.

He is also working with his daughter on a book about her life. Yet he insists ‘none of this’ was planned when looking back on his career.

“The intelligence that made me gave me a script when I was conceived that I followed,” Shirley said.

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George Shirley

Age: 87

Residence: Lives in Ann Arbor

What’s Next: The pioneering opera singer, the first black tenor with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, will perform as ‘The Wanderer’ in Detroit Opera’s ‘La bohème’.

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