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Video Published: 20 Jul 2022

An Oral History with George Shirley

On April 26th, 2022, tenor George Shirley sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on April 26th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

George Shirley, tenor

One of America’s most versatile tenors and enlightened musicians, George Shirley remains in demand nationally and internationally as performer, teacher, and lecturer. He has won international acclaim for his performances with the Metropolitan Opera, and major opera houses around the world. Mr. Shirley received a Grammy award in 1968 for his role (Fernando) in the prize-winning RCA recording of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. He has performed more than 80 operatic roles over the span of his 57-year career and was the first black tenor and second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera. In 2015, Mr. Shirley received the National medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: George Shirley, welcome. It is so good to have you with us today. You are a legend in our field. You've been awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama. You will be inducted into our new Hall of Fame here at the National Opera Center. What an honor to have you; thanks for taking this time today.

George Shirley: Well, thank you first of all, for so honoring me and I'm naturally delighted to be the subject of this award. Thank you. I'm grateful to you.

Marc A. Scorca: Nothing that you haven't earned time after time after time. And in terms of our chat today: OPERA America's 50th anniversary was in 2020, and as you can imagine, our plans for the 50th anniversary were cut a little bit short. So we're catching up with ourselves and we wanted to interview 50 people we felt had made an indelible impression on American opera in the last 50 years, and you are absolutely one of them. So again, we're just delighted to have you here. And as I always do, I start out by asking who brought you to your first opera?

George Shirley: The very first operatic experience I had was when I was a senior at Wayne University in Detroit. The department of music was not an opera department; it was a music education department. I was pursuing a degree in music education. In my senior year, the glee club director, Dr. Harry Langsford came to me and said, "I want to do Oedipus Rex for soloists and for male chorus." He said, "Take a look at the rule of Oedipus." I said, "Okay." So I did. We did three performances at the Jessie Bonstelle Playhouse on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. And I loved it. I enjoyed it, but it didn't speak to me as a way of life. In my household, it was spirituals, church music and Grand Old Opry on Saturday afternoons. So this was something new for me. It was a great experience, but it didn't make me change my professional path. I graduated with a degree in music education. I taught high school music; had a perfect job, and Uncle Sam came along and interrupted that with the draft. Korea had ended about a year before I graduated, but the draft was still alive and well, so I wound up entering the army as a member of one of the bands in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had heard about the army chorus being formed in 1956 when I was drafted, but I didn't go and audition. It was a three year commitment. Plus the fact that the band (the parent organization of that unit) had never had a black member. It was founded in the 1920's. So I thought "I'm not gonna go and audition for no reason at all"...but after about three weeks of playing in the band and my second eight weeks of training, I thought "I'm not gonna be able to take this for two years.” So I went and auditioned, and to my great surprise, they accepted me. So I met wonderful singers in that organization because the draft was on (still) and for young males who were facing the draft, if they sang - guess what? - they were going to audition for the army chorus, even though it was a three year commitment. And so they took me in for two years because I was the first black member. The conductor of the course at that time, Captain Samuel Lobaoda, had to go to the Pentagon to get me admitted to that organization as the first black member of the band. So I met wonderful singers who went on to have careers in opera, and one of whom, Jack Gillespie had a career singing in Heidelberg, Germany after the army, and then came back and ran the opera program at Texas Tech, producing students like Susan Graham and Terry Cook and others. But Jack was studying with private teachers in Washington, as most of the members were. And he kept urging me to come and sing for the man he was studying with: a man named Therny Georgi, who had had a career in Germany and in the States early last century, and he was teaching privately in his home in Washington. So just to get Jack off of my back - keep him from pushing me - I went to sing for the old fellow and the man (who had to know there weren't many black tenors singing opera at that point in the '50's), he looked at me and said, "You study with me one year, I guarantee you'll have a career." I thought "You gotta be joking." But I thought, "Okay.” I was looking forward to going back and resuming my teaching position, which was waiting for me. And I thought, "Well, suppose I go back and 10 years down the road, I kick myself for not finding out if the old guy knew what he was talking about." So I decided (with my new wife's agreement) to sign up for the extra year that they hadn't insisted on. So I could have an income and benefits to take care of her and our infant daughter who was born in Washington. And I started studying with him. Now, before that happened, this would be in 1957, the chorus took a trip to California to sing for an ROTC convention. And the captain put together a concert with the Denver Symphony at Red Rocks Amphitheater on the way back. So we had about three days free, and I and three of my colleagues in the chorus, one whose name is Ara Berberian, who you will know very well. Ara took a degree in law from the University of Michigan and sang in the glee club. He was not a music major, but he never used that degree and wound up singing for 20 some years as The Metropolitan Opera. We rented a car, drove up into the mountains and wound up in Central City that afternoon. Walking down the main street, Ara saw someone he'd been in law school with, at Michigan. This fellow was the chief tour guide for the summer, and also the chief usher for the opera. There was an opera company in Central City, and they were doing Rigoletto that night. So we received four free tickets to see Rigoletto with Frank Guarrera, Joan Carroll, Osie Hawkins and Jon Crain. Jon Crain was a tenor who sang with the New York City Opera. And so I'm there seeing my very first opera, 1957, and listening to Jon Crain rattle the walls. And I thought to myself, "Gee, it's a good thing I never wanted to be an opera singer, 'cause I could never do that all night long," not realizing that four years later I would make my debut at The Metropolitan Opera singing with Frank Guarrera in Così fan tutte - and then two years later singing the American premiere of Alban Berg's Lulu at Santa Fe with Joan Carroll. This was before I made the decision to study with Therny Georgi. When I signed up for the extra year, I got a call about two weeks after I signed up from a woman named Sally Turnau, who said, "I have a small opera company in Woodstock, New York; we do a summer season in Woodstock. We just lost one of our tenors, and our bass told me to call you." Well the bass was Ara Berberian, who had just gotten out of the chorus about a month before I was supposed to get out. But he didn't realize...I had signed up for an extra year. He told her to call me and I said, "Gee, I just signed up for an extra year in the army. I'll be looking for work when I get out in 1959." She said, "Okay, come up and audition for us in January of '58 and we'll see how it goes." I went up, auditioned for them and they gave me a contract for the summer of '59. That was my debut season, singing everything in English. I made a debut in this little theater that seated 250 people, with two pianos, and I made my debut in Die Fledermaus as Eisenstein. I sang Rodolfo. I sang Haroun in Bizet's first opera, Djamileh. I sang Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and I sang Torquemada in L'Heure Espagnole. The first night I walked out on stage in this little theater - Fred Popper playing one piano, Philip Eisenberg playing the other - I knew I was home. I knew I was doing what I was born to do.

