Whether consciously or not, all of us who love opera and the human voice create mental echelons of singers. Since I started going in the early 1960s I've been fortunate to have seen and heard most of the singers whose careers have brought them to New York City. As the memory stretches back over the decades a few names stand out for consistently creating a level of sheer excitement which was not only vocal but personal as well. For me, one of the most thrilling of these was Shirley Verrett.
I had heard the Verrett voice on tapes and was crazy about her but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer excitement of my first experience of seeing her in performance. It was October 27, 1973 and it was the date of a major life-changing event for me on a personal level. But operatically it was also a red-letter day in my annals: my first TROYENS with Verrett as Cassandra, Christa Ludwig as Dido and Jon Vickers as Aeneas.
Verrett had scored an historic operatic triumph at the opening night of the TROYENS production (Met premiere) when she sang not only her planned role as Cassandra but also replaced the indisposed Christa Ludwig as Dido. There had been rumors leading up to the season that Verrett and Ludwig would alternate back and forth as Cassandra and Dido but Christa was having health problems and so limited herself to Dido - which incidentally she sang magnificently.
I was familiar with Part II of this epic work, LES TROYENS A CARTHAGE, from a tape of it from the Royal Opera but I'd never heard a note of LA PRISE DE TROIE. I was sitting in the darkened auditorium as the curtain rose and the Trojans sang their celebratory chorus rejoicing that the Greeks had abandoned their siege of the city of Troy. They were told that the Greeks had left a huge wooden horse on the beach and they all rushed off to see it. Then from out of the darkness two giant pillars loomed into the light. Standing between them was Shirley Verrett as Cassandra. While the orchestra intoned the dark, pulsing tread of her introductory music Verrett stood as if she were transfixed, gazing far into the distance. Then out of the stillness she uttered her first line, "Les Grecs on disparu!" ("The Greeks have departed!") and that thrill, that shockwave that a great voice can send thru the receptive listener shot up my spine.
Verrett sang the great monolog "Malheureux Roi!" with such passion and sense of foreboding; the prophetess Cassandra has seen the doom of Troy. This monolog is a self-contained Berlioz masterpiece. Cassandra's frustration at being ignored by the Trojan people is mirrored in a melodic line which cannot seem to escape itself. Her sense of urgency is broken by lamenting phrases as she meditates on her love for Chorebus and her inability to persuade him that his fate is at hand. The monolog seethes and flourishes darkly but ends quietly. At this point the audience broke in with a sustained applause for Verrett: not an 'operatic' ovation laced with "bravas" but a very long tribute to her compelling performance.
Louis Quilico as Chorebus comes to find Cassandra and in their duet she tries once again to convince him that all she has foreseen will come to pass. Quilico was such a mellifluous singer, his vocal line sometimes laced with traces of a sob and his French molded so perfectly to the music. He attempts to soothe his beloved but she is wracked by further visions of Chorebus in a pool of blood, a Grecian spear in his side. Finally they join in an pulsing stretta: she telling him to flee Troy and he replying that he cannot leave her. At last she sees she cannot win and tells him to stay: let Death prepare their bridal bed. Verrett flashed out on a magnificent top-B and as Quilico approached her the set on which she stood backed into the darkness. Their outstretched hands never touched. As the tempestuous orchestral postlude swept on, a tidal wave of applause and cheers crashed over the house. That was my introduction to Shirley Verrett.
It came as something of a surprise, a couple of years later, when Verrett announced she was switching to soprano; the surprise was not so much the switch itself - other singers have done that - but that she chose to make her 'debut' as a soprano singing the title-role in Bellini's NORMA, considered to be the most demanding role in the soprano repertoire. She would try it out with the Met on tour in Boston; TJ and I decided it was something we HAD to see.
It turned out to be one of the most electrifying personal triumphs for a singer that I had witnessed to date. From my diary at the time:
"...any doubts that Verrett could handle the role were quickly put to rest. There is no way to describe the thrill this woman provides not only with her lustrous, glorious voice but with her every gesture and facial expression, her total involvement in what she is doing, and in that inner fire that burns only in a handful of performers and - when it blazes up - makes for the highest excitement possible. There was a palpitating moment just before she sang her first line in which a great feeling of anticipaton surged up; Verrett never for a moment allowed that excitement to flag."
