SFOpera - ‘I Can’t Let That Stop Me:’ Stage Legend George Shirley on Overcoming Hatred

‘I Can’t Let That Stop Me:’ Stage Legend George Shirley on Overcoming Hatred

Tenor George Shirley has always been aware of the fact that, for many Americans, his skin color alone has made him the object of hatred.

Back in the early days of his career—when he was completing basic training on his way to a position in the U.S. Army Chorus—he knew some of his fellow soldiers were uncomfortable sharing the barracks with a Black man in uniform. He heard the slurs as their cars rolled by.

And then there was that one day he stopped by the pay office to collect his check. Shirley knew the routine. You walked in, you saluted, and you announced your purpose: “Private Shirley reporting for pay, sir.”

But instead of handing over his pay, the officer behind the desk picked up the .45-caliber pistol he kept up his desk. He cocked it and pointed it at Shirley.

“What would you do if I did this?” Shirley remembers the officer asking as he stared down the barrel of the gun. An accident, a misfire, could have ended the career of the future opera icon right then and there. Shirley says he stared right back. “Sir, there wouldn’t be very much I could do.”

Shirley, now 86, is part of a generation of opera stars responsible for desegregating the art form, forging a path both as a performer and as an educator. He was the first African American to teach high school music in his hometown of Detroit. The first Black man to join the U.S. Army Chorus. The first Black tenor to sing a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera.

And over a career that spans six decades, he’s mentored a generation of top performers to follow in his footsteps, from stars like tenor Michael Fabiano to soprano Louise Toppin. He’s earned a Grammy. He’s earned a National Medal of Arts. And he continues to teach, even now, even through a global pandemic.

But no matter the obstacles he’s faced, Shirley professes to be optimistic about the future—and about his fellow man. Shirley is a man of faith. He believes that God has a plan for all of us, he says, and for him personally, that plan goes beyond singing. It’s about understanding and teaching others to understand in return.

“I'm always aware of the fact that for many Americans I'm a target. But I can't let that stop me from doing what God has created me to do.”

Reached at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Shirley dreams of a future for opera where the tragedy of the coronavirus leads to greater and greater innovation. Even though he’s officially retired, he has just completed a couple of voice lessons with students over Zoom. It makes him dream of a time when singers will be able to project themselves into performing arts spaces, like “that old Star Trek thing, ‘Beam me down, Scotty.’”

In Shirley’s world view, life serves you what you’re supposed to do, puts you where you need to be. Opportunities arose in his, and he took them. “I didn’t ask to be a singer. I didn’t ask to be a teacher,” he says. Each juncture in his past is a clue to understanding his present.

“I believe that we are all gifted at conception with what it is that will govern our responses to life,” Shirley says. For nine years, his father—the child of a large family from a Kentucky tobacco farm—and his mother, a church secretary, had tried unsuccessfully to conceive a child. Each time, his mother miscarried. Until she had Shirley.

“When I came along after nine years of marriage, they were just delighted that I was born,” Shirley says. Music had always been a part of his life. He learned, growing up, that his mother had sung to him in the womb—and that even as a toddler, he’d grow quiet at the sound of her singing voice.

“My dad played three instruments all by ear. He was an illiterate musician, meaning that he didn't read music, but music came out of him, every pore of him,” Shirley says. His mother, meanwhile, sang at church. Together, they formed a trio, with Dad at the piano and mother and son at the microphone.

He remembers his parents entering him in a department-store singing competition at age 5—and making off with second prize. His reward was a chance to make a recording of his winning performance.

“I can remember standing in the recording studio, fascinated as I sang—fascinated by the wax peeling off the disk as it was being carved with my voice in it.” Shirley still recalls signing off in a high-pitched little voice: “I’m George Irving Shirley, and I’m 5 years old.”

Tragedy, however, nearly shattered the Shirley family trio. Early on, Shirley’s parents worked as maid and butler, with his father also finding jobs at the Maytag home appliance company and in welding. They moved to Detroit in 1940, searching for new opportunity.

But Shirley says a dental surgery gone awry nearly cost his father his life. One of his teeth had been pulled, and the dentist had treated with the wound with surgical packing that later turned out to include lead.

“I was standing in the bathroom, watching my dad,” Shirley says. “He was standing at the sink. And he pulled something out of his mouth. It was a long, black object. It was the packing the dentist had inserted in the wound. The next thing we knew, he was in the hospital.”

Doctors told the family he wouldn’t survive. But he ultimately pulled through after days of hospitalization. Shirley says he lived to be 99.

Though music was central to the Shirley family, opera was not. “The only opera we heard in our house was the Grand Ole Opry with Minnie Pearl and all those good ole folks,” Shirley said, referencing the famed country music theater.

As a young man, Shirley himself had a taste for the jazzy sounds of Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan. That, and a bit of Perry Como.

But it was church and school that put him on a path to a career in music. By the time he reached Detroit’s Northern High, he had already learned to read music. And Detroit’s Ebenezer AME Church offered him and his family a platform to combine performance and service. The great African American tenor Roland Hayes even performed for his congregation once.

Out among the parishioners, Shirley would one day spot his future wife: “I wasn’t paying attention to the sermon. I was looking through the palm fronds at this pretty girl with the silver spoons in her hair who was seated out in the pews.”

Inspired by his own teachers, Shirley initially set out to pursue music education as a career. But the U.S. Armed Forces draft changed the course of his life.

“My future wife and I were planning to get married in August 1956. And lo and behold, I receive a letter in the spring of ’56 from Uncle Sam. It said: ‘Greetings, you better be in touch with your local draft board,’” Shirley recalls. “So all my plans, my plans for getting married, everything was shot.” He moved his marriage up to the spring, then packed to leave for the Army.