Marc A. Scorca: It's incredible how it was not a goal of yours, and it unfolded for you in a really organic way. When you were singing in the church, when you were in elementary or middle school, did people say, "Hey, George, you have a really nice voice." Did you get solos at church? Did you know you had this gift?

George Shirley: I was born to parents who were musical, not musically literate. My mother, I think, possibly read music. My dad played three instruments all by ear; didn't read music. He played fiddle, piano and guitar. He was my first accompanist in church. My mother and I and my dad - we would sing for social events and churches in and around Indianapolis as well as in our church. My parents entered me in my first competition when I was five years old. There was a big department store in downtown Indianapolis, Blocks, and they had a children's hour. And I auditioned with an old Bing Crosby tune, "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky." My dad played for me. I won second prize. The first prize went to a little girl who sang and danced to "One, Two, Buckle my Shoe." My prize was to make my first recording, and I can recall stand in the recording studio, watching the wax peel off of the disc as it was being carved.

Marc A. Scorca: And you're a five year old child...

George Shirley: My parents had that recording, and they lost it when they moved in 1971. But I can remember listening to the recording, this little voice singing. And at the end of the recording, this voice said, (mimics young boy voice) "My name is George Irving Shirley, and I'm five years old." That was my first recording, not realizing it would be one of a few to follow as a professional. So my musical life began in my family. When we moved to Detroit, I started at the age of six in the first grade because my parents didn't place me in school when I was in Indianapolis. Detroit had arguably the best system of music education in this country. If you look at the records, so many professional musicians, classical and jazz, came from Detroit. Starting in the first grade, we had a music teacher who had his or her own room with all they needed to teach music to children. By the sixth grade if you had any musical talent whatsoever, you could read music; you were musically literate. (In) junior high school, we had a wonderful choir. Senior high was fabulous. Northern High School where I went, was basically a black school. There were two basically black schools: Miller and Northern, both of which produced musical talent. Cass Technical High School in Detroit was one of the premier high schools in the country at that time. Young people went there to major in disciplines: science, arts, music. And I went to Northern. The musical experience I had there under my teacher, a woman named Claire Weimer (who was Canadian) was second to none, because she gave us at Northern, musical literature that was equal to the literature that was being given to Cass Tech students and other students in the white schools. 11th grade, I began to sing the tenor solos in Messiah because we did Messiah every year. And we had an alumni chorus who came back to join us. We did it with organ, not orchestra. My first experience singing anything from the Verdi Requiem was on one of our spring concerts when we did the Kyrie and I sang the tenor solos...