Of course high notes are the great joy of most opera fans (even if they won't admit to it) and so: "...in 'No, non tremare!' Verrett cut loose with a torrent of sound, lashing out with two fiery high C and racing through the scale passages in demonic fury. She was really treating Adalgisa and Pollione like dirt, and her woman scorned has a feeling of truth about it that was actually frightening. As the stretta built and the offstage gong sounded, Verrett suddenly flung her head back, tackling a colossal high D with such thrust and passion that the audience exploded."
The final scene was the pinnacle: "...undaunted by all that had gone before, Verrett gave of herself unstintingly in every regard. She transcended mere vocalism and acting and became Norma. Really, I don't think I have ever seen or heard anything quite as powerful as what Verrett achieved here...her voice simply glowed, it radiated. Her revalation of Norma's sin was shattering as she stood there proudly and prepared to die...what a look she shot at Pollione on 'Norma non mente!'...But then everything faltered for a moment as she recalled her children: the sheer reality of Verrett pouring out the anguish of 'Deh non volerli vittime' turned to transporting joy as Oroveso was won over. Verrett's voice flooded onward and upward, cresting over the ensemble until with a final glorious top note - and reaching out to Polline - she brought the opera to its momumental close. Verrett received a standing ovation and vociferous screams of epic proportions...brava, brava, brava..."
[In 1976, Shirley Verrett had sung Adalgisa in Bellini's opera at the Met and threw the audience into fits of rapture by interpolating the Patricia Brooks cadenzas up to high D-flat. Part of Verrett's duet with John Alexander from Act I is preserved here. The title role of this opera, however, is something else again.}
In 1979 Verrett undertook another arduous soprano role, Aida with Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston (photo with Markella Hatziano as Amneris). Whether she was having a slight off-day at the performance I saw or whether the role simply wasn't settled into her voice yet, I thought it didn't suit her so well. I was proven wrong when, in 1982, I saw her as Aida again and she swept all doubts away with her passionate vocalism. Scroll down for details.
Thinking perhaps she'd made a mistake in switching to soprano, I went up to Tanglewood for a concert performance of TOSCA in the summer of 1980 not sure of what to expect. It was one of the most powerful performances of the Puccini opera I ever experienced; despite the awkward semi-staging the three principals (Verrett, tenor Veriano Luchetti and baritone Sherrill Milnes on peak form as a Dracula-like Baron Scarpia) along with Seiji Ozawa and his glorious Boston Symphony and the massed Tanglewood Festival Choir detonated a dazzling display of verismo fireworks.
From my diary: "Shirley Verrett's Tosca was magnificent. Whatever she has done before and whatever direction she takes in the future, she had one of her great nights at Tanglewood. This Tosca is passionate, haughty, imperious, womanly like a female panther, preoccupied with herself above all else. She played it to the hilt: fiery and divine. Her "Vissi d'arte" was the only respite from the storm; then right back to her no-holds-barred concept. The voice was huge, even, rich and highly individual - the voice of her Cassandra, Eboli and Adalgisa: she could do no wrong. Her offstage calls of "Mario! Mario!" were enormous, and then she swept onstage and simply sailed all night. In Act II she gave out real blood-and-thunder high-Cs ringing with passion. Everything was flaming and alive. Her "Assassino!" was a veritable thunderclap: tremendous! The "Vissi d'arte" was sung with simplicity and fervour, beautifully modulated and giving the only hint all evening that this Tosca might have her vulnerable side...a beautiful rendition. She murdered Milnes and in a hysterical fit she stalked him til he died, ordering him: "Muori!!" Her third act was superb - alone with her lover she could at last be a woman...but no, she's still a diva...very theatrical right to the end where with a gigantic, overshot and prolonged top note she brought the opera to its devastating close. Ozawa had tried to get Verrett to tke a bow after the "Vissi d'arte" but she rightly refrained with a slight shake of the head. So now, at the end, the audience unleashed a massive tribute in which Verrett thoroughly reveled."
In May 1981, Verrett took on the unlikely role of Desdemona in OTELLO with Caldwell's company and turned it into another great success. Above, with James McCracken in the title-role. I wasn't sure how I'd like Verrett in this usually rather placid role, but she and McCracken were overwhelming as they built the opera, playing off one another to brilliant effect.
