Shirley Verrett, an internationally acclaimed opera singer and Juilliard alumna, died on November 5 from heart failure at her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was 79.
Verrett (’61, voice), who sang both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles, was born in New Orleans on May 31, 1931, and she grew up in southern California, where her family moved in part because the racism there was less overt than in the South. Seventh-Day Adventists, her parents didn’t approve of opera, and when she came to Juilliard in 1955 to study with Marion Szekely-Freschl, Verrett planned to become a concert singer. Among the many prizes and scholarships she won while still a student was the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Award, in 1958.
Verrett once said that she was inspired to pursue a career in opera after hearing Maria Callas sing Norma; years later ecstatic fans at La Scala took to calling her la nera Callas (“the black Callas”). She made her operatic debut in 1958 (in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia) and her Metropolitan Opera debut as Carmen in 1968. She went on to sing in 126 performances with the Met over the following 32 years. One of the most storied was a last-minute fill-in in 1973 for the role of Dido in Part II of Berlioz’s Les Troyens—after she had sung Cassandra in Part I. The intermission of the five-hour performance was extended to 40 minutes so she would have a bit more time to recover, and she received rave reviews. Her other signature roles included Lady Macbeth, Orfeo, Tosca, and Aida; among her champions was Leopold Stokowski. In 1994, at 62, she made her Broadway debut as Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at Lincoln Center. Her showstopper from that musical, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” later became the title of her memoir.
In 2002 Verrett returned to Juilliard to receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree.
Verrett is survived by her husband, Louis LoMonaco; their daughter, Francesca LoMonaco; and a granddaughter.