Marc A. Scorca:...which is not easy music...

George Shirley:...not easy music, but that's what we were given in high school, a black high school. So I was ready to go to college. When I auditioned for Wayne, there was no problem. Wayne, as I said, did not have an opera program, but I continued to sing top notch literature; choral literature, tenor solos, and that. So I was getting what I needed to prepare me to do what God had eventually prepared me to do. Teaching, yes, but singing opera: no, no. In our household, we didn't listen to opera, only a Grand Ole Opry on Saturday afternoons because both of my parents were from the south. But I became interested. I took piano. My parents started me with piano lessons when I was five.

Marc A. Scorca: And you also played an instrument because you were in the band...

George Shirley: I was in the band that was formed at our church by one of our members: a little community band, and I played euphonium. And when it looked as though I was going to go to college, I began taking lessons on the euphonium and I went to college on an instrumental scholarship rather than a vocal scholarship. We got paid the $95 tuition every football season because that's when the band performed. So I had a thorough musical education. I studied private voice and my teacher there and also the piano teacher that I continued with in Detroit was one of two organists in our church. She taught piano and she also taught me art songs...some Schubert...So I was prepared fully to do what I didn't know I was going to do.

Marc A. Scorca: So when the time came for you to study opera singing, you had such a grounding in music that the opera singing was an add-on to all of this preparation you had?

George Shirley: Absolutely. When I studied with the teacher in Washington, Therny Georgi, he is the first one to give me an idea of what an operatic peak would be. And my musical background enabled me to learn things quickly and thoroughly. The five roles I did at Turnau in 1959 were brand new for me. So I had a year in which to learn those. And I did. I created a study pattern, a way of studying that enabled me to learn quickly. So when I wound up going to The Metropolitan Opera, the only opera that I had ever sung were the ones that I sang at Turnau. And then in 1960, I won the American Opera Auditions, which took me to Italy to make a debut.

Marc A. Scorca: I was wondering how you got to Italy. Tell us about those auditions and what happened.

George Shirley: The American Opera Auditions were based in Minneapolis, I believe. And it was one of the leading competitions during that time because it gave the winners a chance to go to Italy. The Italian singers on that side of it would come to America to make their debuts at Cincinnati in the summer opera season. So I won that year. The late Arlene Saunders won. The late Spiro Malas won and Abe Polakoff (baritone) won. And the Musetta for us was a soprano from Quebec City, Constance Lambert. So we trecked off to Milan and Florence to make our debuts there. And it was my first European experience. This is very interesting. I think very important for young singers to understand, as I spend a lot of time working on pronunciation in teaching. We arrived and we were met by the entourage headed by the Commendatore Columbo, who had been the mayor of Milano during the second world war, and he was the chief official of the auditions on that side in Italy. And we were ushered into the big room where we were to do our first piano rehearsal with the conductor, a very nice man named Sergio Massaron. He was going to play the rehearsal for us. We were introduced to the prompter, an old gentleman who had prompted at La Scala for many years. He sat down in front of us and opened his score. And we looked at each other and we said, "We don't need a prompter. We don't use a prompter." I had studied with Boris Goldovsky that summer. And Boris was really hard on anyone who watched him when he was conducting. He said, "No, no, no. Learn to use a peripheral vision." So that was ingrained in me. And I thought it was a bit much not to, 'cause the only time I saw him yell at anyone was when he caught somebody looking at him. So, the old fellow sat down and opened his score, ready to give us the first word of every sentence that we were to sing. That's what prompters do. And we looked at each other and said, "We don't need a prompter; we know it." And he was incensed. He slammed his score shut; sat there in front of us with his arms folded during the entire rehearsal. So we started. We didn't make any mistakes. And at the end of it, I swear to you, I looked at him and he looked like he was going to cry, because he had never worked with singers who knew the music, and could go through it without any mistakes without him telling (mimicks older voice), "Che gelida..." So they all gathered in the corner, gesticulating, looking over their shoulders, 'cause they had put aside an entire month to teach us the music. So they finally decide that they would bring us in every day, including weekends, to work on the pronounciation. And we thought, "Ahia," but it's the best thing that they could have done for us. The reviews after opening night said, "But of course the Italians can teach the Americans...about singing, "Ma la pronuncia era ottima (the pronunciation was excellent), qual vis in voltura sul palco scenico (what freedom on stage).” Well, yes, we were free because we weren't glued to the prompter and the conductor. I could sing toward Mimi giving the impression that I was singing to her and I could still see what was going on out here. So Boris's training was fundamental. In my class at Tanglewood that summer was Sherrill Milnes.

