• Tue. May 30th, 2023

Local music organizations welcome Grammy award singer George Shirley, 88, for a week of opera events

Former New York Times music critic leads kickoff events

By John Spencer

President and Executive Director

Chamber Music Cincinnati

Most people know of Jackie Robinson, Sidney Poitier, and Teddy Wilson, who broke baseball, movie, and jazz color barriers. Too few know Grammy winner George Shirley, who did the same in American and European opera, followed by an international career. That’s will change, at least in Cincinnati.

Easter Sunday, April 9, starts the first-ever collaboration between Chamber Music Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Opera, the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, and includes three major Black churches in a week-long celebration of Mr. Shirley’s crucial contributions to the performing arts.

George Shirley in 1961, the year he won the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions. Photo provided

Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when overt segregation was still rampant in America, Mr. Shirley—who sang Verdi’s Requiem with the Cincinnati Symphony, judged the Metropolitan Opera District Auditions here and has given masterclasses at CCM—became

      •     The first Black high school music teacher in the Detroit public school system

      •     The first Black singer in the U.S. Army Chorus.

      •     The first Black singer to win the national Metropolitan Opera Auditions.

      •     The first Black tenor to have a contract with the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang over a decade years.

      •     A world-renowned performer of more than 80 operatic roles—in many cases the first Black singer to do so—opposite opera’s greatest divas, including Martina Arroyo, Teresa Berganza, Monserrat Caballé. Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni, Anna Moffo, Roberta Peters, Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto, Theresa Stich-Randall,  Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, and Shirley Verrett, and under many legendary conductors at the world’s great opera houses.

      •     A Grammy winner for singing the role of Fernando on the 1968 RCA recording of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

      •     Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

      •     A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest arts honor, from President Barack Obama in 2015.

      •     A 2022 Opera America Hall of Fame inductee, joining Cincinnati Opera’s Patricia Beggs.

The following are key events of Cincinnati’s Easter week celebration of Mr. Shirley, who turns 89 on April 18.

Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023 – Exact times TBA

Mr. Shirley will sing spirituals during Easter morning services at three of Cincinnati’s most important churches: Corinthian Baptist Church in Bond Hill, Rev. Dr. KZ Smith, Pastor; New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage, Reverend Dr. Damon Lynch, Jr, Pastor; New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn, Rev. Damon Lynch III, Pastor.

Joseph Horowitz. Photo provided

Monday, April 10, 7 p.m., Free, Register

Hear former New York Times music critic and author of many books on music, Joseph Horowitz interviews Mr. Shirley about his extraordinary life and barrier-breaking career. The first Black singer in the U.S. Army chorus and 1961 Metropolitan Opera National Auditions winner, Mr. Shirley is  the first Black tenor to have a contract at the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang for over a decade, launching his international career.  Horowitz presents audio and video recordings of Mr. Shirley’s legendary performance and accompanies Mr. Shirley on the piano for live vocal performances. Parking in CCM Garage. Baur Room, Mary Emery Hall, UC/College Conservatory of Music,

Tuesday, April 11, 2023, 7 p.m., Free, Register

Hear leading from the keyboard, Joseph Horowitz tells a remarkable story. On arrival from Bohemia, Dvorak expected American music to follow European classical models. From student Harry T. Burleigh, he learned that it was Black sorrow songs and spirituals, and later used Black themes in his Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” his Op. 96 string quartet, “American,” and his American Suite, the latter in particular also influenced by his exposure to Native Americans. Burleigh became a legendary composer and arranger of spirituals, the first Black composer to influence American classical music, and a key mentor to Marian Anderson. Messrs. Horowitz and Shirley present the composers’ works with CCM pianist Meishan Lin. Baur Room, Mary Emery Hall, UC/College Conservatory of Music,

Admission to both events is free, but registration (above) is required.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Cincinnati Opera will record a podcast for later release in which The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director Evans Mirageas moderates an engaging and open conversation with Mr. Shirley and four young vocalists who will have the opportunity to ask frank questions about building and advancing a career as a Black artist in the professional world of opera.

Friday, April 14, 2023, 7:30 p.m., Music Hall

Mr. Shirley will perform “Deep River” and “Oh, Freedom,” during the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s annual Classical Roots concert, conducted by John Morris Russell. From its inception as a summer concert series in neighborhood churches in 2001, Classical Roots has grown into a vibrant spring celebration of the African American musical experience.

At its heart is the Classical Roots Community Choir that performs in numerous concerts and collaborations throughout the year. This year’s concert will also feature gospel music trailblazer Donald Lawrence.

Mr. Shirley will also participate in coaching sessions at CCM and at several Cincinnati Public Schools.