Shirley knew the U.S. Army Chorus was a possibility. Some of his friends had even gotten together to travel to the auditions. But Shirley, at first, did not.

“I didn't go. Why? Because the band had never had a Black member in its history,” Shirley explains. “I thought, ‘Nah, no, no. No way I’m going to spend what little money I’ve got to go and audition for something I haven’t got a chance of a snowball in hell of getting into.’”

But as he settled into the rhythm of daily life at Fort Leonard Wood, he started to get bored. His job was to sound the euphonium as part of the base’s band. He’d play when the American flag was raised in the morning. He’d play when it was lowered at night. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go out of my mind if I’m going to do this for two years.’”

So Shirley scraped together some money to travel to the chorus auditions in Washington, D.C. He sang. He waited. Two minutes’ deliberation turned into a half hour.

Captain Samuel Loboda appeared to deliver the good news: “We’ve decided that we would like to have you join us, if that’s what you really want.” Shirley suspects the delay was due to the fact that he would be the first Black singer associated with the chorus. Shirley says he replied, “Sir, if it wasn’t what I really wanted, I wouldn’t have traveled all night to get here.”

To join the chorus was to join an elite group of singers—one of the top professional men’s choruses in the country. Shirley would be asked to perform in the White House and for foreign dignitaries like Soong Mei-ling, better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

But being the only Black face in a sea of white ones, at a time of segregation in the United States, often meant Shirley had to face indignities his colleagues did not. He couldn’t always stay in the same hotel as the other singers. Sometimes, performance organizers would have to check to see if any audience members would object to Shirley performing as part of the chorus.

“I went at a time when there was white flight from Washington, D.C. because more Blacks were moving in. So there was a lot of change going on at that time, socially. It was a time when one couldn't be totally comfortable. I mean, as a Black person, I'm never totally comfortable in this society,” he says.

And then there were brushes with racism within the chorus itself. Shirley considered many of the men there to be his brothers: He’d trust his life to their hands, he says. But he remembers one Mississippi recruit in particular calling him “ace” all the time—short for “ace of spades,” an old-fashioned racist insult.

“I could have jumped into his face and cussed him out,” Shirley says. But he didn’t. He says he prefers to avoid confrontations.

Decades later, when Shirley was conducting a vocal masterclass in Florida, he would meet the Mississippi man again. The man explained that he had no idea what it was like for Shirley as a Black man until he saw Shirley barred from a hotel the chorus was staying at.

“In his case, that was the beginning of a change in him that I'm grateful to God for now,” Shirley says. “He might not have reacted that way, had I—when he said ‘ace’—jumped all over him.”

But for the most part, his colleagues supported each other. He and a fellow Detroit singer, bass Ara Berberian, ended up on a U.S. Army Chorus tour together through Colorado. Thanks to Berberian, Shirley received a free ticket to see the opera at Central City—his first time watching a performance live.

On the schedule that night was Rigoletto, starring Frank Guarrera, Joan Carroll and Jon Crain. The power of the singing left Shirley feeling pinned to the wall. “I thought to myself, ‘It was a good thing I never wanted to be an opera singer because I could never do that all night long.’

“Little did I realize sitting there that night—it was ’57—that four years later, I would make my debut at the Metropolitan Opera with Frank Guarrera in Così fan tutte. And two years after that, sing the American premiere of Alban Berg’s Lulu at Santa Fe with Joan Carroll.”

Shirley looks back on those experiences often. He shares them with his students. It’s evidence of his philosophy: “You’re here because you belong here.”

He left the Army Chorus “riding the crest of a wave.” Mentored by tenor Therny Georgi, he started to discover his potential as an operatic leading man.

He had movie-star looks and the sterling tone of a tenor—with a depth and darkness in his voice that allowed him to even sing lower-range roles, like the lead in Pelléas and Mélisande.

And though he encountered resistance—casting a Black man as a romantic lead was not always an easy sell—he quickly conquered world stages. In April 1961, at age 26, he became the first Black singer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, earning himself a contract there.

Almost a month later, he would be on stage at San Francisco Opera, playing Prince Tamino in The Magic Flute and Rodolfo in La Bohème, the latter of which was performed under the baton of fellow Black artist Henry Lewis.

“I was riding a high during that time when I came to San Francisco,” Shirley says. The Magic Flute was newer to him at the time—he wonders now if it was his first time performing it—but La Bohème was well within his wheelhouse. He says he had performed just a few months before in Italy, to great acclaim.

“One of the reviews said, ‘Il Rudolfo nero ha superato gli esami,’ which means that the Black Rudolfo has passed his exams. I didn't get that as being a negative of any kind,” Shirley says. He recalls being stared at by Italians who likely had never seen a Black man before. “There was a curiosity that I found to be healthy, not unhealthy.”

Does he ever get tired of talking about his career? Of the obstacles he faced and the ones society has yet to surmount? Shirley brushes aside the questions. “No. I don’t get tired,” he says.

He believes his experiences can still have meaning for audiences today. And he feels a responsibility to share.

When he turns on the news, he says he’s disappointed to find the nation back where it was years ago, divided over the familiar lines of race, violence, and inequality. “We find ourselves back in the same kind of trough. So that is something that troubles my sleep at night.”

But in sharing stories of the past, he finds himself returning to the career he set out to pursue all along: education. Teaching is his first professional love, he says. And it is the teachings of his own experience that he spreads with every story, every memory.

So, no. George Shirley does not get tired. Speaking his truth is his power. And he plans to continue, for as long as it takes for the lessons of the past to be learned.

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