The Shirley Verrett Conundrum

Verrett Lady Macbeth Photo

(as Lady Macbeth at La Scala, 1975)

One of the more important – and, ultimately, most puzzling — operatic careers of the second half of the 20th century was that of mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett (1931 – 2010.)

Yes: I wrote mezzo-soprano. I harbor not the slightest doubt that Verrett was a mezzo, and that she’d have done well to have remembered it. She may have harbored ambitions in the soprano repertory, and she did find ways to sing several soprano roles, but doing so did irreparable harm to her voice.

Verrett was a very late starter: she wasn’t active in opera until she was past 30, and the opportunities for superstardom didn’t come until she was over 40. She’d actually had a career selling real estate, and, not liking that, decided instead to pursue a career as a singer. That wasn’t a case of failing to get into beauty school and applying to Julliard instead: her strict Seventh-day Adventist upbringing initially precluded the stage as a profession.

She was possessed of all the qualities that make a great opera singer. There was, first and foremost, the voice, a splendid instrument that went easily from low G to high D-flat (and even a high D in an early performance of Norma, proof of which can be had at 22:09 of an anthology of her florid singing.) The registers are properly equalized, and hers was a first-class legato based on a very solid foundation of breath support.  A further benefit of that column of support was the ability to sing at a wide variety of dynamics.  She had a genuine trill, and remarkable facility in singing coloratura. Her Italian and French were first-rate, and she was inherently musical. To that she added a powerful and dignified stage presence (this is being written by someone who saw her on stage several times between 1978 and 1990), considerable acting ability and ample personal glamour. She was perhaps not a beauty, but she was certainly a handsome woman with a lovely figure.  That only added to the positive impression she made from the stage.

There is no way to ignore what probably was the X factor in her career, her being African-American. Her timing in that respect was good: she emerged onto the operatic scene at a time when other African-American singers (read: Leontyne Price and Grace Bumbry) were establishing themselves as major stars. I’m not sure I’d know how to speculate on whether being black had a positive or negative effect on Verrett’s career; the reality is that it probably had both.

Verrett’s major international career began around 1966; her activities at the time were centered in Europe, with only a smattering of performances at the Met. Rudolf Bing doesn’t seem to have been a big fan. He very likely also reasoned that, as he had Grace Bumbry and Fiorenza Cossotto, he didn’t really need Verrett. The schedule could only accommodate so many star Azucenas, Ebolis, Amnerises and Carmens.

Things changed considerably after Bing’s retirement, following which Verrett returned to the Met for a series of what were nothing less than triumphs. The key date was October 22, 1973, the night of the Met premiere of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, in which Verrett became a Met legend by taking on, not only her scheduled role of Cassandre, but also Christa Ludwig’s role of Didon. Although Verrett only sang that single Didon at the Met, she got the reviews and she made the sensation, effectively sweeping Ludwig’s subsequent performances of the role under the carpet. (Ludwig tactfully avoids the entire question of the Met Troyens in her memoirs.)

Excerpts from the Troyens premiere have made their way to YouTube, including most of Cassandre’s part, but, unfortunately, only one excerpt from the opera’s second half, the love duet with Jon Vickers. The audio evidence shows that a great singer was having one of the great nights of her career. Alas, Didon’s final scene hasn’t made it to linkable Internet immortality.

Troyens was followed by a largely forgotten but still new production of Bartok’s A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára. (That’s Bluebeard’s Castle; the Hungarian title is ever so much more fun to type and attempt to pronounce.) Then came a success even greater than Troyens: her Neocle in the first Met staging of Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto. The opera was mounted to provide Beverly Sills with a suitably grand vehicle for her belated Met debut…and Verrett stole the show. I refer you again to YouTube and Verrett’s spectacular (the word is used without exaggeration) performance of Non temer d’un basso affetto from the broadcast. She stops the show cold for close to two minutes. Verrett’s “Non temer” was quite probably the outstanding bel canto moment at the Met in the 1970s, a decade in which such paragons as Sutherland, Caballé and Horne often appeared at the Lincoln Center house.