My 'morning-after' diary report says of Verrett: "She looked beautiful and was extremely feminine...she understood Otello's unpredictable behavior and seemed almost maternal at times as she dealt with his changing moods. Vocally she was entirely successful in the role, using many lovely mezza voce effects. When she let the voice out it had the fiery amplitude that is her trademark. Her phrasing in the love duet was enchanting and throughout the opera she would cannily used touches of chest voice to underline the dramatic situation. The Willow Song was beautifully sung and the farewell to Emilia really was shattering; then she audaciously knelt at the prie-dieu with her back to the audience and sang the Ave Maria as an intensely private personal prayer, floating up to a sustained piano A-flat at the end. After enjoying a gigantic ovation at the curtain calls, Verrett stepped back with an enormous smile and began fervently applauding McCracken. Between the two of them they made the opera what it should be: powerful, passionate and above all: meaningful."
Verrett and McCracken generated enormous excitement in this performance. James McCracken's voice was not intrinsically beautiful but - like Verrett's - his singing was always hot-wired to the emotional state of the character he was portraying. So the two of them onstage together was really something to see...and to hear.
Very soon after this OTELLO, I had what I can only call a spiritual experience at a performance of the Verdi REQUIEM at Tanglewood.
Verrett sometimes sang the soprano part in Verdi's REQUIEM but she was singing the mezzo line on the night in 1981 when I went absolutely crazy for this monumental work - again it was Tanglewood, Ozawa, the BSO and superb chorus. Mirella Freni was the spell-binding soprano and Ermanno Mauro and Nicolai Ghiaurov sang beautifully and powerfully. Although Ozawa took an unforgivable intermission, the compelling work of the musicians and soloists overcame that distraction.
"Shirley Verrett combined flawless vocalism with the Verrett flame to achieve an overwhelmingly exciting result. From the moment she opened her mouth she seized the imagination, bringing forth a molten-gold top, dusky chest notes and her awesome control. Underneath every note and phrase, the flame was burning and to watch the intensity and passion of this woman is thrilling beyond words. The Liber scriptus was so powerful in dramatic accents, and her duets with Freni were extraordinary as their contrasting timbres - Freni's celestial radiance and Verret's earthy sensuousness - caused an aural sensation. Verrett launched the Lux aeterna with special beauty and warmth; like her basso colleague Ghiaurov she highlighted the music of the 'lower voices' in a work where soprano and tenor often walk off with all the accolades. No chance of that happening here! Verrett, I continue to feel, is one of the most exciting singers of our time and here she was at the boiling point: it's hard to imagine anything more thrilling. At the end I so wished to have a photo of Freni and Verrett bowing together to the endless pandemonium that filled the Shed. The singers and Ozawa were called out endlessly as the whole audience stood in wild acclaim."
Back to Boston to give the Verrett Aida another try. In contrast to her earlier attempt at the role, this was thoroughly satisfying both vocally and dramatically: "She showed complete identification with the role and sang with an inspired blend of passion, intimacy and fire. She moved thru and lived the part with real involvement, facial expressions of pride, joy and torment superbly reflecting the emotions of the music. She was in splendid voice with sustained phrasing and a direct connection to every shifting nuance of the words and musical phrases. She integrated the two great arias into the dramatic structure compellingly, taking the ascending phrase to the top-C of O Patria Mia in a single breath. Earlier she summoned a massive high-C in the Triumphal Scene ensemble where not only her vocalism but her touching greeting of the captives gave life to her portrayal. The Nile duets were just fascinating: never for a moment does she let the flame falter. In the final scene she produced a luminous series of piano phrases expressive of mortal anguish and anticipated joy. Verrett's voice was ON all afternoon and she flung it out into the hall with enormous pride and sincerity. A really magnificent achievement!"
FIDELIO is one of my least-favorite operas and I had always avoided seeing it but I could not resist a chance to see Verrett tackling the role of Leonore.
"From her smoky, vibrant chest voice to her brightly taut high notes, Verrett splendidly encompassed Leonore's music. She spoke her lines with great urgency and her acting, placid at first and gaining intensity, ideally captured the heroine's sense of mission. Verrett rang the Met rafters with her thrilling climax of the great "Abscheulicher!" aria and was movingly silhouetted against the prison bars as the curtain fell on Act I. Verrett made the tension mount with her vivid dramatic accents as the moment of truth approached: she hurled out a spectacular "Todt erst seine weib!" and the audience burst into uncontrolled applause as she drew her pistol. A real VERRETT MOMENT if ever there was one!"
