The Rise of ‘Black Callas’: Shirley Verrett
Shirley Verrett Carter, center, in the 1957 Shakespeare Under the Stars production of The Rape of Lucretia (photo by Marvin Blosser/Antiochiana)
The opera world recently lost a shining light with the death of singer -Shirley Verrett (1931-2010). Known as the “Black Callas,” a reference to the soprano Maria Callas, Verrett performed brilliantly in some of the most dramatic roles in the genre, including Verdi’s Aida, Lady Macbeth, Didon from Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and Leonore from Beethoven’s Fidelio. She began her career right here at Antioch College, but the theater collections in Antiochiana do not clearly indicate that, for at the time she still used the name of her estranged husband, James Carter.
Perhaps most notable among the things that Antioch College became known for in the 1950s was the summer theater festival Shakespeare Under The Stars. From 1952 to 1956, the entire catalog of Shakespeare’s plays was performed in repertory on an outdoor stage constructed on the front steps of Antioch Hall. Well documented are the large crowds and the distances they came to attend the only such festival then in North America. Fresh off this success, Antioch Area Theater looked to do something different for the 1957 season. To quote their own press release: “This year the festival again has gone out on a limb…and will present a series of music dramas in addition to its usual Shakespearean fare.” The series began with Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Kurt Weill’s Lost In The Stars, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble In Tahiti, and The Soldier’s Tale by Igor Stravinsky rounded out that season. Hiring Benno Frank, a former director of opera companies in Germany and Palestine, as artistic director placed the series on thoroughly professional footing. Frank put together a company bursting with talent and poised for careers on stage and screen, but none had a future as bright as Shirley Verrett Carter.
The Rape of Lucretia tells the story of how the last Etruscan king of Rome became a catalyst for revolution when he forced himself upon his nephew’s virtuous wife, Lucretia, who is driven to suicide over the attack. Her death outrages the Romans to the point of revolt, thereby bringing about the Roman Republic. In the title role was Shirley Carter, winner of scholarships at Tanglewood Music Center and the Julliard School of Music, and the most recent Marian Anderson Award, a fund set up by the legend herself to support young singers. She’d even made a successful appearance on the television show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
Reviews indicate that she impressed her audience, even if they weren’t quite sure what it was they had just seen. Veteran Dayton Journal Herald theater critic A.S. Kany, always an enthusiastic reviewer of the summer theater, conceded that he was “not completely sold as yet on the Britten style but he realizes that is probably because he is shallow-grounded in that respect.” However, no amount of dissonance in the score could take away from Verrett’s Lucretia: “Shirley Carter has a beautiful modulated soprano voice that is not unlike that of Marian Anderson.” The Yellow Springs News reported that “the chaste Lucretia is the center of the action and, as Shirley Carter sings the role, is certainly the leading character in the opera. Miss Carter has a thrilling contralto voice. Her stage presence suggests a lady of great dignity and her singing shows a woman of great passion.”
In her autobiography I Never Walked Alone, Verrett describes her experience in Yellow Springs as a “golden opportunity,” particularly since she also landed the rather contrasting part of Linda, a cabaret singer, in Weill’s Lost in the Stars, an adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel of apartheid South Africa Cry The Beloved Country, which played on alternating nights. “This was my first opera performance for which I was paid a salary. By the end of the summer, I had made many new friends. And because I pitched in and helped with so many other aspects of the productions, such as sewing costumes and sweeping the stage, during the last night of performance, I was called onstage and given a bouquet of flowers for ‘collegiality.’”
Eleanor Holmes Norton ’60 once described Antioch College as a launching pad, a metaphor probably not lost on the readers of its alumni magazine. It turns out that it has also launched people who never enrolled. R.I.P., Shirley Verrett.