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Posted by on Jan 16, 2012 in Articles | 42 comments

Opera and the Black Singer

This article  by the one and only George Shirley was featured back in February 2010 in honor of Black History Month.  Today, we feature it in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and hope that the legacies of such great thinkers continue to be celebrated in this country and in our art. “Free at last!”

by George Shirley

GShirleyIt took us a long time to get in. Are we looking at a fast exit? 1945 was the point of entry, a mere 65 years ago when Todd Duncan broke the color barrier with his debut with the New York City Opera, the first instance of an established opera company signing a black singer to a performance contract in America.

The intervening years have seen a steady parade of entrants into the field, and roles have gratefully not been limited to “black” characters like Aida, Otello, and Monostatos. However, I sense in today’s casting trends a burgeoning focus upon physical presence akin to that which rules in the film, TV, and musical theatre genres. If, at the time of audition, one does not by birth or surgical alteration look like the director’s vision of the character, one’s chances of being hired are practically nil.

The recent departure of Italian soprano Daniela Dessi from a production of La Traviata scheduled for the Rome Opera resulted from the director Franco Zeffirelli’s criticism of her physical size: “She is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis.” An old criticism to be sure, the same as was leveled at Sra. Salvini-Donatelli who sang the premiere of the opera in 1853. Both audience and critics, however, praised Sra. Salvatini-Donatelli’s singing. In spite of her avoirdupois, which occasioned at least one rude response from the audience during the performance, her vocal artistry carried the day. The fact remains that many of history’s greatest interpreters of the role of Violetta would have been denied an opportunity to perform the role if general managers of opera companies had prized their singers’ physiques over their ability to sing the score.

In a misguided attempt to bring “reality” into operatic production, many directors are following Zeffirelli’s lead in demanding that singers look like the director’s idea of the character even before they put on make-up and costume. This attitude strikes at the very heart of the essence of opera, subordinating the voice –the primary interest in opera– to the shallow realm of visual looks. Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner wrote for voices, not for looks. The art of the costumier, wig master, and make-up artist has historically provided the visual eye candy to compensate for whatever Nature has failed to bestow upon possessors of great voices that can sing the music. Why go for glamour over the quality of voice great composers doubtless had in mind when they created the masterworks we love to perform and hear? Do the visuals validate opera, or does the reality sought by directors live supremely within the music?

Opera is the most unreal of all theatrical art forms and, arguably, one of –if not the– most powerful. We humans don’t go around singing to each other in everyday life; thus, any attempt to claim reality in opera by insisting that performers look the part is defeated from the outset. In real life, stout people are loved by thin, and short by tall; Blacks, Whites, Catholics and Jews intermarry; criminals don’t always look like stereotypical villains. This is reality. In opera, however, sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, and basses portray characters fundamentally through singing. Their voices must be capable of meeting the technical and expressive demands of the music, and their interpretative skill must bring the music to life in a manner that rings true to life as portrayed in the musical score. The audience must consent to play its part in the game by suspending disbelief, accepting the stout Violetta with a great voice as a consumptive heroine, and the black Des Grieux as a French nobleman. Within this synergy exists the sole reality of which opera is capable.

My great concern in all the current “Hollywood-izing” of opera is that African Americans, who, after all, don’t generally look Caucasian, will now be faced with yet another hurdle to leap when the director says, “Wonderful voice, but you don’t look like Mimì or Rodolfo!” Observing the successes of singers like Leontyne Price, Simon Estes, Vinson Cole, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Denyce Graves, Lawrence Brownlee, Grace Bumbry, and Martina Arroyo, to name but a few who have made their operatic mark over the past six-and-a-half decades, I am concerned for the future of young black singers who train for operatic careers today. Do they stand to encounter a new-old barrier erected on their path, one that, although spawned from a different fish, bears the same old smell of denial of access due to circumstances beyond their control? While it is true that the reject bin created by today’s penchant for physical typecasting will not be populated exclusively with birds of dark hue, to what extent might the return of this old wolf in sheep’s clothing bode ill for the operatic future of black singers? Alternatively, might this sharpening focus on physical type provide an opportunity to strengthen the art form, expand its reach, and secure the future of operatic performance in America and globally through the creation of new works that make capital of our racial diversity?

