At 87, opera trailblazer George Shirley is still mentoring students, performing

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Traveling through the night nearly 70 years ago to audition for the U.S. Army Chorus, George Shirley, a Wayne State University graduate who would go on to become the first Black tenor with New York's Metropolitan Opera, had no guarantees he'd get in.

Shirley, who served in the army in the 1950s, could sing but still. The chorus had no Black members. It never had.

After arriving with two Wayne State friends to Washington, D.C., Shirley remembers waiting after his audition. And waiting. Thirty minutes later, he got the word: He'd been accepted, making him the first Black man to be admitted to the chorus. He had to wait so long because the chorus director had to call the Pentagon to get the OK to admit him.

"He said 'We've decided we'd like to have you join us if that's what you really want,'" remembers Shirley. "I said, 'Sir, if it wasn't what I really wanted, I wouldn't have traveled all night to get here.'" 

It's just one accomplishment in an extraordinary life filled with accomplishments for Shirley, now 87, who takes the stage this weekend and next week at the Detroit Opera House for its production of the Puccini classic, "La bohème." And yet none of it was planned insists Shirley, who lives in Ann Arbor. He believes a higher power charted his path and he just followed it.

"I believe I've had the career that I've had in order to share with young people what I've been able to learn from great musicians and colleagues that I've worked with," said Shirley, who still teaches burgeoning opera students part-time at the University of Michigan.

Opera trailblazer George Shirley, middle, stands on the Detroit Opera House stage with Edward Parks, left, who portrays Marcello in its upcoming production of "La bohème" and Matthew White, right, who plays Rodolfo. Shirley is a narrator, or called "The Wanderer."

Still, he says he couldn't think about his role as a trailblazer or the pressure that came with it during his career. Aside from being the Met's first Black star, he's won a Grammy for his recorded performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” and the National Medal of Arts, awarded by former President Barack Obama.

Pressure "was there but I couldn't think about it," said Shirley, sitting in a conference room in the offices of Detroit Opera before a rehearsal last week. "I couldn't afford to think about it. I could only afford to think about doing the best I could do with what I was given."

Detroit audiences will get a chance to see Shirley April 2, 6 and 10 as part of Detroit Opera's "La bohème." Shirley won't be singing but he'll star as a narrator in the production which will have its own unique spin under Artistic Director Yuval Sharon.

Shirley never envisioned himself as an opera singer. The Indianapolis native who moved to Detroit as a child with his parents wanted to be a music teacher in Detroit Public Schools. He started his teaching career but eventually it took a detour after he was drafted in the 1950s and joined the U.S. Army Chorus.

In 2015, tenor George Shirley, a Wayne State graduate, received the 2014 National Medal of Arts during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Detroit Opera President and CEO Wayne Brown — who met Shirley while he was in high school in Detroit; " He walked on water. I was in awe," he said — calls him "an extraordinary individual and artist." 

"To have such an incredible artist who has appeared on the world opera stages for many years is affirming," said Brown.

Brown said when he met Shirley, he had no idea what he'd bring to him personally, the art form, Detroit and beyond.

"And to this day, he continues to be so nurturing of young talent and he's such an inspiration for young people — and the young at heart," said Brown.  

Shirley has fond memories of "La bohème," calling it one of his favorites. He said he performed it during his first season of opera at a small company in Woodstock, New York.

"It was a small theater, about 200 people, no orchestra, two pianos. We didn't have a chorus. The company consisted of seven singers," he said.

The next summer, Shirley won a competition that took him and other winners to Italy to make their debut, where again he performed "La bohème" in the role of Rodolfo. It was his first experience performing in Italian and the company was shocked that he sang without a prompter, which he'd been trained to do.

The reviews later said the pronunciation of Italian was excellent, "the highest praise they could've given us — that we respected their language enough," said Shirley. 

After his success in Europe, Shirley returned to the United States to win the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1961, with a performance of “Nessun dorma," according to Opera Wire. He went on to spend 11 seasons at the Met, which included 28 leading roles in 26 operas. In the 1960s, he appeared on stage more than any other tenor.

He also made appearances at the Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Scottish Opera.

In the 1980s, Shirley and his wife moved back to Michigan so that he could take a position at the University of Michigan. The former director of the vocal arts division of UM's School of Music, Theatre & Dance, he retired in 2007 but still teaches some classes.

He's also working with his daughter on a book about his life. Still, he insists "none of it" was planned when he looks back at his career. 

"The intelligence that made me gave me a script when I was conceived that I've followed," said Shirley.

George Shirley

Age: 87

Home: Lives in Ann Arbor

What's Next: The trailblazing opera singer, the first Black tenor with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will perform as 'The Wanderer' in Detroit Opera's 'La bohème.'