Marc A. Scorca: I was just going to say, Sherrill goes on and on about what he learned from Boris.

George Shirley: We were there that same summer. And then I went back in 1961 to prepare for my first Met season. And in that class was a young fellow named Justino Díaz. I became very good friends with Boris. I used to stay with he and his wife whenever I went to Boston to sing. And I loved looking at the scrapbooks of his programs that started in the 1940's: the photographs of all the great American singers who studied with him, Leontyne Price and Phyllis Curtin and David Lloyd - all those people were there as young people getting ready to start their careers. It was a blessing to work with Boris.

Marc A. Scorca: Now of course, a lot of Boris' work featured opera in English...

George Shirley: Yes, that's right.

Marc A. Scorca: Because he really wanted the American singer to connect with the meaning of what they were saying...

George Shirley: And also for the American public to connect with it, because how many Americans speak and understand Italian? My first Carmen was with him in 1961 at the Wilbur Theatre with Boris' company. Joan Wall was the Carmen who was singing smaller roles at The Met at the time. And the other was Débria Brown, an African American mezzo, a wonderful talent, who passed away far too soon. The baritone was: guess who? Sherrill Milnes, his first Escamillo. And there was a young fellow who was still a student at New England Conservatory at that time, who sang Zuniga, Justino Díaz.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

George Shirley: Wow. Yes.

Marc A. Scorca: That's just incredible.

George Shirley: We all got our starts about the same time. Spiro Malas was the bass in Woodstock. When I made my debut there, he was making his debut there. And then we wound up making our debuts in Italy together and wound up singing at Covent Garden and The Metropolitan Opera.

Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful to have that long, long relationship with artists you grew up with. So, I heard you say that you had your summer in Woodstock and the next thing: competition, you sang Rodolfo in Italy, but then you were in The Met National Council Audition.

George Shirley: Yes. After I came back from Italy, I had $500 to my name because I took my wife with me, 'cause I didn't know when I was gonna get back to Italy. So also when I was in Italy that summer, I won second place in the Vercelli competition, which is a big singing competition, so I was feeling pretty good. I was having success with my competition winning aria, "Nessun dorma," and so I came back and I sent my wife back to Detroit so I could make a little more money to take care of them. And I decided I was going to enter whatever competition I could. So I decided that I would enter The Met Auditions. Now that wasn't the first time I entered The Met Auditions. As I was getting outta the army and getting ready to go to Woodstock in '59, I decided to enter The Met Auditions, because I wanted to get some feedback from people who knew what I was getting into, 'cause I didn't know what I was getting into. So I sang in the Middle Atlantic Region Auditions in which Spiro Malas was also singing. And I lost. Spiro won third prize. First prize went to a soprano, who was the wife of one of my colleagues in the Army Chorus. And she went on to sing on Broadway. So I was standing there at the reception following the auditions and the judges, John Gutman and Howard Hook came up to me and they said, "We want you to know that we like very much what we heard you do today. We don't think you're ready to go to New York for the semifinals, but keep doing what you are doing." That's all I needed to hear; that's what I wanted to hear. I mean, I would like to have earned the money, but the fact that I didn't place didn't mean anything. It meant more to me to hear from these two men that I was on the right track.

Marc A. Scorca: What you bring up is such an important point because I think a lot of young people...there are so many competitions these days and a lot of people enter them and they enter them...studying voice is expensive. The money helps, but I don't think people pay attention enough to: are you getting the feedback you need? Are you getting the green light at the intersection that says: "Keep going, keep going." And what you were looking for in your auditioning for these competitions, was that sense that yes, you're on the right path.

