George Shirley

The first black member of the U.S. Army Chorus, George Shirley went on to become the first African-American tenor placed under contract by the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout his career, Shirley has performed in the world’s most prestigious opera houses and has been accompanied by the most distinguished orchestras in the world. In addition to performing and recording, he has also worked as a music educator.

George Shirley as Don Ottavio

Shirley was born on April 18, 1934, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He grew up in a musical household. Shirley’s father, Irving Ewing, played guitar, piano, and violin, and his mother, Daisy Shirley, sang. At age of five, Shirley entered a radio contest, singing a popular Bing Crosby song. As a prize, he was given the first recording of himself. When his parents moved to Detroit, Shirley continued to sing in church and school. He also played baritone horn in a community band. In addition, Shirley attended the Ebersol School of Music for six years. As a youth, Shirley never considered a career in opera. Rather, he was interested in music education.

George Shirley at the recording session of Stravinsky’s opera, “Oedipus Rex” for Columbia Records. The label on the back: “Recording Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ for Columbia Records in January 1962, under the composer’s direction.

Shirley attended Wayne State University, earning his B.S. degree in music education in 1955. He spent a year in Wayne State’s graduate program and taught school before joining the army in 1956. Shirley and his high school sweetheart, Gladys Lee Ishop, were married on June 24, 1956.

Made Operatic Debut
Shirley considered joining the army band program, but then he decided to audition for the U.S. Army Chorus. The audition was successful, and Shirley became the first black member of the famed touring and performing ensemble. He spent three years with the Army Chorus, also singing regularly with the choir at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. In 1959 Shirley heard from an Army Chorus friend, Ara Berberian, who also later developed an operatic career, that the Turnau Opera Company was looking for a tenor to perform at a summer resort in New York’s Catskill mountains. Shirley was hired and he made his operatic debut in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2014 National Medal of Arts to George Shirley (L) during an East Room ceremony at the White House on September 10, 2015, in Washington, DC. George Shirley was honored for his contributions as a tenor.

Shirley caught the attention of Boris Goldovsky, a renowned opera conductor, and Goldovsky urged him to attend the Tanglewood Music Center. Goldovsky also suggested that Shirley participate in his summer opera school. With Goldovsky’s encouragement, Shirley entered and won the American Opera Auditions in Cincinnati. Shirley was then offered the chance to sing in Milan and Florence. It was in Milan that he made his European debut, taking on the role of Rodolpho in Puccini’s La Bohème.

Leontyne Price and George Shirley with conductor Karl Böhm

Shirley returned to America, claiming first prize in auditions at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1961. He was the first black tenor to win this competition. The prize entailed a $2,000 scholarship and the chance to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Following a performance on the television show, The Bell Telephone Hour, he made his debut with Metropolitan Opera in October of 1961, appearing in the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.

Michigan Opera Theatre Celebrates Detroit-Bred Operatic Tenor George Shirley

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