Operas like Danielpour’s Margaret Garner and Davis’s X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X) point the way to the growth of an operatic repertoire that has the advantages of being based upon American history and representing Americans of all races in roles that range from hero/heroine to villain. If looks are becoming the driver of the operatic enterprise, then the time is ripe for composers black and white to step up to the plate and swat out music dramas that tell our story with honesty, power, and with great music that requires great singing. Casting of such works will require hiring black singers for leading roles, thus ensuring our place in the operatic sun. Let this trend become an opportunity to create opera anew in the American image, thereby giving the world a fresh and powerful operatic repertoire that reflects the best and worst of the human condition American style. Our rich heritage can produce opera libretti galore that, once mined and set to music, will ensure for every Rigoletto contract awarded to a non-minority baritone, one role of like significance assigned perforce to a baritone of color because, like that of Porgy, the role demands it.

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!

© 2010 George Shirley

_______________________________________________________________________

The black American tenor and teacher, George Irving Shirley, began music lessons at age 6, when his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. He was active as a vocalist at churches in the area and as a baritone horn player in a local band. He entered Wayne State University in Detroit as a music education major, receiving his bachelors degree in 1955. He was drafted into the military the following year and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus. After his discharge in 1959, he continued studying voice with Therny Georgi in Washington, D.C.; then he moved to New York, continuing his vocal training there with Cornelius Reid. In New York his professional career began.

George Shirley made his debut with a small opera troupe at Woodstock, New York, as Eisenstein in their production of Die Fledermaus. He then journeyed to Italy and made his European debut as Rodolfo in the Puccini opera, La Boheme. In 1961, he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions by performing Nessum dorma, beginning an eleven-year association with the house. While at the Met, he sang a 28 different roles from 26 operas, especially those of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner.

From the 1960’s to the present, George Shirley has performed on the concert stage, singing recitals and oratorios. He has premiered several works during his career, on both the concert and operatic stages. In recent years, he again became involved with education. He taught at the University of Maryland from 1980 until he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1987, where he currently serves as the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice.

George Shirley is a tenor whose voice has been known for its vibrancy and flexibility. His power and richness of sound easily filled a opera house or a concert hall.

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42 Comments

  1. Bravo!

  2. From one of our most respected elder statesmen comes an overwhelmingly truthful essay. Thanks, George, for telling it like it is.
    We are blessed to have you in our singing lives. PEACE!

  3. George, I always knew you were extraordinary, but this article proves it all over again. I feel, too, that opera is being “Hollywood-ized”, as you call it, and nowhere is that more to be experienced that on the HDTV transmissions. Which reminds me, only once was there an African-American tenor, Lawrence Brownlee, to be seen! I don’t care, personally, if one’s skin is green, or if he/she weighs 300 lbs., as long as they are vocally believeable.

    I’m keeping your article for future reference.

    Cheers,
    Carl

  4. This was truly inspiring and there were so many great points made! Thank you Mr. Shirley and operagasm for sharing!

  5. While I appreciate the article in the end opera is a dying art if we cannot entertain the audience with believable casting. We have to make the audience want to come back and see reality- not suspend imagination just to hear a glorious voice. I recently watched the PBS special on the National Council Awards and while there was glorious singing the size of the performer detracted from her overall impression of being cast in the role. Sad to say but we are a society obsessed with size.

  6. It is indeed fitting and timely for this provocative and visionary article to become a part of the literature when institutionalized bigotry and racism have again become within American society openly acceptable and fashionable.

  7. Right on, George, as always. I heard that in previous years,the Met put up a screen in front of the person auditioning(perhaps it was only for chorus auditions), and would view them only after they had sung.Not a bad idea , I think! I fully agree about voice being of primary importance in opera, but Netrebko and Garanca can’t help being stunners! For the decision makers it’s always a trade-off. No one said a career in music isn’t difficult, and the preparation daunting , but there are no guarantees. Simplistically put. It is what it is. George, you’re the best of us. Mallory Walker

  8. Thanks George for your insight and eloquence. How about adding age as another factor which is often a barrier? Visual elements are an integral part of opera productions. I maintain, the bigger the opera house, the older and heavier the singers tolerated. I hope that there are good role models for singers of all races these days. You certainly are one of them!

  9. As always George, you are top notch. The article is exemplary in every respect.! I will never forget the thrill I had when I heard you sing “Nessun Dorma” at the Met Audition. I listed on stage and when Osie Hawkins came over to see me, I asked him, ” Who is this magnificent artist.?” he said “Names George Shirley, our audition winner, for sure!” And I had the priviledge to share the stage with you as Daland in “The Flying Dutchman”.God Bless you always, dear friend. Giorgio

  10. Terrific article, George. But I’m afraid I cannot accept you in the role of an elder statesman. You’re younger than I am.
    Happy to be your old friend,

    Charlie O.

