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George Shirley to be honored with NATS Lifetime Achievement Award

posted on 12:12 PM, April 29, 2014

George Shirley, a longtime NATS member and one of America's most versatile tenors and enlightened musicians, will be honored during the 53rd NATS National Conference with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Shirley has on a number of occasions served as one of four Master Teachers for the NATS Intern Program, most recently in June 2012 at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. He also remains in demand nationally and internationally as performer, teacher and lecturer. Shirley originally joined NATS in 1981.


One of America's most versatile tenors and enlightened musicians, George Shirley remains in demand nationally and internationally as performer, teacher, and lecturer.

As performer, George Shirley has won international acclaim for his performances with the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera (Covent Garden, London), Deutsche Oper (Berlin), Teatro Colòn, (Buenos Aires), Netherlands Opera (Amsterdam), L'Opéra (Monte Carlo), New York City Opera, Scottish Opera (Glasgow), Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Glyndebourne Festival, and Santa Fe Opera, among others. He was the first black tenor and second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years as leading artist. Throughout his 54-year career he has sung with major symphony orchestras around the globe including the Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Royal Philharmonic (London), New York Philharmonic, BBC, San Francisco, ORF (Vienna), New Philharmonia (London), and the Detroit Symphony. Conductors with whom Mr. Shirley has collaborated include Sir Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, Igor Stravinsky, Jascha Horenstein, Sixten Erling, Eugene Ormandy, Sir Adrian Boult, Seiji Ozawa, Erich Leinsdorf, Bernard Haitink, Hans Swarovsky, Josef Krips, Leonard Bernstein, James DePreist, Fausto Cleva, Boris Goldovsky, Thomas Schippers, John Pritchard, Jorge Mester, Sir Colin Davis, Riccardo Muti, Dennis Russell Davies, Karl Böhm, Henry Lewis, Julius Rudel, Edo deWaart, John Nelson, Andrew Litton, and Herbert von Karajan. Accompanists with whom the tenor has shared the stage include William Bolcom, Jonathan Brice, Martin Isepp, Martin Katz, George Posell, Samuel Sanders, Charles Wadsworth, Howard Watkins, John Wustman, and Kelly Wyatt. Mr. Shirley has recorded for RCA, COLUMBIA, DECCA, ANGEL, VANGUARD, CAPRICCIO, CRI, ALBANY, KOCH, and PHILIPS; he received a GRAMMY AWARD in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the prize-winning RCA recording of Mozart's Così fan tutte, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.He performs the role of Schütze in the KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS recording of Richard Strauss’ last opera, Friedenstag, and his COLUMBIA recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Pierre Boulez, was reissued in compact disc form by SONY RECORDS. Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, under the baton of Antal Dorati, and Mozart’s Idomeneo, led by Sir Colin Davis, both feature the tenor in the title roles of both operas for PHILIPS records. A  recording in a somewhat new field for George Shirley was released on the CAPRICCIO label in the fall of 1996; it features the tenor as narrator of two poems by James Forsyth, Spirit of St. Louis  and Ruth, set to the music of the late Franz Waxman; the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is conducted by Lawrence Foster. The tenor collaborated with pianist William Bolcom on a 2003 ALBANY recording of the song cycle Battle Pieces written by Warren Michele Swenson to the Civil War poetry of Herman Melville. A new release of recorded live performances combined with excerpts from studio recordings has just been announced by HAMBURGER ARCHIV FÜR GESANGSKUNST. Each album consists of three CDs spanning 5 decades of opera and concert performances that capture, much of it in “real time,” the diversity of repertoire that characterizes the profile of George Shirley’s career.

