Shirley Verrett was one of the great sopranos of the last century. She began as a mezzo soprano and also sang heavy soprano roles. She was born in New Orleans into a large family. Her father was a successful building contractor, and, despite the racial prejudice that prevented him from obtaining a licence to trade, he was able to provide for his family.
The family moved to Oxnard, California, where racial prejudice was less overt, as she later recalled, and where she won a local talent competition. Turning down an offer to study with Lotte Lehmann – the great German soprano lived in California in her later years – Verrett took a job instead selling property, until the realisation came: “I had become good at it, but what was I doing? I could care less about selling houses to people.”
Verrett had an amazing voice. It was big, powerful, and capable of great artistic expression. She sang on the breath, as singers say. There was no forcing or squeezing of sound. The two excerpts that I am posting are in many ways miracles of singing.
This aria is from the opera “Maometto Secondo”, by Rossini. Maometto Secondo is an opera that poses many textual problems. Rossini’s revisions were made directly in the primary manuscript. Thus, there are many versions of the opera. While the aria “non temer d’un basso affeto” seems not to have changed, the text preceding it has. Therefore, I am only posting the aria. The text that is sung before the opera was too difficult to find.
Calbo is exhorting Erisso to understand that his daughter cannot possibly have been faithless.
Non temer: d’un basso affetto
Non fu mai quel cor capace.
Né saprebbe la tua pace
Mai comprar con la viltà.
Del periglio al fiero aspetto
Ella intrepida già parmi
Impugnar lo scudo e l’armi
D’una bella fedeltà.
E d’un trono alla speranza
Dir, con placida sembianza,
Basso affetto nel mio petto
Nido aver non mai potrà.
Do not fear: of base affection
was that heart never capable.
Nor would she know your peace
Never to compare with cowardice.
Of danger through her proud aspect
She seems fearless already to me
Wielding her shield and weapons
In remarkable faithfulness.
And from a throne to hope
Saying, with tranquil appearance,
A base affection in my heart
Will not be able to take hold.
Typically, in this aria, the soprano reads Macbeth’s letter to her aloud and then the singing begins. In this production, the letter is read by an amplified voice of Macbeth, and then Lady Macbeth begins to sing.
In Shakespeare, this corresponds to Lady Macbeth’s “you are too full of the milk of human kindness . . .” speech.
This is one of two arias by Verdi that require a dramatic soprano voice. The other is from Nabucco. The aria is “Anch’io dischiuso”. Callas was known for both of these arias.
“Nel dì della vittoria io le incontrai…
Stupito io n’era per le udite cose;
Quando i nunzi del Re mi salutaro
Sir di Caudore, vaticinio uscito
Dalle veggenti stesse
Che predissero un serto al capo mio.
Racchiudi in cor questo segreto. Addio.”
Tu sei Macbetto… Alla grandezza aneli,
Ma sarai tu malvagio?
Pien di misfatti è il calle
Della potenza, e mal per lui che il piede
Dubitoso vi pone, e retrocede!
Vieni t’affretta! Accendere
Ti vo’ quel freddo core!
L’audace impresa a compiere
Io ti darò valore;
Di Scozia a te promettono
Le profetesse il trono…
Che tardi? Accetta il dono,
Ascendivi a regnar!
Duncano sarà qui?…qui? qui la notte?
Or tutti sorgete, – ministri infernali,
Che al sangue incorate,- spingete i mortali!
Tu, notte, ne avvolgi – di tenebre immota;
Qual petto percota – non vegga il pugnal!
“On the day of victory I met them …
I was stupefied by the things I heard;
When the king’s representatives saluted me as
Thane of Cawdor, prophecy fulfilled
by the foreseen things
which predicted a crown on my head.
Hide this secret in your heart. Farewell!”
It is you, Macbeth. You long for greatness.
but will you be malicious?
Full of missteps is the path
of power, and woe to him whose foot
he doubtfully places upon it, and draws back!
Come, hurry! To ignite
that cold heart do I wish!
The bold undertaking to fulfill
I will give you valor.
The prophetesses promised to you
the throne of Scotland …
What is the delay? Accept the gift,
Ascend (the throne) to rule!
Duncan will be here? Here? Tonight?
Now arise, infernal ministers,
which animate the blood and urge on mortals!
You, night, wrap it up in filthy darkness;
May that stabbed breast not see the dagger!
Compare with Callas.
May 31, 1931 – November 5, 2010
Shirley Verrett began her career as a mezzo soprano and went on to sing soprano roles to great acclaim.
Verrett was born on May 31, 1931, in New Orleans, one of five children. Her parents were strict Seventh-day Adventists. Her father, who ran a construction company and moved the family to Los Angeles when Verrett was a young girl, was a decent man, Verrett recalled in her book, though he routinely punished his children by strapping them on the legs.
Her parents encouraged Ms. Verrett’s talent, but wanted her to pursue a concert career in the mold of Marian Anderson. They disapproved of opera. When they made their first trip to Europe in 1962 to hear their daughter sing the title role in “Carmen” at the Spoleto Festival, they “got down on their knees and prayed for forgiveness,” Verrett wrote.
After singing the soprano role of Lady Macbeth in a landmark 1975 production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at La Scala in Milan, demanding Milanese critics and impassioned Italian opera fans flocked to her every performance.
In the early days, like black artists before her, she experienced racial prejudice, as she recounts in her memoir, “I Never Walked Alone.” In 1959 the conductor Leopold Stokowski hired her to sing the Wood Dove in a performance of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” with the Houston Symphony, but the orchestra’s board would not allow a black soloist to appear. To make amends, a shaken Stokowski took Verrett to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a performance of Falla’s “Amor Brujo,” which led to a fine recording.
By her own admission, Verrett’s singing was inconsistent. Even some admiring critics thought that she made a mistake by singing soprano repertory after establishing herself as one of the premiere mezzo-sopranos of her generation, riveting as Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saëns’s Delila.
To Verrett, the problem was not the nature of her voice but health issues. During the peak years she suffered from allergies to mold spores that could clog her bronchial tubes. She could not predict when her allergies would erupt. In 1976, just six weeks after singing Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma” at the Metropolitan Opera (a role traditionally performed by mezzo-sopranos), she sang the daunting soprano title role on tour with the Met, including a performance in Boston that earned a frenzied ovation. In his Boston Globe review, the critic Richard Dyer wrote that “what Verrett did added her Norma to that select company of contemporary performances that have enlarged the dimensions of operatic legend.”
Yet, in 1979, when New Yorkers finally had the chance to hear Verrett’s Norma at the Met, her allergies acted up and undermined her singing, as Ms. Verrett recalled in her memoir. Among her 126 performances with the Met, however, were many triumphs.
In 1973, when the company opened its historic production of Berlioz’s “Troyens,” starring Jon Vickers as Aeneas, Verrett sang not only the role of Cassandra in Part I of this epic opera, but also Dido in Part II, taking the place of the mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, who had withdrawn because of an illness, a tour de force that entered Met annals.
At her best, Verrett could sing with both mellow richness and chilling power. Her full-voiced top notes easily cut through the orchestral outbursts in Verdi’s “Aida.” Yet as Lady Macbeth, during the “Sleepwalking Scene,” she could end the character’s haunting music with an ethereal final phrase capped by soft, shimmering high D-flat.