George Shirley: Because here again, it was the first time for me to enter a competition on that level. So I needed to know that I was doing the right thing. Now, when I came back from Italy, I had won that competition in Italy, and I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna re-enter The Met Auditions because I'm sort of riding on a crest right now.” And indeed I also entered and won the Grammercy Park Auditions that was done for the first time: the Grammercy Arts Club. So I entered singing "Nessun dorma" and also "Paradiso." I got into the finals and it was interesting because John Gutman called me up when I was in the house starting rehearsing. He said, "What are you gonna sing for the finals?" I said, "Oh, I can sing 'O Paradiso' or 'Nessun Dorma.'" He said, "Why don't you sing 'Nessun Dorma'?" So I said, "Okay; right." So I went out and I sang 'Nessun Dorma.' I think I probably got the biggest ovation that I ever got, even after I got signed to a contract, but there's a photograph of me (I think it was in Saturday Review) coming out on stage after I had been announced as the winner of the contract. Now I had no idea that I was gonna win a contract. I thought that I was good enough to win some money, and that's what I was there to do, 'cause the money would've helped to fill the coffers, right? But when I heard George Shirley is the winner of The Metropolitan Opera contract, I thought, "Uh," and the photograph of me, as I'm walking out, looks like I've just been hit over the head with a hammer.

Marc A. Scorca: But what's amazing is this is only a couple of years after you really began to take opera seriously. So you must have had a real natural gift and your teachers must have just taken that natural gift to another level.

George Shirley: Well, that's it. First of all, I believe strongly that if it's not in you, it can't be developed. No one can put it in you. I've never been able to put a singing voice into anyone who doesn't have it. My job as a teacher is to help them to discover it, if it's there, and then to help them to develop it. But I can't put it in them. So I was given the gifts when I was conceived. I didn't ask for them, any more than I asked to be born. I was given those gifts and they were apparent to my parents and to others early on in my life - as I said, when I was five years old. But again, for me, I've just been following a path and acting out a script that was written for me before I was conceived; before I came into this world. And for that, I am grateful.

Marc A. Scorca: And I think that attitude enables you to savor every minute of it; not to bask in a prideful way, but just to recognize at every moment how blessed it is to have the gift.

George Shirley: Yes. Again, I didn't put it in me. I can only be grateful. I think that saying, (mimics haughty voice) "Yes, I did this"...is the worst case of false ego one can have. When I was a kid, one of the songs that I was given was "Invictus." 'Out of the night that covers me, Black as a pit from pole'... And it ends, 'I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul', and I sang that with great sense of authority, but then I've come to realize that that has never been the case. Never. The intelligence that created me knows. I've often said that every passing day is for God to know and me to find out. I don't know what's gonna happen in the next moment, but I believe the intelligence that created me knows, and I've just been following that path. And when there's been frustration, I've found it within me to keep following it. And when there's been success, I've found it in me to try to deal with that so that my head doesn't go (makes explosion sound), because I didn't have anything to do with it. It was given to me.

Marc A. Scorca: How did you manage the pressure? Because auditioning for The Met is one thing, and by the time you were auditioning for The Met the second time, you really wanted it. In 1957, it may have been, 'Let's see what happens'; in 1961, you wanted it.

George Shirley: Oh yeah.

Marc A. Scorca: So you have your own internal pressure of wanting to do well; wanting to win, whether for money or - wow - a contract. And here you are unprecedented: a black singer had never won The Metropolitan Opera Auditions and a black tenor in a leading role at The Metropolitan Opera: you were the first. You had enough pressure to be excellent. Was it another layer of pressure to be the first, time after time?

George Shirley: Well, frankly, I couldn't put that in my mind of being the first, because I would've just (sigh)...What was in my mind was to do the work that I was given to do, as best I could do it. And that is enough of pressure; that is enough of a chore, of a challenge to take this score: to learn it, to try to get to a point of vocal comfort and security in performing it. I couldn't lay on top of that the fact that when you walk out on stage, everybody's gonna be saying, "What is this black guy gonna do with this piece?" I couldn't do that. I've learned that I cannot control what other people will think in terms of what I do. I can only do what I've been given to do, as well as I can do that thing. And that is enough. And that is what has gotten me through countless times. If I'd been thinking of "Are they liking what I'm doing?" I couldn't think that.

Marc A. Scorca: In 1961, was The Met a welcoming place?

George Shirley: Yes. The people that I made my debut with were wonderful colleagues: Ted Uppman, Ros Elias - all of them. Only one report came to my ears through one of my colleagues, of a mezzo-soprano (who was from the south) whom he had heard express reservations about my being there. That's the only report I received. That was the only encounter that I had with that from my colleagues. It was interesting because, years later, I sang with that particular mezzo-soprano in a performance of Carmen, not with The Met but with a regional company. And it was polite. We got along; we didn't really socialize or anything like that. And I've often said that I had the pleasure - in the last act - of stabbing her to death.

Marc A. Scorca: You know, opera gives you those opportunities.

