Shirley was the Metropolitan Opera’s first black tenor to perform in a leading role.
“Music is a language,” George Shirley says – and it’s one in which he’s fluent. The Grammy Award-winning, Detroit-bred operatic tenor has spent over 60 years serenading audiences in America and abroad, obliterating glass ceilings and preaching the power of music.
Amongst his myriad accomplishments, Shirley was the Metropolitan Opera’s first black tenor to perform in a leading role, and he’ll be celebrated with a Michigan Opera Theatre tribute on Oct. 12 during the company’s season-opening gala concert.
In 1955, when he was a senior at Wayne University (now Wayne State), Shirley took on his first role, Oedipus in Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rexat the Bonstelle Theatre on Woodward. “It was my first taste of anything operatic, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t speak to me as a profession,” he says.
Then, he was studying to become a music teacher. After graduation and a year into his career, he was drafted into the Army, where he joined the United States Army Chorus as its first black singer. While there, a friend pushed Shirley to connect with a retired opera singer under whom he was studying.
He says, “I really wasn’t interested in doing that because I was looking forward to getting out of the Army after my two years and going back to my teaching job in Detroit.” Still, to quiet his friend, Shirley says he sang for “the old fella,” who told Shirley that he thought he could have a career as an opera singer if he so desired.
So, he decided to give it a trial run. He left the Army and got a job with a small company in Woodstock, New York. He says, “When I walked out to make my debut, I knew that I was home. I knew I was doing what I was born to do because it felt right.”
Shirley moved to New York City that fall, in 1959, and in 1961, he signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. He remembers walking past the Met’s theater when he’d first moved to the city and wondering whether he’d ever sing there, but quickly dismissed the idea as too fantastical. “But, God had other ideas,” he says.
He was scheduled to make his debut in Madama Butterfly while also learning other roles in other shows, preparing to step in if needed. Lo, the lead singer-actor scheduled to play Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte, Charles Anthony – a 57-season stalwart with the Met – dropped out, and Shirley was up – with just one day until opening night.
He worked with a coach to hammer the role into his memory and says he was so focused that he barely remembers that first performance. He’d spend 11 seasons with the Met, all the while performing around the world – England, Scotland, Italy – making a name for himself and forging relationships.
“So, when I left the Met, I had plenty of work still to do in various opera houses in the States and abroad,” Shirley says. He made his way back to Michigan in 1987, taking a professorship with the University of Michigan in its School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He officially retired in 2007 but still teaches a small number of students. He’s been instructing throughout his career at the University of Maryland, Howard University and elsewhere. Shirley aims to instill in his students the dedication, discipline and resiliency needed to birth and nurture a singing career.
He calls it “a tragedy” that that the music education program in Detroit’s public schools is a skeleton of what it once was. “The music education that I had in Detroit was second to none in the public schools at that time. Becoming musically literate was Detroit’s gift to me. In church, in our communities and in the schools, we had a musical system of education that produced Motown, and before Motown, produced great jazz musicians – Kenny Burrell, Ahmad Jamal,” he says.
“Music goes right to the soul,” Shirley says. He hopes to see music education be resuscitated in the city and opera enjoy more of a starring role in the mainstream, particularly with our people. “In Africa, in tribal life, there are forms of expression that are operatic, using the history of the tribe, the language of the tribe. Ritual is operatic: the costumes, the drums, the dancing, the singing – that’s what opera is about.”
He adds, “There are now more operas being written by African American composers that capture our life in this country from the African American point of view. Life in America is nothing if not operatic. There are stories that are just crying out to be put to music and put on the stage.”