Shirley Verrett: “Opera Singer of Power and Grace”

Classical music is heavily derived from European culture and it differs from other genres from its beginnings because of the fact that it was more often notated which in turn created scores. These scores detail the way in which each piece is meant to be sung very thoroughly. Therefore, when singing these pieces, there is not very much room in how it is meant to be sung but the beauty of creativity comes in how one’s voice executes each song through style and vocal ability. Shirley Verrett is one of the many African-American women who has had a successful career in classical music and also made a way for others to follow her as well.

Shirley Verrett is an African-American mezzo-soprano who was able to also take on soprano roles because of her vast range. She grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana but very much so hated the segregated south. She grew up in a religious home who didn’t believe that classical or popular music was appropriate so it withheld Verrett from tapping into that genre at a young age. Her parents wanted her to pursue concert music such as Marian Anderson but Verret was not interested in that genre at all. She married at eighteen and went into a career of real-estate by twenty-four which she immediately realized she hated. She then left her marriage and pursued singing as a career.

Verrett went on to win a Television Talent Show called “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts”. She was discovered by an esteemed voice coach from Julliard and was given a scholarship in order to attend the school. From there, her career began to flourish as she was able to participate in roles thanks to Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price who had recently paved way for the young African-American community to be able to engage in opera music and roles.

Verret sang many pieces by Verdi but one of her major roles is known to be that of Princess Eboli, who is an aristocrat in court in “Don Carlos”. “Don Carlos” is known to be a five-act opera based on the play “Don Carlos”. The role was originally written for one soprano who decided not to continue while Verdi was composing the opera and then finished the opera with another soprano in mind. Shirley Verrett was able to sing both styles and sang it beautifully and with grace.


The song is known to be a very difficult mezzo-soprano song and is often never sung without at least a small bit of strain but Shirley Verrett is one of the few singers who has been able to execute the song as intensely as Verdi wanted. She was respected and adored for being able to sing in such manner and is highly regarded in this aspect.

Even though she had an inconsistent voice due to health issues, she was still able to amaze audiences all around the world and had many fans because of this. I believe Shirley Verrett is an amazing mezzo-soprano and is one that young African-American woman can aspire to be even to this day. She details her life in her book “I Never Walked Alone” about her battle with her voice and how she fought against it so many times and ended up being one of the most highly acclaimed African-American mezzo-sopranos in the world.

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