George Shirley: No, the relationship was cool. It was fine with me. It was all right. She wasn't nasty; I wasn't nasty. We did the work. We did the job that we were able to do as best we could do it, and the audience seemed to appreciate it.

Marc A. Scorca: You worked with every great conductor in the world. And when I read your biography and I see all the conductors you worked with, I was curious whether any one or the other of them taught you something valuable. Was any of them really instructive to you as musician?

George Shirley: Interestingly enough, I'd say more than one. One of them was Fausto Cleva.

Marc A. Scorca: Just a great old name.

George Shirley: Fausto Cleva knew every score that he conducted like the back of his hand. And there were insights...as I said, I made my debut as Rodolfo in Europe, but there were insights he brought to it that made me think more about, "Okay, how does this (go) then? Do you wanna change what I've been thinking about this character or not?" I enjoyed working a lot with Colin Davis in the UK. I enjoyed working with Bernstein; with Erich Leinsdorf. And I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. It's been a while, but those names stand. Pierre Boulez. So, I've been blessed to work with great conductors. (Georg) Solti. I enjoyed working with Solti a lot.

Marc A. Scorca: The roster is simply amazing. Did you have role models? Either singers you really admired, like "I'm gonna sing like that," or people who just managed their careers in a way where you thought, "That's a smart singer." Were there role models for you?

George Shirley: One of the first was a man who never sang operatically and that was Roland Hayes, the first black, internationally famous concert artist. Roland Hayes, born in 1887 in Curryville Georgia, and had a huge career as a concert artist: recordings, what have you, throughout the '30's, '40's, '50's. I first met him when I was an eight year old in Detroit. He came to my church in Detroit and sang a recital, and my parents made sure that I met him. And he was one of, sort of the big three in our household, musically. But Roland Hayes who gave Marian Anderson one of her first opportunities to sing before an audience (that knew his career), when he gave her an opportunity to sing on his recitals in Philadelphia. But Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson - and there's a fourth who wasn't a musician professionally, but I found out years later that he had studied violin. That was Joe Lewis, heavyweight champion of the world.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

George Shirley: But when I found out that he'd studied violin, I thought maybe that's the reason why he had that right hand...

Marc A. Scorca: I didn't know that; how incredible.

George Shirley: But those were heroes for me, from childhood, when I was growing up. I met Hayes when I was eight. I had a chance to meet him again when I went to his final recital at Carnegie Hall, when he was in his late seventies. And then for my radio program, Classical Music and the Afro-American that I put together for WQXR back in the '70's, I wanted to interview him and Robeson, but I went up to Brookline, Massachusetts to interview Hayes, and he had a rough winter and he didn't wanna do a live interview, but I sat with him for about an hour and we talked about his career, which was something I'll never forget. Now, he's the one who made his debut in Germany in the 1930's, I think, and he walked out on stage to a chorus of boos and the audience booed him before he could even open his mouth and he just stood there. And when they finally quieted down and stopped booing, he turned to his accompanist and changed the order of his program. And he began with 'Du bist die Ruh' of Schubert.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

George Shirley: At the end of his recital, he got a standing ovation. Now this is Germany, just before the Holocaust. That's the kind of soul he had. His recordings are still available. It was a very delicate voice, but there was a quality about it, that came from his soul; that made him a superstar, before Anderson blazed...

Marc A. Scorca: I remember your WQXR radio show here in New York. When I was a kid, I would listen to it. Absolutely.