  11. Hey George, my brother. What a way with words! It has been the greatest pleasure to know you throughout the years, first in Santa Fe in 1963, when you said you were gonna break my legs if I didn’t stop singing so beautifully…then a day at your house in Upper Montclair…I’ll never forget those electrostatic speakers you had then, must have been ’70 or ’71…and you staying at our house in Graz, ’78 or ’79 and lately at the Army Chorus reunions. And you just get better… God has blessed us with you…Thank you, George….love ya man!

  12. This article is balanced and well-thought out, which is par for the course when it comes to George Shirley.

    Those who try to make Opera a reality experience simply do not understand what makes the art form work. As one who has had experience from the points of view of singer, director and conductor, from those vantage points, I concur with Mr. Shirley. Directors who are obsessed with lookism are often not competent to deal with the dramatic possibilities of the musical elements.

    Only a few days ago, I saw a singer at the Metropolitan Opera that no one would pick as a model of Hollywoodism. Her more svelte colleagues on stage were left in the dust because her voice dominated the house all night.

    The voice in Opera is the conduit of emotion and dramatic subtlety. Those who argue for Hollywood style looks in favor of the voice do not understand that a supermodel without a voice is the equivalent of a mannequin on an operatic stage, for the simple reason that the operatic actor has to do acoustic battle with an orchestra.

    When looks is accompanied by a voice that can win that acoustic battle, then no one will begrudge a Hollywood like body onstage.

    It is a serious problem because looks is being considered first and the simple fact is that looks without voice is not viable when there is an orchestra in the mix.

  13. I love this article and its very true.. the same is to be said for singers with larger voices.. Opera in America has a lot to work on for the future and for those of thus that love it we are getting more frustrated by the type casting that is happening and the lack of opportunities for rare and unique voices that first brought our attention to opera IN THE FIRST PLACE.. I for one get very upset when i see productions and the leads are mediocre but because that mezzo looks like a “carmen” she is cast.. I applaude YOU for this article.. I look forward to reading many many more..

  14. I certainly applaud and validate this, for I’ve thought this for years. I’m so grateful that Professor Shirley has now stated this and pray that it does not fall on deaf ears – not only in the African American community of singers, but in the minds of agents, managers, opera music directors, conductors, AND, opera administrations and board members.

  15. Thank you for bringing up the subject which has always existed for African Americans in Opera. The trailblazers, yourself included, have thankfully opened doors for others down the line. Voice first, second and third is what it should be. However, we need to do our best to level the playing field by keeping ourselves physically worthy of the stage in the current atmosphere.

    That having been said, our best singing artists need to step forward with complete preparation. Their talent and commitment has to be so superior that non recognition would be as if it were as ‘Sin’.

  16. Well put Mr. Shirley. I find it ironic that opera producers and directors who make their living creating the “unreal” world of opera suddenly want singers who look computer generated or airbrushed a la Hollywood in a shallow attempt at “reality”. This sudden demand for “realism” is simply a cheap and easy attempt to provide people who don’t really care about music, great voices, opera, or anything else with “eye candy”..

  17. Thank you, George, for your eloquence. While I am excited by and applaud the industry’s efforts to use the new technology to invigorate opera and reach new audiences, I am also concerned about the trend to select singers based on looks rather than vocal prowess. Your advice for up-and-comings to be “ultra prepared” and your challenge to American composers to get to work setting the stories of our rich diversity are right on the money.

  18. A very nice article; I enjoyed reading this a great deal; thanks for this well-written and expressive piece. The truth “must” always be shared in order for one/all to fully achieve and progress in their chosen fields, especially in knowing/realizing things that are often beyond one’s control. And, no matter the circumstances may be/ barriers and etc., one should always asipre to do their” very best”, as Mr. Shirley has done!

  19. I have never heard or seen the issue stated so eloquently as has been done by Mr. Shirley. “Lookism” is just another form of bias, destroying the possibilities of hearing wonderful voices in less than perfect vessels on the world’s operatic stages. I hope our younger singers listen, learn, and keep striving. Thank you, George; my eyes are brimming.

  20. What George has written is so very true. I have experienced that problem on a much lower level. You would think that you could be given a chance to AUDITION for an opera company’s chorus, especially when they HIRED you the year before of course to do Porgy and Bess. I sent in my picture and resume to audition for the next season…Audition DENIED.

  21. Mr. Shirley, it was an honor and privilege to study with you at UoM and now the rest of the world can benefit from your brilliance as so many of your students before..Bravo for a very well written and insightful article

  22. I’m out of the opera business by choice, but this piece rings true with what I observed years ago. Thank you, Mr. Shirley, for articulating it so winningly. I particularly like what you have to say about barriers; it applies in so many areas of life, not just singing.