 In May, 1994 the tenor combined forces with renowned baritones Robert McFerrin Sr. and William Warfield, along with other artists, in a concert at Howard University in Washington, DC in support of plans for a Marian Anderson National Conservatory of Music. On April 9, 1994, George Shirley was inducted into the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts Hall of Fame, along with Metropolitan Opera colleagues Tatiana Troyanos (post.), Charles Anthony, and Dominic Cossa.Mr. Shirley sang the role of Herod Antipas in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome with  soprano Maria Ewing in the title role in the inaugural season of the Michigan Opera Theater's new Detroit Opera House in June, 1996. The summer of 1998 found the tenor singing his first-ever staged performances of the role of Sportin' Life in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. In May, 1999, George Shirley performed the narrations in Charles Ives' symphonic work Three Places in New England with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Adams. He sang the role of Eumete in Monteverdi's opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria during the 1999 summer season of Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, NY. In January, 2003, he appeared in the cameo role of Roscoe in concert performances of Sondheim's Follies at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These performances, given in celebration of the Theater's 75th Anniversary, included four members of the original Broadway cast plus Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie. In October 2005 Mr. Shirley combined forces again with William Bolcom at the piano to perform  an aria from the composer’s opera A View from the Bridge at the dedication of the new Arthur Miller Theatre on the campus of The University of Michigan.  In February he joined University of Michigan faculty colleagues Geri Allen, Ellen Rowe, Robert Hurst, Donald Walden, Michael Gould, Ed Sarath, Dennis Wilson, and guest jazz greats Carmen Lundy and Jimmy Cobb in a performance of the late Mary Lou Williams’ Mass for jazz ensemble, soloists and choir. In April Mr. Shirley appeared as guest soloist on a concert at Jackson State University in Mississippi in an effort to raise funds to revive Opera/South, an opera company founded in that city in 1970 for the express purpose of providing African Americans the opportunity to perform operatic roles. In March, 2013, he stepped in on fairly short notice to perform the role of Father Grenville in Eugene (OR) Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

As teacher, George Shirley was selected as one of the Distinguished Scholar-Teachers for the school year 1985-86 at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he served as Professor of Voice from 1980 to 1987. In 1979 he was selected Andrew W. Mellon Humanist-in-Residence in the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University, and returned to that historic institution in 1986 as Visiting Professor in the Department of Music. The University of Iowa, Montclair State College (New Jersey), Howard University, Morgan State University, The University of the District of Columbia, Montgomery College (Maryland), the Baltimore School for the Arts, Hampton University (Virginia), the Cincinnati Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music (NYC), Rust College (Mississippi), Louisiana State University, the Aspen Music School, the American Institute of Musical Studies (Graz, Austria), and The Cape Town (South Africa) School of Music are a few of the institutions that over the years have availed themselves of Professor Shirley's skills as Master Class Teacher, Artist-in-Residence, or Visiting Professor. George Shirley was invited to join the distinguished faculty of the School of Music of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in September, 1987; three months later he was accorded the honor of conducting the opening Master Class at the National Association of Teachers of Singing National Convention in San Antonio, Texas. In 1988 Dr. Shirley was invited to join the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he subsequently taught and performed for a period of ten years. Two weeks of the summer of 1992 were spent as guest faculty at the renowned Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. At their July, 1992 meeting, the University of Michigan Board of Regents named George Shirley The Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music.

Professor Shirley spent the Fall Semester of school year 1995-96 as Visiting Scholar at the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Iowa, pursuing research in Voice Science with Dr. Ingo Titze, one of the world's leading researchers in that field. In June, 1999, George Shirley was appointed Director of the Vocal Arts Division of the University of Michigan School of Music.

Professor Shirley has on a number of occasions served as one of four Master Teachers for the National Association of Teachers of Singing Annual Intern Program for Young Teachers, most recently in June, 2012 at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. In December, 2013 he spent a week teaching performance classes as guest of a high school associated with The China Conservatory in Beijing. He also coached repertoire for members of the faculty of the school.