George Shirley: So he was probably my first model. There were others of color, as well as white. And one of whom I met much later, when I heard him sing with the New York Philharmonic in about 1969, he came back. He was living in Amsterdam at that time. His name was Charles Holland. Now this guy had a beautiful lyric voice. He was so good that when he went to California to Hollywood with a chorus to sing for one of the movies - I think it was 'Guys got wings' - it was one of those movies about blacks. He was in the chorus. He was signed to a contract to sing in movies, but he had to leave the States, because he became involved with someone that he shouldn't have become involved with. So he left with Dean Dixon, the black conductor, and he lived in Paris. He was singing in a nightclub, because he and his brother had a jazz background. Peanuts Holland was a very fine jazz trumpeter, and Charles was his brother. And so Charles was singing in a nightclub in Paris one night, and someone came up to him after and said, "Monsieur Holland, why do you not go sing audition for L'Opéra?" He said, "They're doing Magic Flute." And he said, "No, I don't do Monastatos." But he said, "No, go do it." So Charles went back and spoke to his wife who urged him to do it. So he went over, and he said, "I went over and I sang, and I spoke with the coach that played for me." And he said, "Well, Monsieur Holland, we have (a) Tamino, we have Monastatos (available)." He said, "No, no. I don't do Monastatos, man." He said, "I do Tamino." He said, "But Monsieur Holland, Monsieur Gedda is doing Tamino." So he went back home and he told his wife what happened. She said, "Well, look, they're doing a new production of Pearl Fishers at L'Opéra Comique. Why don't you go back to them and make a deal? See if you can make a deal: they give you Nadir; then you do Monastatos." So he swallowed his pride and he went back and they did. So to my knowledge, he was the first black tenor to sing at L'Opéra. And he sang Nadir with the Opéra Comique. This was a wonderful voice. I met him when I went to Amsterdam to sing Pelléas. He was living there, and so we got together and Dennis Russell Davies was conducting the Pelléas. And so I told Dennis, "You know, there's this guy here who is a fabulous singer. He's not singing right now, but he has sung with the Amsterdam opera. I'd like for you to hear him." So he said, "Sure." So I went back to Charles. I said, "Look, dry yourself out and you get yourself in shape, because Dennis Russell Davies wants to hear you." So Charles rented the Concertgebouw (Hall) and sang an audition. He started off with 'Nature Immense' from Damnation of Faust and he sang a number of things. And I looked back over my shoulder to see what Dennis was doing. Dennis was like, "Whoa." Dennis hired him to come and sing with at the Cabrillo Festival on two or three occasions with Dennis conducting him and accompanying him, and there's a recording of French art songs with Dennis accompanying Charles and also the 'On Wenlock Edge' of Vaughan Williams. It's a recording I have, as a matter of fact. (I can't think of the name of the label right now). But then that opened up the possibility of Charles coming back. He's in his seventies now. And he came back and did a recital at Carnegie Recital Hall, which I attended. There were all of his old friends there. And then he met an entrepreneur who was from Detroit who's living in California, who supported financially his coming back and giving a recital at Carnegie Hall. This was a voice. And when he came back to sing with the Phil, he was doing the Airborne Symphony of Blitzstein. But he was a model for me.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

George Shirley: They were others. Jussi Björling, whose singing I loved. Unofrtunately, he passed away before I went to The Met. Nicolai Gedda...

Marc A. Scorca: Wonderful artist.

George Shirley: Fabulous. And I had to admire people like Richard Tucker and Franco Corelli. I wound up covering Corelli for Romeo and Juliet. I admired Lucianio (Pavarotti), whom I first heard when we were both singing at Covent Garden, 1967, I think it was. But I've learned not to listen to singers that I admire, tenors I admire too often, because if I start to sing something that they've sung, then it's their voice that's in my ear and not my own, and that's not a good thing. When I was covering Corelli in Romeo...at The Met, you always have to sit in the auditorium and write down the stage moves, 'cause you may have to go on without having a staging. And so when we got to the new house and I had to cover him, I told the management, I said, "Look, I'm gonna sit back in the lighting booth where I can't hear anything. I can still see what's going on on stage, but I can't hear him sing because when I hear him doing this, it's gonna come outta me that way, and it's not gonna sound like him; it's gotta sound like me." So I did that.

Marc A. Scorca: That's great advice for any young singer. And, here you are after such a distinguished career, going back to university life: University of Maryland, and then of course, the University of Michigan, and you trained as a music educator and you became a music educator. What for you was the special reward of working with young people?

George Shirley: Well, I started as a teacher on the high school level. There's something in me that loves sharing musical ideas and seeing them take shape and technical ideas on the academic level, certainly. And seeing them take shape - the things that I've learned and stolen from my colleagues, passing on to young singers...I believe that's the reason why I had a career. As I said, my career is interrupted by military service and then interrupted big time because of the singing career. But I got back into teaching well before going to Maryland. I was living in Montclair, New Jersey, and I went to dinner at a neighbor's house and I met the President of Staten Island Community College, who said, "Would you consider coming out (when you're in town) and working with some of our students?"

