Black Opera Stars Show Many Facets

June 5, 2013 Updated: June 10, 2013

Recently released CDs featuring African-American opera singers certainly demonstrate their versatility.

Shirley Verrett, (May 31, 1931–November 5, 2010) is a singer to be remembered. The African-American mezzo-soprano had some spectacular successes in her career, including “Norma,” in which she sang the title role and the part of Adalgesia a few months apart, and that of the title role in “Carmen.” 

In 1973, she sang both Dido and Cassandra in the Met premiere of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” replacing an indisposed Christa Ludwig in the latter part. Verrett radiated star quality, possessing physical beauty, a strong dramatic presence, innate musicality, and an ability to perform in many styles. 

Newton Classics has just issued “Shirley Verrett Edition,” a four-CD set that captures her early in her career (1964–1965), when she was already a fully-formed artist. “Singing in a Storm,” the first CD, takes its title from a spiritual. 

The album, comprised of songs in various languages, deals with the universal struggle against oppression, beginning with the spiritual “Oh, Freedom” and ending with Pete Seeger’s anti-war lament “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” 

The range of material is wide. Several Kurt Weill songs are included (for example, “Cry the Beloved Country” from “Lost in the Stars,” a musical against South African apartheid), the Yiddish anti-Nazi “Partisan Song,” the spiritual “No More Slavery Chains for Me” (a/k/a “No More Auction Block for Me”) and “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of a black man in the South. The last is not as harrowing as Billie Holiday’s original recording. 

The orchestra and chorus and presumably the arrangements are by Leonard de Paur, the noted chorus leader and conductor, who started the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival. 

The next two CDs present the singer with the piano accompaniment of Charles Wadsworth, who became the director of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, a position he held for decades. 

The first album is a Carnegie Hall concert that begins with songs by Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, followed by American folk songs and spirituals, and ending with a splendid “Alleluja” from Mozart’s “Exsultate, jubilate.” 

The second CD with Wadsworth contains Spanish songs by De Falla, Nin, Granados, Obradors and Montsalvatge, all performed with flair. 

The last CD contains Vivaldi’s “Credo in E minor,” “Stabat Mater in F minor” and “Beatus vir in C major.” Renato Fasano leads the Polyphonic Ensemble of Rome. The focus here is not on Verrett’s singing (although she does get to show off her superb breath control), but on the orchestra and chorus, which are excellent. Thus, the set has four CDs, each showing different facets of Verrett’s art, albeit not the operatic roles for which she was best known. 

Nicole Cabell
Reviewing a performance at the Met of “La Boheme,” a couple of years ago, I wrote: “Nicole Cabell, showing off her lovely legs and radiant voice, steals the second act as the flirtatious Musetta; her waltz was one of the evening’s highlights.” 

Cabell, an African-American soprano, first became famous when she won the BBC Singer of the World Competition at Cardiff in 2005. She scored another triumph last season, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato at the San Francisco opera in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi.” 

Her recent album, “Silver Rain” is a stunning collection of Langston Hughes poems set by music by Ricky Ian Gordon, who plays piano on the recording. The 22 songs include the 10-song cycle “Genius Child” and others chosen by the singer and the composer. The songs run the gamut emotionally from love (“Love Song for Antonia”) and joy (“Heaven”) to despair (“Troubled Woman”) and social protest (“Song for a Dark Girl” about a lynching down south). 

Hughes’ verses are often inspired by jazz and blues, and seem tailor-made to be sung, or at least they seem to have inspired Gordon. Cabell’s voice is always a pleasure to listen to, the lyrics are clearly enunciated and the soprano burrows into the mood of each piece. 

Lawrence Brownlee
In “The American Singer,” Peter Davis notes that by the 1970s, there were a number of prominent African-American female singers but “black males making a name for themselves were much rarer ….” He then discusses George Shirley, the fine tenor who sang starring roles at the Metropolitan Opera and other opera houses during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Today, one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors is Lawrence Brownlee. He has a smooth vocal style with a gleaming top. His new album, “This Heart that Flutters,” with pianist Iain Burnside, contains pieces from both live concerts and studio recordings. 

The program is eclectic with art songs from France (by Duparc), Argentina (by Ginastera) and Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets (in Italian). He knocks out the nine high C’s in “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” as stunningly as when I saw him perform it at the Met. The piano sound is a bit muddy and hopefully he will record his interpretation of the aria with a full orchestra someday. 

“Tu econdo il mio disegno” from Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia” again shows off Brownlee’s bel canto style. 

The title track is one of four songs by talented American composer Ben Moore (born in 1960). 

There are two settings of texts by James Joyce and two from W.B. Yeats. 

Brownlee begins and ends the program with heartfelt versions of spirituals, “Deep River” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” 

It’s been a long wait for another star African-American tenor since the time of George Shirley but Brownlee has the talent, both as an opera singer and as a recitalist.