  23. Wonderful, simply wonderful.

  24. Mr, Shirley, thank you so much for always being a “trumpet of conscience” in the opera and classical music game. It has been a supreme pleasure having been your student and friend. Your article articulates what so many of us who have left an opera career behind were either unable or ashamed to say for fear that it would make us seem less than a fighter. After so many stone walls, you come to realize that you still have to eat and prepare for your future so, you move around it or, as in my case, beyond it.

  25. Dear Old Friend George:
    This battle can never be won until you are no longer introduced as a “black” tenor, but just simply – tenor. I think the struggle has changed since the old days and you have rightly recognized that it has passed into the larger issue of a media driven society only recognizing visual values. Ironically, when there were no TV close-ups in large opera houses, there was less excuse for bias. I think the answer is, as always, to be found in education. Young people these days seem to be less prejudiced than ever before, but their taste in music is just God-awful! The public needs to be educated to love the sound of the human voice in all its glorious potential regardless of what the body that produces it looks like. Keep up the good fight, Warrior George!

  26. Hi George,

    Your career is a wonderful example of how African American Opera Singers should know the realities of the challenges we face and press through whatever happens. Thank you for spelling it out so clearly. If we have the gift, we must pursue our destiny. I appreciate this article and hope those who really need to read it will and take heed. There is nothing that can substitute beautiful singing. I pray that doors will continue to open for us because we need to be heard also. Love you, Detra.

  27. Wonderful read and as an african american male i certainly enjoy opera and have recognized the very absence to which you speak so eloquently speak.It appears there is a need in this country in some major city for there to be an opera house developed that focuses on this very subject.The singers signed to this house would be many of the very ones outcasted whose voices are wonderful.And people who look like them need to be in charge.Many in the public who go to opera performances too buy cars and watches etc that are advertised in opera bills.Hint

  28. Several years ago, I was singing Puccini’s opera, “Le Villi”, with a very wonderful black tenor, Larry Thomas. His rich ringing voice was every bit as Italianate as any great tenor you can name, and I commented that he should be a superstar with such a voice, such musicianship and looks. What he said next shocked me. He told me very candidly that it will never happen because the ladies on opera boards don’t want to see his big black lips kissing those blonde sopranos. No problem if it is the other way around, but not black men kissing white women. Those who give money to support opera are really to blame. They control things financially.
    Larry is a very black man with ebony skin. He is tall and handsome and very African in appearance. I was shocked at his words…but he was dead serious. He has since quit the opera business. I will never forget that comment. It made me feel very sad.

  29. George Shirley has never been a man of color … George Shirley is a very colorful man who, by the way is “colorblind”. I have never heard or seen George act or react with envy, jealosy, disdain or any other negative emotion vis-a-vis anyone, white, black, brown, yellow or you-name-it! George has always been the supreme artist, student, colleague, gentleman and regular guy, friend, buddy, always ready to help someone else. But … I know a lot of white, black, brown, yellow, you-name-it so called artists who love to knock down anyone and everyone, because “they know” they are better than the other guy or gal. George is the epitome of the “nice guy” and has taken all the highs and lows in his life with grace and thankfulness. We all need to be like George … we need to refrain from our snide remarks and simply do the work required and blame no one but ourselves. We need to search for that “light” that we see in George Shirley emanating like a beacon and get it shining through ourselves and then will we see the so called injustices melt away. I learned much from my friendship with George Shirley; and many of you who have read and will read George’s article need to focus on the second- to- last paragraph which begins with “To young singers who desire careers”, and commit this to your entire beings! This is what I tried to do during my career; this is one of many things I learned from George Shirley. Can you imagine any tenor singing the “Duke”, “Don Jose” and “Don Ottavio” equally beautiful and character perfect? I was there at Santa Fe and had the great honor to witness George Shirley do precisely that. Thank you, George for making my life more meaningful. David Hall Sundquist

  30. My, my–not only do I have the privilege of reading your wonderful and timely article, George, but also the gift of seeing the comments of several whom I deeply respect, Giorgio Tozzi, my idol from 52 years ago, and Charles Osgood, and others.

    Best wishes, George!

  31. I was so pleased to read this thoughtful, honest, articulate article. We as teachers, professors, singers, writers, and educated people – everyone, in short – must do all that we can to break stereotypes and to create opportunities for our performers, in all genres. Thank you, George, for your viewpoint!

  32. Mr. Shirley,

    Brilliantly expressed, as per usual.

  33. Excellent article.

    A person’s color should NEVER matter if the voice is good. And, we forget that there were noble folk of color and folks intermarried in the past. It’s becoming even more acceptable in this day. I love hearing good voices of all races.

