About the artist(s)
George Shirley has performed more than 80 operatic roles over the span of his international 62-year career. In October 2015, he was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama and the National Endowment for the Arts.
He was the first African-American tenor and second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years as leading artist. For more about George, read his full bio below.
Who are you and what do you do?
After these eighty-seven trips around the sun, I’m still trying to find the answer to those questions. That’s the thing that keeps life entertaining.
I’m an African-American who was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, grew up in Detroit, wanted to become a music teacher and taught for a year, until Uncle Sam decided he couldn’t do without me and he drafted me into the military. I found myself first as a bandsman playing euphonium, then later as a member of a new organization in the United States Army Chorus, I was the only black face there.
Because I didn’t want to wind up ten years down the road kicking myself for not finding out if I could make it as a singer, so I decided to take the plunge and see what would happen. And beyond my wildest dream, stuff happened. I’m still in awe of the fact, learning as I went. Thank God my musical preparation was top notch – when I was a kid in Detroit, it had one of the best systems of music education in the public sector, producing fabulous musicians classically and in jazz.
How did you get here?
Everything I’ve been able to do, was not of my planning, or of my knowledge. What I planned…I was to become a music teacher because I was so inspired by the musical education that I’d had, raised in the public schools of Detroit. By the 6th grade, we were musically literate.
I did all the stuff but I didn’t know I was going to do it. I didn’t stand before God and say “I want to be a singer”. For me, it was all “What’s going to happen now?” Let’s see if I can do it. When I made the decision to pursue the career, the Army Chorus invited me to audition for a three year deal, based in the Washington DC area. But I didn’t for a couple of reasons: I didn’t want to spend three years in the army, and I wanted to get back to my teaching career and my wife (I got married a week before I was drafted, so…!); and The Army Chorus parent organisation was formed in 1925/26 and had never had a black member. And I thought, “I’m not going to spend my money to go here and audition for the chorus to have people say, ‘thank you and bye’.”
But 3 weeks into my 8-week training, of raising and lowering the flag, playing 8 ball, I thought I’d go crazy doing two years of that…NO WAY! Myself and two friends decided to take a leave of absence from basic training and go audition for the chorus. My two friends were not accepted. I sang and was told to wait… it was about a half an hour. I then heard “We would like to have you join us, if it’s what you really want…” There had actually been a discussion with the Pentagon to get me into the Chorus.
What is the voice that you found while finding your voice?
It’s the voice of my soul. It was given to me at conception. My mother sang, my father played fiddle, guitar, and piano by ear. It’s in my lineage. What God gave me were the little folds that buzz and flap. These connect to my solar plexus, a place where you feel things, where the nerve endings come together in your body, where you feel butterflies, excitement, anger, m. – your mind to your solar plexus. Out of that gangle of nerves comes a vagus nerve, that wraps around your heart that is attached to your larynx. The mind, solar plexus, the heart to throat… we singers need to be traveling that highway, every time we make a sound. In that sound will be what we feel, or a character feels and that’s what touches peoples’ hearts.
George Shirley has performed more than 80 operatic roles over the span of his international 62-year career, as well as oratorio, recital, and concert literature with some of the world’s most renowned conductors including Solti, Klemperer, Stravinsky, Ormandy, von Karajan, Colin Davis, Böhm, Ozawa, Leinsdorf, Boulez, DePreist, Dorati, Bernstein, and Maazel. He is the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music (Voice) at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and in 2011 with the aid of the Videmus Foundation he established the George Shirley African American Art Song; Operatic Aria Competition for high school and college students. In October 2015, he was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama and the National Endowment for the Arts.
He was the first African-American tenor and second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years as leading artist. He has won international acclaim for his appearances with the Royal Opera (Covent Garden, London), Deutsche Oper (Berlin), Teatro Colòn, (Buenos Aires), L’Opéra (Monte Carlo), New York City Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Glyndebourne Festival, and Santa Fe Opera, among others.