Tribute to honor singer, professor George Shirley

Former tenor for the Metropolitan Opera and retired University of Michigan music professor has had a storied career that included receiving the National Medal of Honor from President Obama.

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News
  • 1961 Metropolitan Opera debut: ‘The pinnacle (of his career) or close to it’
  • Retired in 2007 as UM’s director of vocal arts, School of Music, Theatre & Dance
  • Graduated from Wayne State Universityin 1955 with a degree in music education
  • Performed with the opera company for 11 years, with lead roles in more than 20 productions

On an October evening nearly 60 years ago, a young African-American man from Detroit performed the tenor role of Ferrando in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” sharing the New York City stage with the all-white cast of the Metropolitan Opera.

It was a seminal moment in opera and George Shirley’s long career. Shirley broke racial barriers that night by becoming the first African-American tenor to perform a major role with the prestigious Metropolitan Opera.

George Shirley will be honored in Detroit with events this weekend.

“I knew it was a significant moment,” Shirley recalled, “but I knew I couldn’t focus on the fact that I was the only black face on stage. I knew it would be upsetting to some people to see me on stage, making romantic love to a white soprano, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to concentrate solely on what I was meant to do and let the chips fall where they may.”

Like a handful of other African Americans before him, Shirley helped opened doors for his race in the worlds of opera and music. His list of firsts include the first African-American member of the U.S. Army Chorus and the first African American hired to teach music in Detroit high schools. His list of accolades is extensive, including a Grammy Award for his recorded performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” and the National Medal of Arts, bestowed upon him by President Barack Obama.

Shirley’s distinguished career — which includes decades of teaching voice — will be celebrated this weekend at the People’s Community Church in Detroit. On Friday, former WDIV-TV anchor Carmen Harlan will host a conversation with Shirley, who has plenty of career and personal stories to share. The evening includes a short film by Maurice Wheeler and performances by winners in the George Shirley Vocal Competition. On Saturday, a tribute concert will be performed by Shirley’s students, many of whom are now professionals. The tribute weekend is being produced by Detroit's Carr Center.

“When somebody gets the Presidential Medal, you know that he’s accomplished something,” said Daniel Washington, a University of Michigan voice teacher who is curating the weekend tribute. “But what he’s done goes far beyond that. He’s been a champion for African Americans not only in terms of the opera, but in terms of everything.”

President Barack Obama awards the 2014 National Medal of Arts to operatic tenor George Shirley.

It’s will be a busy weekend for Shirley. He is also being featured in a special Michigan Opera Theatre event Sunday at Rosedale Park Community House. “I, Too, Sing America: A Celebration of African American Artists & Athletes,” celebrates the groundbreaking efforts of six African Americans. Shirley is among them.

“George Shirley has a longstanding relationship with the Michigan Opera Theatre as a performer and as a mentor to our young artists,” said Wayne S. Brown, president and CEO of MOT. “Anytime opera singers from around the world are in town to sing with the Michigan Opera Theatre, they immediately flock to visit with George. His talent and tenacity have made him a role model to artists of all backgrounds.”

Shirley, who retired from UM in 2007 as director of the vocal arts division of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, also will be feted as a role model.

“The way he has led his life, he has been a mentor to a lot of young African-American singers. He has been a mentor to me as a member of the faculty at Michigan,” Washington said.

“I’ve seen him talk to people about thorny issues and he disarms them. One thing I admire most about him is that he believes in the importance of us all working together and treating others like we’d like to be treated.”

Shirley, who began singing at churches in Indianapolis as a young boy before his family moved to Detroit when he was 6, has no shortage of stories to share. He counts his debut at the Met Opera in 1961 as “the pinnacle (of his career) or close to it.” He continued to perform with the opera company for 11 years, with lead roles in more than 20 productions, including “Falstaff” and “La Boheme.”

But there are other moments he finds equally important.

Among them is his opera debut, which occurred two years before the Metropolitan Opera as a performer with the Turnau Opera Company. Shirley was among the seven-member ensemble in Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” performed at a small theater in Woodstock, N.Y.

“That night I walked out on stage and entered a profession that I had no idea about — but when I walked out... I knew that I was at home,” he said. “I knew that I was doing what I was born to do. That was my epiphany.”

He initially pursued a career as a music teacher after graduating from Wayne State University in 1955 with a degree in music education. He taught voice, conducted the choir and the men’s Glee Club at Detroit’s Miller High School before being drafted into the Army in 1956. He joined the Army Chorus and pursued a musical path that eventually led him to opera.

“If you had told me in college that I was going to be an opera singer, I would have told you, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ ” Shirley said.

After his 1960 European opera debut in Italy, he returned to the U.S. and successfully auditioned for the Met Opera, his second attempt.

George Shirley, center, during rehearsals of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” at the Royal Opera House in London in 1969.

“I knew black operatic tenors were about as rare as chicken teeth,” he recalled. “I knew I was entering a profession where I was going to be rather alone, but I couldn’t let that influence me. I put that out of my mind and focused on the work. If someone accepted me, that was fine. If they rejected me on any grounds, I couldn’t control that. All I could control was my work, my approach to gaining ownership of the talent that God gave me and the ownership of the music given me to perform.”

While he did encounter racial negativity in the opera world, Shirley discovered the racism came from the benefactors of opera companies and not from the performers.

Tributes like the one this weekend at the People’s Community Church humble him.

“I’m always, honestly, surprised when people want to do things like this. Knowing my history, my life, I can’t take credit for what I’ve done. I give credit to God, my gene pool, my parents,” he reflected, also acknowledging teachers and mentors. “I was given everything I needed at conception to do what I’ve done. That includes the will to do it, the will to work. That’s necessary to create an individual that people want to honor. I’m just grateful for it.”

Shirley’s legacy extends far beyond his accomplishments as an opera singer. Washington estimated Shirley has taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students during his teaching career, which has included posts at the University of Maryland, Howard University and Long Island Community College. Since retiring from U-M, he has continued to teach privately.

“He demands excellence from his students and he is someone who embodies the ability to be successful in a world that isn’t welcoming success, regardless of your race,” Washington said. “The pressure one is under constantly when you’ve been as successful as he’s been ... he’s handled it remarkably well.”

For Shirley, who celebrated his 84th birthday this week, teaching, on some level, is likely to continue.

“I will teach as long as I can be beneficial,” he said. “I have learned a lot and I would love to continue to teach students.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

George Shirley

Tribute Weekend

7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

People’s Community Church

8601 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets: $19-$39

(313) 965-8430

‘I, Too, Sing America: A Celebration of African American Artists & Athletes’

3 p.m. Sunday; reception follows at 4:30 p.m.

Rosedale Park Community House

18445 Scarsdale, Detroit