For Verrett’s career, 1975 was the high-water mark. After the enormous success in L’Assedio di Corinto in the spring, she gave what she seems to have considered the greatest performance of her career on La Scala’s customary opening night, December 7, singing her first Lady Macbeth in a legendary production of Verdi’s opera conducted by Claudio Abbado and directed by Giorgio Strehler. I can again refer the reader to YouTube,  to video of Lady Macbeth’s first aria. In the latter, Verrett is complete mistress of both the vocal and the dramatic situations – and earns herself an ovation that lasts two minutes and fifteen seconds. She was justifiably a sensation, and management responded with a blank contract for any roles she might choose to sing. She turned down the offer, a decision she regrets in her memoirs.

The following season at the Met, she came close to stealing the show from Caballé in a string of peformances of Adalgisa in Norma

…and then the problems started.

They began with three performances of the title role in Norma on the Met’s tour. Ever since the original Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, took on Norma, many an Adalgisa has coveted what is considered the crowning role in the Italian dramatic soprano repertoire. The historical evidence that has come down to us suggests that Grisi’s Norma was not a success. Verrett’s earliest attempts at the role were, on the other hand, well received, but they provided the first ominous evidence that she had begun to envision herself as a soprano.

She opened the next Met season (1976-77) as Azucena in Trovatore opposite Scotto and Pavarotti. She had a new production that season as well, the Met premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Verrett’s memoirs attest that she had initially been offered the dramatically flamboyant mezzo role of Mère Marie de l’Incarnation. She, however, maneuvered herself into the role of the Second Prioress, an unequivocally soprano assignment that just so happens to include the two things that come closest to arias in the opera. It’s a role that was sung by a young Leontyne Price and a young Joan Sutherland, something that has given rise to the fallacy that it is the opera’s prima donna assignment – which very probably was the reason Verrett sought out the role. Although the production was an unexpected triumph, it was not Verrett’s finest moment. Forty years later, I still remember Andrew Porter’s review: he wrote that “there was a touch of Josephine Baker in her portrayal of a nun.” Verrett’s stage personality was too extroverted for the role of a straightforward and sensible bourgeoise.

Verrett would, however, add one more triumphant new production the following season: Leonora in La Favorita, again opposite Pavarotti, and again with a cabaletta that stops the show cold.

She was at the pinnacle of her fame, and arguably the Met’s biggest female star.

So what did she do for an encore?


True, as it came with a Live from the Met telecast and Pavarotti as co-star, the assignment was a major plum…but why, after a series of couture roles tailored to her specific abilities would she even want so prêt-à-porter an assignment as Tosca? She was a success in the part – I saw her in the role twice and have vivid memories of both performances – but to what end?

That question posed itself even more starkly later that same season, when her Norma flopped in the house. True, she had sung the role in San Francisco the previous fall to considerable success, but there were only so many Normas in her throat, and she’d used them up by the time the role got to New York. True (also), she was having health problems at the time and hand cancelled the premiere, but I still remember how bad the broadcast was. This time, the role was not only prêt-à-porter, but also a size too big for her.

Verrett would continue to sing, alternating soprano and mezzo roles to her considerable detriment, for another fourteen years, but nothing she did subsequently came anywhere close to what she’d achieved in her mid-40s in the mid-‘70s. Despite her efforts, she never really became a soprano. Consider, for example, a video of the last movement of the Verdi Requiem under Abbado in 1981: she hits all the notes, but the center of gravity of the voice is too low for the music. She sounds like a mezzo singing a soprano role. She also appears to be worried about the next note at certain points; compare that to her almost cheeky fearlessness in the Macbeth video.

What Verrett did succeed in doing was opening up a number of gaping holes in what had once been so splendidly even an instrument. After four years’ absence, she returned to the Met in 1986 as a replacement for Florence Quivar for four performances of Don Carlo. My comment at the first intermission of the prima was “there are more holes in that voice than in a piece of swiss cheese.” The Veil Song, which had once been a highlight of her Eboli, was just depressing. (I heard her again, again replacing someone else, in a 1990 Trovatore, part of her last string of performances at the Met. My chief memory of that evening is the interpolated high C at the end of “Deh rallentate o barbari”. The rest of the voice was in no better shape than it had been in 1986, but the performance was far less unsettling, perhaps because register breaks better suit an old hag than a woman who curses her own fatal beauty.)

The mystery of Verrett is why, when she was holding the keys to the kingdom, did she basically throw them away in what I can only see as an attempt to get the last curtain call and impose herself in the standard soprano repertory? Cassandre, Didon, Neocle, Lady Macbeth, the Favorita Leonora were the kinds of parts in which people wanted to hear her: how much did her audience even care about her Tosca, Aida, Norma or her disastrous attempt at Leonore in Fidelio (when she was an age – 50 – at which wise sopranos drop the role from their repertory)?