Eight years after her triumphant debut Norma, Verrett returned to the role with the Opera Company of Boston. Eight years of singing the most arduous roles in the repertoire with unstinting vocal generosity and unparalleled personal commitment makes for a lot of wear and tear on a voice. How would Verrett fare in this most fiendishly demanding of roles?
"...an awe-inspiring triumph...Verrett combined technique, will-power and sheer heart to give us a magnificent portrayal of the priestess. Naturally a bit of the sheer vocal beauty has faded since her first splendid performance of this role, but the voice was really in top estate and she used it with great skill to attain the highest level of operatic excitement...as an actress she is by turns fiery, benign and poignant...her mere appearance alone is enough to create excitement. The Casta Diva was, if anything, even better sung than eight years ago: a real study in mastering the voice through assured technique. Two verses of the cabaletta were sung with fierce dramatic accents and great abandon, yet always scrupulously musical. She was able to spin out the tone in the duet with Adalgisa, then went at No, non tremare and the ensuing trio in a whirlwind of emotion geared thru the voice to a state of overwhelming passion. She coloured her voice so beautifully in her very moving Teneri figli, shattering in her grief as she overcame her urge to kill. And then another fascinating display of technique, line and dynamics in Mira, O Norma. In Act IV, Verrett took things - unbelievably - to an even higher level. She seared the emotions and struck directly at the core of Norma's dilemma as priestess and mother. This seemed a summation of Verrett's artistry and personal intensity and she produced - from In mia man thru Qual core tradisti and heart-rendingly in Deh, non volerli vittime - an unbroken assault on the emotions that nothing in my operatic experience over the years has really equaled."
My friend Paul and I were so transfixed by Verrett's performance in the fourth act that we literally couldn't speak of it. We sat numbly thru a post-opera dinner and barely said a word on the long drive back to Hartford.
After this, Verrett seemed - at least in my catalog - to return to mezzo-soprano (or Falcon) roles. And so it was her Eboli that I next experienced at the Met:
"...Shirley Verrett's entry marked the first excitement of the evening. Her Veil Song had a couple of wild moments but lots of flair and dusky vocal effects...seductive chest notes and plenty of sex appeal. In Act II, Verrett raised the temperature considerably with her fiery vocalism and raging chest tones...she was heartily cheered after the trio. After confessing to the queen, Verrett, abandoned, grabbed the hand-mirror and attacked O don fatale like a whirlwind. Verrett can express every nuance of emotion with her voice and, after a fantastic top note to climax the first section, she threw down the mirror and seemed about to sweep offstage. Then came her hauntingly beautiful O mia regina drenched in the most poignant remorse. Her voice nearly broke from the overwhelmingly sense of despair but by this point nothing could daunt her. Seizing the order for Carlo's execution, she soared into the most exultant phrases to bring the aria to its hair-raising conclusion. This performance of this aria virtually summed up everything that makes Shirley Verrett such a stunning musical and theatrical force. Glorious!"
In the summer of 1987, I took Kenny to a performance of the Verdi REQUIEM at Tanglewood. There is a backstory about this day in the Berkshires but I'll save it for another time - or most likely it will remain untold! Shirley Verrett was again singing the mezzo part with the lyrically poised Vinson Cole exemplary in the tenor's music and the great hope of Verdi sopranos at that time, Susan Dunn, holding the top line with great beauty and warmth. People who have only heard Paul Plishka in recent years probably would have no idea what a terrific basso he was in his prime. Verrett's voice showed traces of the ravages of time - but considering the way she'd been singing (full-tilt) all these years she sounded pretty magnificent. "Verrett showed consummate control, manouvering her voice through the registers with all manner of entrancing colours and using her burnished chest register and some piano tops to keep interest high, meanwhile producing a savage power in the dramatic moments. She kept the mezzo line always to the fore in ensembles. As long as Shirley Verrett carries the sacred flame, there is no danger of excitement dying out at the opera...an incredibly magnetic woman, she looked regal and possessed. Truly splendid!"
About a week after this REQUIEM, it was broadcast on the local Public Radio station. Miraculously our reception was clear that evening and I taped it. I've played it often since and it's still one of my favorite versions of the piece.
