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Classical 101

Tenor George Shirley is Awarded 2015 National Medal for the Arts

Carl Van Vechten
Wikipedia, public domain
The iconic American tenor, George Shirley

President Obama has presented the National Medal of the Arts to ten organizations and individuals who are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence,  growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.

   Recipients today include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Sally Field, Miriam Colon, impresario of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, OSU's own visual artist Ann Hamilton, and tenor George Shirley.

George Shirley, 80 has been on the voice faculty at the School of Music at the University of Michigan for the past twenty years. Its doubtful that many of his students are old enough to remember George Shirley the opera star. He was well established at the New York City Opera and nationally when he made a debut at the Metropolitan in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte , on October 24, 1961

"He confirmed the excellent impression he made earlier in the season at the New York City Opera. Here is a sensitive musician, an expert actor, actor and an intelligent artist who approaches every assignment with taste and resourceful technique. His voce may not be sensational, but his artistry is."--Robert Sabin, Musical America, October 26, 1961

By 'sensational voice' I suspect the beefy ping of the Italian dramatic tenor was missing from George Shirley. What he had better than most was an impeccable vocal line, sweetness and fullness of tone, terrific breath control and good looks. George Shirley sang over 200 performances with the Metropolitan. He was Pierre Boulez's choice for Pelleas at Covent Garden and on recording. He sings the title role of Colin Davis's recording of Mozart's Idomeneo, and is a sexy and elegant in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte on RCA with Leontyne Price.


I imagine it was a lonely road for George Shirley being an African American tenor. Is the world any friendlier today? Isaacah Savage is a Wagner tenor who also sings Italian roles well. He's still young, but his talent should take him far. Lawrence Brownlee is the leading American tenore di grazia. Tony Jenkins is another tenor whose name you should write down. We're blessed in the lower voices: Eric Owens, Ryan Speedo Green, and Norman Garrett. Vinson Cole was a marvelous tenor, but I look forward to the day that someone like me doesn't have to write about "The Black Tenor". 

There's still a barrier in those roles where the tenor kisses or kills the girl. George sang in The Barber of Seville, Carmen, La boheme, La taviata and Madama Buttefly. Plenty of kissin' went on in these demanding and romantic operas. I just worry that there are so many great voices where are not able to hear, because of the racism fed squeamishness of the one on one nookie necessary for most operas.

George Shirley's fame succeeded Roland Hayes, who had the chops but not the opportunity to sing opera. May George Shirley's "sons' and "grandsons" in opera flourish on the great stages, in the arms of sopranos of any hue, as a score requires. He would deserve the National Medal of the arts were he pink and purple.