    While a person’s color or ethnicity cannot change, a person’s weight can. It really couldn’t hurt for a singer to lose a few pounds. Let’s face it: it’s just not healthy to be overweight. It’s more feasible to see a singer of color die of consumption than a singer who is 100 lbs overweight. They don’t have to look like a swizzle stick, but, well, come on, make it at least a bit plausible.

  34. George,
    A beautifully thought out article. Each age of opera has its inequities and resulting frustration. Similarly, when its seems we have managed to rise above one prejudice and move on to deal with others, such prejudice rises again in different form. How Biblical! How operatic! Hopefully, your calling our attention to this ridiculous activity will refresh awareness and point us again to what is essential in this art form. George, if you don’t mind I will forward this to your colleagues, members of The American Academy of Teachers of Singing. I know they would want to aware of such a finely pointed statement of a concern dear to all of us. Gratefully, Jan Douglas, Chair, The American Academy of Teachers of Singing.

  35. The point of theater is to create the illusion of reality, not the reality itself. This can be done in a variety of ways, but when it comes to Music Theater, the voice is paramount, whether in opera or even, to some extent, in musical comedy. As George Shirley points out, the make-up artists and costumers can do a great deal to cover for physical attributes that may seem to work against the creation of the proper impression. But when directors begin to demand that the visual reality be considered more important than the aural reality, we begin to force opera to compete with film, TV and even legitimate theater in their ball parks instead of emphasizing that which makes it unique and vibrant, and such a path is what will cause the death of the art form.

  36. Dear Professor Shirley,

    What a timely and eloquent article! I know that I speak for all of your former students when I say that having you as a professor elevated both my singing and my moral and spiritual development. You have always approached the field of singing with your whole self: heart, mind and body. You have been a model for so many of us, and your insightful comments must be taken as a guide as we move forward in a world enriched by the beautiful diversity of the human race.

    Janet Youngdahl, Alberta, Canada

  37. Bravo!

  38. Thank You Mr. Shirley for your thoughtfully expressive insight on this subject. As we say in Spain, “tus palabras pesan mucho.,” (your words carry a lot of weight), after all, you’ve lived it. Your words are eloquent and pertinent. We are so lucky to have you as a Statesman. I have to agree with you, honing one’s talent must be the essential assignment in opera. Looks are important, but it’s a long night at the theater if the voices aren’t well trained and the acting is suspect. When I choose to see a Meryl Streep film, I assure you it’s not because I’m preoccupied with her weight. I go because she is very talented and gifted at her craft. Thanks for validating my sentiments on the matter. All the best!

  39. Mr. Shirley,
    A friend just emailed me you erudite article. Superb. A musician (graduate, Oberlin Conservatory of Music) in voice, piano, and music history, I have thought for sometime that physical typecasting would prove to be another way to deny exceptional Black operatic talent to be seen and heard. It should just be voice, voice, and more voice to be considered. When one looks at the singers hired by the MET, most do not fit the physical characteristics of the role being sung. Our singers must persevere, be exceptionally prepared to the degree that to deny a place on the stage is simply ludicrous and insane. Continue to speak out, continue to inspire our young singers, continue to believe that “right” will always win over stupidity and ignorance.

    Sharon Dobbins in Memphis.

  40. Mr. Shirley,

    Thank you, once again, for all that you represent. to your generation of pioneers and those who follow along the path of opportunity that you helped prepare via your diligence, persistence, and faith.
    A wonderful article, indeed. The final paragraph should be a mantra, one to be memorized, particularly by young up and coming artists. It bespeaks the necessity accept truths/realities. It encourages the tapping into one’s inner Strength Source, whereby we ultimately find hope and victory.
    God bless you.

    Jeff Hairston

  41. Thank you Professor Shirley for expressing in words what I have experienced myself. Many auditions I have participated in, I was told that my voice was excellent but that I did not look the role. I was told bluntly in Switzerland when I auditioned for Iago that it is not a black role. I explained that Othello is a black role but that whites regularly performed in black face. I also attempted to point out that for the audience the irony of the only other black face on the stage would be Othello’s betrayer was lost on the panel.
    Again thanks for bring to light something that has been too long hidden

  42. Bravo. You are so on point. What you have beautifully shared is that we– progressive minded people of all colors– who support opera must come together, be both visible and audible that casting for “visual beauty and realism” is in fact for many a coded message. We are called to create coalitions with the Laszlo Hallasz’,the Gotz Friedrichs’ of today and the future who give agency to the voice, the quality of the composers’ music, not a reality tv paradigm that says NO to you because you do not fit ‘my ideal’.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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