Three years later, I finally heard Verrett in one of her greatest roles: Dalila. I recall reading that she wasn't too happy with the conducting of Charles Dutoit in these performances: she felt he was a great symphonic maestro but that he didn't have a feeling for the human voice. In my diary, I wrote: "Shirley Verrett created a magnetic, fascinating Dalila. Though now in her late 50s, she remains absolutely stunning physically. The voice has been weathered from years of exhaustive and highly emotional singing but it is still the great, smouldering voice of opera - the lower register drips with sensuality and the top notes fly out into the house like gleaming arrows. She masterfully makes her way thru the somewhat treacherous middle. Each aria was dramatically and vocally of a piece, and partway thru "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" she literally transported me with her intoxicatingly sexy "Reponds a ma tendresse!"
Listen to Verrett with Jon Vickers in the second act of SAMSON & DALILA from 1981 at Covent Garden here. Prepare to be seduced!
The next time I saw Shirley Verrett turned out to be the last, not that I could have guessed. She was sounding very impressive when she sang Azucena at the Met on April 27, 1990. This was a memorable night in more ways than one. The tenor, Franco Bonisolli, received the worst booing I have ever heard directed at a singer. Sometimes the standees will boo, but here (I was sitting in the orchestra) the whole House seemed to join in a show of displeasure. Bonisolli annoyed people even more by bowing deeply and graciously as though receiving an ovation. But both the debuting soprano Sharon Sweet and the thrilling performance by Shirley Verrett were vociferously applauded.
"...Verrett gave Azucena's music tremendous flair, cutting thru time and again with her incisive, fiery delivery of the words and music. Her voice, having been put thru many seasons of high-impact and madly passionate use, for the most part still makes an incredible impact. In 'Perigliarti ancor' she sailed right up to the top-C sending chills up my spine. Another C topped her superb scene with di Luna. But it was in the final scene that she was most impressive: poignantly phrasing the 'Ai nostri monti' and sensational in her daemonic final lines of the opera."
A few days later, she repeated her Azucena at what was to be her last Met performance.
While my Verrett experiences were limited to New York, Boston and Tanglewood, she had many other great triumphs:
It's too bad the Met never imported the San Francisco Opera's production of L'AFRICAINE in which Verrett sang Selika. A friend who flew out to the Bay City for the event very kindly sent me this backstage photo of Verrett in costume.
Verrett scored many successes at the world's leading opera houses, perhaps none so memorable as her Lady Macbeth at La Scala (above).
She was Carmen at Covent Garden with Placido Domingo.
And she sang the Berlioz Dido at L'Opera, Paris.
There are many recorded souvenirs of Verrett's career. She made some excellent studio recordings, including her peerless Eboli, a fine Gluck Orfeo and a remarkable performance as Maffeo Orsini in LUCREZIA BORGIA. On EMI's studio version of Rossini's ASSEDIO DI CORINTO she eclipses - at least for me - the efforts of an increasingly fatigued Beverly Sills. They are better matched in the very exciting ANNA BOLENA recording. Verrett's collection of arias (above) is an absolute essential: listen to her deeply involved recordings of arias from the Berlioz DAMNATION DE FAUST and Gounod's SAPHO...and most especially to the overwhelming grandeur of her "Amour, viens rendre a mon ame!" from Gluck's ORFEO ET EURIDICE.
Verrett and Montserrat Caballe have an opera duets disc that is pure joy.
Watch part of a televised Met TOSCA from 1978 with Verrett and Pavarotti in prodigious voice here. And a rarity: Verrett singing the Liebestod from Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE conducted by Zubin Mehta from a 1977 New York Philharmonic telecast here.
During the 1982-1983 season I met Shirley Verrett for the first and only time: I said one word to her and she said two to me. I had just been reading about an upcoming production in Paris in which Verrett had signed to sing Gluck's Iphigenie. On my way to the Met one evening I had stopped at the Schirmer's store and there - looking the glorious prima donna to a T - was Shirley Verrett standing before the shelves of vocal scores. Next to her a downcast sales clerk stood silently. Obviously they were at some sort of stalemate. "I hadn't realized that he had written two Iphigenie operas! Now, which one are they staging...Tauride or Aulide?!" Summoning my courage, I said "Tauride!" and she flashed me an enormous Shirley Verrett smile and said: "Thank you!"
Re-reading what I have written, I see the difficulty in attempting to describe a voice and the emotional impact it can generate. The videos I have linked and her recordings will give a good idea of what it was like to experience a Verrett performance. However nothing can truly recreate the thrill of experiencing the vocal and dramatic passion of this glorious singer in the theatre. Like all the greatest performers over the years, Shirley Verrett makes opera seem important.
Encore: The Sleepwalking Scene from Verdi's MACBETH at La Scala 1975.