Verrett was, ultimately, a case of What Might Have Been.

The first thing that Might Have Been would significantly have altered the history of the Metropolitan Opera in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s. As I said above, Verrett was, for a few years, the Met’s top female attraction. This was during the post-Bing (and post-Tebaldi) period during which Renata Scotto was establishing herself as the house’s prima donna for the Italian repertory, a controversial reign that would continue until her farewell as Cio-Cio-San in 1987. Verrett would not have ousted Scotto (whose territory was precisely the standard Italian roles that Verrett would so pointlessly attempt), but Scotto would not have attained the assoluta status she did had Verrett continued racking up triumphs. Had Verrett been content to remain what nature had made her, the divas’ repertories wouldn’t have overlapped much, and they could have appeared side-by-side in Don Carlo and Norma. But, on the other hand, which of them would have ended up with the 1983 Macbeth production?

A lesser issue is the question of how Verrett’s presence would have affected the huge opportunities that went to Tatiana Troyanos. Troyanos’ Norma (Adalgisa) and Troyens (Didon) opening nights in 1981 and 1983 would most likely have gone to Verrett – which leaves us with the tantalizing missed opportunity of Jessye Norman’s Cassandre and Verrett’s Didon on the same night.  It also leaves us with the distinct possibility that, with Verrett a regular presence in the house, Troyanos would not have had the kind of privileged career she enjoyed during the period.

What could Verrett have sung had she not taken that Tosca/Norma/Aida wrong turn? How might she have capitalized upon the successes of the mid-‘70s?

The first answer to that is more of the same. From Troyens she could have gone on to the title roles in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Alceste, both accessible to a high mezzo with only minimal tinkering. Verrett actually did sing both parts, but she got to them too late, after the voice had been knocked out of whack. She sang Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Italian in the ‘60s; the version of the opera Berlioz tailored for Pauline Viardot would likely have been a good fit later in her career.

Verrett had made a success out of Suléika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in 1972. She might have performed the role more frequently (by the time she returned to it, in 1988, she was far, far past being able to do the part full justice.) She’d also have made a good solution to Valentine in Les Huguenots – assuming a solution to the tenor part could have been found to make a revival of the opera possible. I’m not sure how Marilyn Horne would have felt about it, but Fidès in Le Prophète might also have been a good fit. Verrett might have found the role of Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther to be too passive for her tastes, but I can’t imagine she’d have thought that about Anita in La Navarraise. The one-acter could have been coupled with Herceg Vára, or, to make a huge tour de force, with Cavalleria Rusticana. That would have been quite an evening.  (Verrett did sing Santuzza, although she waited until she was over 60 finally to take on the role. I’m not sure why it took her so long.)

In the bel canto department, one first thinks of Arsace in Semiramide. Again, Horne wouldn’t have been happy, but Verrett had already proven on a duet record how well her voice blended in that music with that of Caballé. Some of Rossini’s female parts might have suited her, an example being the title role in Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. The role lies low, but the factor that makes it well suited to a mezzo-soprano is that the seconda donna in Elisabetta is a light soprano, allowing for ample vocal contrast between the two female leads. Although Verrett recorded Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, she never sang the role onstage. It would have been a good idea. (The thrilling high Cs she exhibits in the recording with Sills remind me of another point: for a mezzo to have top Cs like that is remarkable and exciting; for a soprano, they’re merely what one would expect of her.)

Neither Wagner nor Strauss would have suited Verrett, and she had the good sense to steer clear of them. I did always want to hear her as the Walküre Fricka, however. Mozart also offered little to interest her, although Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito might have been an exception to that rule. The role would even have allowed her a chance to use her top D to good purpose. (Apparently James Levine offered Verrett the choice of either leading role in the opera in the mid-‘80s; they ended up going to Scotto and Troyanos.)

Alas, none of that happened, and what did happen was far, far less interesting. That’s a crying shame because such a major talent went to such waste. The last part of Verrett’s career wasn’t exactly disastrous, and I can’t recall any major booing incidents (indeed, those swiss cheese Ebolis in 1986 received massive ovations in the house), but they didn’t fulfill the promise of the mid-‘70s. Verrett could certainly have been a contender. That she never quite did remains one of the puzzlements of opera in the last quarter of the 20th century.





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