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November 6, 2010

Opera world loses another beloved star: Soprano Shirley Verrett dies at 79

The news of Shirley Verrett's death Friday at the age of 79 comes as the opera world is still mourning the loss of Joan Sutherland. Miss Verrett, ill for several months, died in her sleep in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she had lived and taught since 1996.

The singer gained fame first as a mezzo-soprano with an uncommonly lustrous tone, but she moved into the soprano realm with equal success, defying predictions that her voice would not survive the transition. Opera fans debated the matter anyway, of course, but no one could doubt Miss Verrett's commitment to anything she sang.

Beautiful, even regal, Miss Verrett delivered a combination of refined musicality and dramatic power that earned her comparisons with Maria Callas. Her contribution to the operatic art, and to the removal of barriers against African American singers, will long be honored and treasured.

I thought this live, richly expressive performance of

the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" would be an appropriate way to commemorate such a consummate artist:

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:37 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Thank you so much for recognizing Shirley Verrett at the time of her passing. It was once said that she possessed the most beautiful mezzo-soprano voice in the world. Thinking about sheer beauty of timbre, a good argument can be made for this position. And--Oh!--she could put a hurt on a phrase. Thanks again.

And thanks for that wonderful image about putting 'a hurt on a phrase.' TIM

I love her voice, and I know that she absolutely opened doors and inspired many African American opera singers. I wish I could have seen her live, but never had the chance. The richness of her voice and her life are missed.

Another great singer lost to death, sad day...

Shirley Verrett was a great singer, but I must disagree with the comment that she "moved into the soprano realm with equal success". She had some success as a soprano, but she was one of her generation's greatest mezzos and it as a mezzo that she will be best remembered. Certainly her Norma and Tosca were successful, but many of her performances in the mezzo repertoire were on a higher level altogether and could stand comparison with any mezzo of the century. Her Eboli recording under Giulini was incredible (although bested, in my opinion, by her live performance recorded in Vienna with Correlli and Ghiaurov), and her two video recordings as Dalila (one with Vickers, one with Domingo) are, IMHO, unsurpassed.
One of the greatest Carmen recordings I know features Verrett with Domingo, Te Kanawa and Van Dam under Solti, live from Covent Garden. And she enjoyed one of the greatest personal triumphs in Met history when, at the Met premiere of Berlioz' Les Troyens, due to the illness of the scheduled Dido, she performed both that role and her scheduled Cassandre. Alan Rich wrote in New York Magazine "Shirley Verrett, who sings both the Cassandra and, ... Dido, has for herself a stunning triumph in both roles. She is glorious to behold, and her luscious, pliant voice is at this moment in prime estate. The range of moods she must encompass during the long evening, the flaming passion in the melodic lines Berlioz invented for both of his heroines: these are incredible challenges, and Verrett has met them in a way that has to rank as one of the great personal "tours de force" in the company's 90-year history."
She also triumphed as Azucena in Il Trovatore (a broadcast from the Met with Mc Cracken and Scotto is especially treasurable), was a fine Adalgisa to Sills (on record) and Caballe (at the Met) before, only a month after her final performance of a run with Caballe, she assumed the title role on the Met Tour. Not to mention her triumphs in The Siege of Corinth and La Favorita Probably her finest soprano role, Tosca, was captured on a Met telecast opposite Pavarotti, just recently released on DVD. There really has been no one, IMHO, of her quality who has stepped up to the roles of Eboli, Carmen and Dalila in the current generation (although Zajick has been a fine successor as Azucena). May she rest in peace.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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