George Shirley, a Wayne State University graduate who would go on to become the first black tenor at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, traveled through the night to audition for the US Army Chorus nearly 70 years ago and had no guarantee he would be recorded would.
Shirley, who served in the army in the 1950s, could still sing though. The choir had no black members. It never was.
After arriving in Washington DC with two friends from Wayne State, Shirley recalls waiting after his audition. And wait. Thirty minutes later he got the news: he had been accepted, making him the first black man to be accepted into the choir. He had to wait so long because the choir director had to call the Pentagon to get the OK to record him.
“He said, ‘We’ve decided that if that’s what you really want, we’d love to have you,'” Shirley recalls. “I said, ‘Sir, if it wasn’t what I really wanted, I wouldn’t have traveled all night to get here.'”
It’s just one accomplishment in an extraordinary life of accomplishments for Shirley, now 87, who takes the stage at the Detroit Opera House this weekend and next week for her staging of the Puccini classic “La Bohème.” And yet none of this was planned, says Shirley, who lives in Ann Arbor. He believes that a higher power charted his path and he just followed it.
“I think I made the career that I had to share with young people what I could learn from great musicians and colleagues I’ve worked with,” said Shirley, who still teaches aspiring operas to part-time students at the University of Michigan.
In his career, he says, he never thought about his role as a pioneer and the pressure that came with it. In addition to being the Met’s first black star, he has won a Grammy for his recorded performance of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and the National Medal of Arts awarded by former President Barack Obama.
The pressure “was there, but I couldn’t think about it,” said Shirley, who was seated in a conference room at the Detroit Opera offices before a rehearsal last week. “I couldn’t afford to think about it. I could only afford to think about making the best of what was given to me.”
Detroit audiences get the chance to catch Shirley as part of “La Bohème” at Detroit Opera on April 2nd, 6th and 10th. Shirley won’t be singing, but he will be the narrator in the production, which will have a twist of its own under the artistic direction of Yuval Sharon.
Shirley never introduced herself as an opera singer. A native of Indianapolis, who moved to Detroit with his parents as a child, he wanted to be a music teacher in Detroit public schools. He began his teaching career but eventually took a detour after being drafted and joining the US Army Chorus in the 1950s.
Wayne Brown, President and CEO of Detroit Opera – who met Shirley while he was in Detroit in high school; “He walked on water. I was impressed,” he said – call him “an extraordinary person and artist”.
“To have such an incredible artist performing on the operatic stages of the world for many years is a validation,” said Brown.
Brown said when he met Shirley he had no idea what he would bring to him personally, the art form, Detroit and beyond.
“And to this day, he’s such a nurturer of young talent and such an inspiration to young people — and the young at heart,” Brown said.
Shirley has fond memories of “La Bohème” and calls it one of his favorites. He said he performed it in a small company in Woodstock, New York, during his first operatic season.
“It was a small theatre, about 200 people, no orchestra, two pianos. We didn’t have a choir. The group consisted of seven singers,” he said.
The next summer, Shirley won a competition that took him and other winners to Italy to make their debut, where he again performed “La bohème” in the role of Rodolfo. It was his first experience of performing in Italian and the company were shocked that he sang without a prompter, which is what he had been trained to do.
The critics later said the Italian pronunciation was excellent, “the highest praise they could have given us – that we respected their language enough,” Shirley said.
Following his success in Europe, Shirley returned to the United States in 1961 to win auditions at the Metropolitan Opera with a performance of “Nessun dorma,” according to Opera Wire. He then spent 11 seasons at the Met, 28 of which were leading roles in 26 operas, performing more than any other tenor in the 1960s.
He has also appeared at the Royal Opera House, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and Scottish Opera.
In the 1980s, Shirley and his wife moved back to Michigan so he could accept a position at the University of Michigan. The former Director of the Vocal Department at UM’s School of Music, Theater & Dance, retired in 2007 but still teaches a few classes.
He is also working with his daughter on a book about his life. Still, he insists that “none of this” was planned as he looks back on his career.
“The intelligence that got me into this gave me a script when I was conceived that I followed,” Shirley said.
Residence: Lives in Ann Arbor
What’s Next: The groundbreaking opera singer, the first black tenor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, will appear as The Wanderer in Detroit Opera’s La Bohème.