Shirley Verrett: Versatile mezzo celebrated for her portrayal of Carmen and her Verdi interpretations

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The Independent Online

The American mezzo Shirley Verrett sang for nearly four decades in opera, concert and recital, both in the US and in Europe. Her voice, wide-ranging, lustrous in tone and without an obvious break, was perfect for Verdi's mezzo roles and temperamentally she also found herself in accord with the composer's often rather tempestuous characters.

She also sang in many French operas and her most popular interpretation in the early part of her career was Bizet's Carmen, which she sang a great many times in a great many places. Later she took on a number of soprano roles, successfully adapting her voice from, as it were, Amneris to Aida in Verdi's opera. As a demonstration of her versatility, she also sang both Cassandra (soprano) and Dido (mezzo) in the same performance of Les Troyens at the Metropolitan in New York.

Shirley Verrett was born in New Orleans in 1939. She spent her early years in California and first studied singing in 1955 at Los Angeles, then moved to the Juilliard School in New York. While still a student there she sang the title role of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Shakespeare Festival in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1957); sang Irina in Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars for New York City Opera (1958) and made her European debut as the Gypsy in Nabokov's Death of Rasputin at Cologne (1959), before returning to finish her studies in New York.

In 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions and the following year sang her first Carmen at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. During the next five years she repeated the role at the Bolshoi in Moscow, in Kiev, for the New York City Opera and at La Scala. Carmen, as Verrett said in an interview in Opera magazine, "is whatever the word woman means, to the fullest extent – the kindness, the tenderness, the bitchiness, the laughter, the tears, the suspicion" – and the singer had the vocal means, the acting ability and the attractive appearance to portray all those traits.

In 1966 she made her London debut at Covent Garden, singing Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. She returned throughout the 1960s and '70s, first in three more Verdi roles, Amneris in Aida, Princess Eboli in Don Carlos and Azucena in Il trovatore. These were all splendid interpretations, magnificently sung, especially Eboli, whose passion inspired Verrett to great dramatic intensity. Later she sang Gluck's Orpheus, Carmen and Saint-Saëns' Delilah for the Royal Opera.

Verrett made her Metropolitan debut in 1968 as Carmen, followed by Judith in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, the three Verdi mezzo roles she had sung in London and Leonora in Donizetti's La Favorite. Then in 1973 came Les Troyens: originally engaged for Cassandra in La Prise de Troie alone, Verrett also sang Dido in Les Troyens à Carthage as the singer of that role became ill. She scored a great success for both parts. Meanwhile in 1969 she sang Queen Elizabeth I (definitely a soprano) at the Maggio musicale in Florence and also at the Edinburgh Festival. Another new role, Selika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, took her to San Francisco (where Placido Domingo sang Vasco da Gama) in 1972 and to the Paris Opéra the following year.

Verrett continued to sing at the Me until 1990. Among the soprano roles she sang there were Puccini's Tosca, Bellini's Norma, Verdi's Aida and Desdemona, and Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, one of her few German roles. She returned to San Francisco in 1986 for Lady Macbeth, among the finest of all her Verdi interpretations. In 1990 she sang Dido again at the opening performance of the Opéra Bastille in Paris. By now her long career was coming to an end. After a descent on Broadway in 1994 to sing Nellie Fowler in Carousel, in 1996 Verrett began to teach at the University of Michigan, where she remained working until earlier this year.

Shirley Verrett-Carter (Shirley Verrett), opera and concert singer, born New Orleans 31 May 1939; twice married (one adopted daughter); died Ann Arbor 5 November 2010.