As lecturer and adjudicator, Mr. Shirley has traveled across the nation presenting distinctive insights into traditional music, music written for the concert stage, the role of the musical performer, and especially the singular role of black composers and performers. Some of his presentations have included the lecture/demonstration "The Music of Black Folk: From Africa to the New World" at Howard University; the lecture "The Black Singer" for the Wisconsin State Chapter of The National Association of Teachers of Singing; the lecture/recital "The Songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor" for The University of Michigan Society of Fellows; and, most recently, the lecture “The Molding of the Arts in America via the African American Experience: The Arduous Expedition from Sambo to Rodolfo, Tamino, and Otello” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Michigan. He has also participated on numerous scholarly panels and has judged major vocal competitions in the United States and Canada, including the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the initial University of Maryland International Marian Anderson Vocal Arts Competition. In late October of 1993, Professor Shirley served as Finals Judge of the prestigious Mobil Song Quest in Wellington, New Zealand. He then gave masterclasses at the Adam Concert Hall of the School of Music at Victoria University in Wellington, at Marama Hall on the campus of Otago University in Dunedin, and at the Music Theatre of the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Since March, 1994, he has on numerous occasions adjudicated the SAVANNAH  ONSTAGE  INTERNATIONAL  FESTIVAL’s American Traditions Competition, a unique singing contest that celebrates American music, i.e. jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals, musical theater, country and western, and American operas such as PORGY & BESS. He has since 2000 served on the Board of Directors of the William Matheus Sullivan Foundation. In February 2007 he was invited to join the distinguished panel of judges for the George London Foundation Vocal Competition, and in August he served as a member of the international panel of judges at the Asian Youth Festival in Singapore.

The City of Detroit and the State of Michigan have honored this Wayne State University graduate on numerous occasions. From his Alma Mater Professor Shirley has received both the Alumni Association and Arts Achievement Awards. In November, 1996 he was honored with the Wayne State University Organization of Black Alumni Achievement Award, and in April of 2008 he received Wayne State University’s College of  Fine, Performing and Communication Arts Ovation Award. In 20013 Wayne State University awarded him the Doctor of Humane Letters Degree, honoris causa. He was the first African-American to be appointed to a high school teaching position in music in Detroit, and later became the first black member of the United States Army Chorus in Washington, DC.

Dr. Shirley holds honorary degrees from Wilberforce University, Montclair State College, Lake Forest College, the University of Northern Iowa, and The New England Conservatory of Music, in addition to his Alma Mater. He has served as a Senior Fellow in the University of Michigan Society of Fellows. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, Pi Kappa Lambda, Phi Kappa Phi, and Omicron Delta Kappa. He is also a National Patron of Delta Omicron, a member of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, and a former member of the Board of Directors of the University of Michigan Musical Society, the Board of Trustees of the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Executive Board of the Horace H. Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan. In 1999 he was elected to the Boards of Directors of the National Opera Association and the Voice Foundation. In 2006 he was elected to the Board of the Santa Fe Opera, a company with which he sang leading roles over a period of 13 years, premiering such works as Berg’s Lulu (Alwa), Henze’s König Hirsch (Leandro), Cavalli’s L’Egisto, and Strauss’s Dafne (Apollo). In 2011 George Shirley established, with the invaluable assistance of Videmus, a non-profit arts organization, the first George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition for high school students. Now in its fourth year, it has expanded to include students of college age. The dual purpose of the competition is to provide financial assistance to college-bound students as well as those already in academic programs, and to popularize the art song/operatic aria compositions of African American composers. The competition is open to students of all ethnicities.

At their January, 2003 National Convention in Washington, D.C., The National Opera Association honored George Shirley with its "Lift Every Voice" Legacy Award, and The University of Michigan School of Music Alumni presented Professor Shirley with their Citation of Merit at their October 7, 2005 Reception and Dinner at the North Campus Commons in Ann Arbor. On October 1, 2006 he received the Dr. Charles H. Wright Legacy Award for Excellence in Fine Arts from the Charles H. Wright African American Museum in Detroit.  In Decembeer of that same year he was recognized with the Trail Blazer Award from the National Association for the Study and Performance of African American Music.

George Shirley was granted emeritus status upon his retirement from  The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance in May, 2007. He continues to teach on a part-time basis at the school as well as privately. He continues to teach on a part-time basis at the school as well as privately. In April, 2014, the School of Music, Theatre and Dance hosted an 80th Birthday Concert featuring faculty and former students of Professor Shirley. He received a “Trailblazer Award” from the university, and was further honored by an award created in his name to be granted in perpetuity to a graduating student who, in the opinion of the voice faculty, has demonstrated the strongest potential for an operatic career.

A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Mr. Shirley has been married to the visual artist Gladys Ishop Shirley for 57 years. They have two children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.