On February 10, 1964 the United States House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It provided equal access to public places and employment. It enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.
By the time this act passed, Shirley Verrett, opera mezzo-soprano from Oxnard, had already made a name for herself, overcoming discrimination and racism in the world of classical music.
Born in New Orleans, Leon Verrett moved daughter Shirley and the rest of the family to Southern California during World War II to escape the overt racism in the South. The family settled in Oxnard to be close to her father’s brother, Harrison who was stationed in the Navy at Port Hueneme.
A devout 7th Day Adventist, Shirley first sang in her church choir in Oxnard. Her father encouraged her to study voice as he had hopes that his daughter would become the next Marian Anderson. Shirley studied with voice teachers in the San Fernando Valley and learned everything from spirituals to German lieder (songs). She was encouraged to audition for Juilliard where she tied for first place in the Marian Anderson Voice Competition and began moving toward a career in opera, something she never saw herself doing. In 1959 conductor Leopold Stokowski asked her to sing with the Houston Symphony but the offer was withdrawn by the symphony board because of her race.
Never discouraged, Shirley moved on to become an opera sensation in Europe, where she was the first African American woman to sing with the Bolshoi Opera.
Shirley returned to the United States and, even though she had had a contentious relationship with the Metropolitan Opera in the past, she agreed to come to New York in 1974 and sing opposite Beverly Sills who was making her Met debut.
Shirley continued her singing career on Broadway and in films. In 1996 she accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan where she was endowed as the James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor of Voice.
Shirley Verrett died on November 10, 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan but she will always be remembered as one of a handful of African American opera singers who changed the game.
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