George Shirley: And I thought "Yeah." Cause I always knew I was going to get back to teaching. This was about 1973. I said, "Yeah, I'd like to do that." So I went out and taught a number of classes for about a year and then they ran outta money. But before that, I had met someone in an acting class. I had an operation that made me take some time off, and during that time in Montclair, we had a theater company called the Whole Theater Company, founded and run by Olympia Dukakis and her husband, and they lived in Montclair. And so I went and took some lessons from her brother, Apollo Dukakis, 'cause I wanted to just get a sense of what it's like to be a straight actor. And I also, at that time, met a person who had founded a dance company, and she invited me to become artistic director of this school, which we changed the name of to the New School for the Arts. We included dance. We included music and I started teaching classes and teaching privately. That honed my skills for the academic level. And I did that until I was asked to come and join the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1980. So even when I started my career in the '50's, I knew in the '60's, that I would return to teaching because it was in me to do that.

Marc A. Scorca: The rewards of it...even though so many of your students don't have the gift that will give them a career, still the pleasure of nurturing what is within them?

George Shirley: Absolutely. Because here again, no one knows. I tell my students, you don't know what you're gonna do. You're here right now because you belong here. I can't tell you what's gonna happen after you leave here. All I can do is try to share with you what I've learned, and so that you're prepared to take it to the next level, whatever that level is going to be. And more of them have gone into other areas of function than singing. One of my students (who) took his doctorate with me - tenor; really wanted to sing - taught for a couple of years in academia and then things in his personal life changed, and he married a soprano who was sort of Wagnerian-size voice. And he was unhappy with the way she was being managed. So he gave up his teaching career and apprenticed himself to Columbia Artists Management. And he stayed with them until all the apprentices were gathered together and told, "We're not about managing careers; we're about making money." He said, "Professor Shirley, I can't do that." So he left and apprenticed himself to the Barrett agency. He finished his apprenticeship there, and now is a very important manager in New York City: Robert Mirshak. So he didn't know at that point, (when he was getting his doctorate), that he was gonna become an artists' manager, but everything that he studied has prepared him to be an artists' manager. He knows voice. He knows what the difficulties are and the challenges will be, and others have gone on to become business persons and so forth. I tell my students, "You're here to do the work that is demanded of you to do. It is not going to be lost, because everything you learn here can be applied in many ways to whatever it is that you're supposed to be doing with your life. So nothing's lost." I ask people, "What's the most identifiable musical entity at the University of Michigan? What would the public identify?" The marching band. Some 300 students strong. At no time is there more than say 6% of that number from the School of Music, Theater and Dance. But they're out there practicing, rehearsing their instruments, learning what that can do to enhance and influence what they're going to do. So your time is not wasted here unless you choose to waste it.

Marc A. Scorca: So many people must ask you for career advice. Any singer, any black tenor, any wannabe voice teacher. Is there a through line? Are there themes? Is there a primary theme to the advice you give to the young singer who comes to you saying, "Professor Shirley, what's your advice?"

George Shirley: Well, it depends on where they are and what my experience is of them at that time. I've just had a couple of kids who are graduating pounding me with these questions. First of all, I say, "I can't make these decisions for you. I can share with you what I feel for you at this point. First of all, do the work that is before your nose to do. If it is a gap year in which you're not going to be in academia, continuing your progress in a planned structured program, then structure a program for yourself so that you're not going to be wasting time and losing ground. If that means continue to work on languages, then do that - either using your app to do it; speaking, recording yourself. So that it sounds like what it's supposed to sound like - not what you think you just did, but what you just did, so that you can make corrections. Vocalizing: give them a series of vocalizes to do every day to strengthen your sense of your voice and your understanding of it and its ability to do what it is you want to do. So plan it out. Yes, you have to work, but find a dedicated time in your work day, or after your work day, or before your work day to take care of your vocal growth and find a time to take care of your musical growth. And if there's something that is calling you outside of music, something that has struck you as being, "This is the way I want to go," then follow it, follow it. Listen, be in tune, be in touch, because it is you finally, not somebody else. I can say, "But we've spent all this time developing and you're gonna do what?" No, you have to do what calls on you from inside to do and know that, because you're not gonna be doing what we've been studying, it's not something that you have to totally abandon. It'll be with you, 'cause this is a gift you've been given. And it's up to you to sort that out. Here again, I use myself as an example. I wanted to teach: that was it. Singing, I can do that, but there was another plan that I had to listen to and that really took over. It took over and my career has been one that I've just followed along. My plans, at times, have not worked out, and that means that the plan of the intelligence that created me has taken over. So I've come through it. I'm always amazed when I look back at what I've been able to do. I'm amazed at that because most of it I didn't plan to do.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, George Shirley, it is an inspiration to listen to you; to hear the truth and the integrity of what you share with us.

George Shirley: I appreciate your interest in what I've done and for all of us who are chosen to do this wonderful thing of speaking this language, that is music.