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DSO honors landmark tenor

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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It’s hard to find a more appropriate candidate than George Shirley for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s annual Classical Roots Concerts.

The Grammy Award-winning tenor, who moved to Detroit with his family when he was four years old, made history by breaking the color lines in many areas. He was the first African-American high school music teacher in Detroit (at Miller High School) and the first black member of the United States Army Chorus. He was also the first African-American tenor to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he spent 11 years in residence.

Shirley, 83, has also recorded for several record labels since 1961, winning a Grammy in 1968 for portraying Fernando on a recording of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”

All in all, not bad for someone who didn’t plan on a career in singing.

“I wanted to be a teacher,” says Shirley, who’s resided in Ann Arbor since returning to Michigan in 1987. “I had no thoughts about (performing) when I was in school. I never attended an opera. I didn’t like the idea of opera.” Singing in church since he was a toddler in his native Indianapolis, Shirley instead focused on getting his teaching degree.

A couple of key turning points steered him towards opera, however. During Shirley’s senior year at Wayne State University, where he was studying Chorale Music Education, the Glee Club director “thrust a score of Handel’s ‘Oepipus Rex’ in my hands and said, ‘I want to do this. Take a look at the role of Oedipus. It’s a great work for a soloist.

“We did three performances at the Ponstelle Theatre in 1955 and I loved the experience, but it did not say what it was going to do with my life, professionally.”

During his time in the Army Chorus, however, a fellow singer introduced Shirley to a teacher in Washington, D.C. “He said, ‘Study with me for one year and I guarantee you’ll have a career.’ Nobody had ever said that to me, so I said OK,” recalls Shirley, who extended his service stay for an extra year to take advantage of the opportunity. The training led him first to a small opera company in Woodstock. N.Y., and he moved on to the Met after winning a National Arts Club scholarship competition during 1960.

During his performing career Shirley sang more than 80 roles, appearing around the U.S. and in Europe. He returned to education in 1980, first at the University of Maryland and, seven years later, at the University of Michigan, where he’s now the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music and still teaches “a small number of students” as well as conducting workshops.

“I just tell them to work,” says Shirley, who’s being honored at DSO concerts this weekend along with Earl Lewis of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “You have to be dogged in your pursuit of gaining ownership of your voice. Studying singing is a very frustrating experience; It’s like discovering who you are as a person and using your voice to express that.

“It’s a tough road and you’ve got to have the guts to deal with your frustrations and hang in there and apply yourself 100 percent to what you’re doing. There are no shortcuts, but there are great rewards.”

If You Go

• The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 40th annual Classical Roots Concerts

• 10:45 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2-3

• Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

• Tickets are $15-$100.

• Call 313-576-5111 or visit dso.org.

• Note: Saturday’s concert will be webcast via dso.org/live

Web Site: www.dso.rog

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