If there is one person who can be credited with opening the doors for modern black tenors it would have to be George Irving Shirley, a remarkable man of remarkable firsts who balances his joy of performing with a joy of developing talent in others.
Currently the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan, Mr. Shirley, known as one of opera’s most versatile tenors, has enjoyed a trail blazing international career in music.
Born in Indianapolis on April 18, 1934, George as a four year old joined his mother Daisy and father Irving performing for their local church. At 5, George won a local talent competition singing a Bing Crosby song.
When the family moved to Detroit in 1940 where his father went to work building cars, George continued his to develop his musical abilities, going on to win a scholarship to Wayne State University where he graduated with a B.S. in Music Education.
In 1955, George became Detroit’s first black high school music teacher. The following year, drafted into the Army, he became the first black man to sing with the U.S. Army chorus. It was during this time that he was encouraged to pursue opera.
His first public opera performance, Die Fledermaus , took place in 1959 with a small Woodstock, NY opera company. A year later, George won the American Opera Auditions and was offered the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme in Milan, Italy. This was followed in 1961 by an offer from the Metropolitan Opera after winning first prize in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions where he performed Nessun Dorma. There, George Shirley became the first black male to receive a contract from the Met and the second black male to perform there. The first was Robert McFerrin (father of Bobby McFerrin), a baritone, in 1953.
George performed 28 major roles in 26 operas during his 11 seasons with the Met, appearing more often than any other tenor. With a voice praised for its richness and flexibility, he was in demand by major opera houses in the US and internationally. He performed for the Royal Opera (Covent Garden), the Chicago Lyric, Netherlands, Scottish, San Francisco, New York City and Michigan opera companies
George Shirley has sung with many of the world’s great orchestras and conductors-the London Symphony with Maazel, Boston Symphony with Ozawa, Chicago Symphony with Solti, New York Philharmonic with Bernstein and La Scala Orchestra with von Karajan-and he has appeared at such summer festivals as Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Spoleto, Santa Fe and Aspen.
He has recorded for RCA, Columbia, Decca, CRI, Angel, Vanguard and Philips Records and received a Grammy Award in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the prize-winning recording of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. His solo performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was broadcast over CBS in July 1990.
George Shirley has, in a career that spans more than 50 years, performed more than 80 operatic roles with many of the world’s most renowned conductors (Solti, Klemperer, Stravinsky, Ormandy, von Karajan, Colin Davis, Böhm, Ozawa, Haitink, Boult, Leinsdorf, Boulez, DePriest, Krips, Cleva, Dorati, Pritchard, Bernstein, Maazel and others).
While continuing a distinguished performing career, George was asked to teach voice at the University of Maryland in 1980. In 1985 the University awarded him the Distinguished Scholar Teacher award. He returned to his hometown Detroit in 1987 as a professor of voice at the University of Michigan where the George Shirley Voice Scholarship was established in 2008. Videmus offers a $5,000 prize to the winner of the annual George Shirley African-American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition.
Although a trailblazer, George says he had role models. Among them Roland Hayes, the first superstar black tenor as well as opera singer Marian Anderson and concert singer Paul Robeson.
“All of these people had a dignity about them that I admired,” George Shirley said. “I admired how they carried themselves. They didn’t beg for respect, but they commanded it.”