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creative:impact - Recognizing creative distinction: George Shirley

George Shirley
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
George Shirley

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


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

He has won international acclaim for his performances with the Metropolitan Opera, and with major opera houses and festivals in England, Germany, Austria,, Argentina, the Netherlands, Monte Carlo, Scotland, Italy, Japan, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Santa Fe, and Detroit, among others.

Mr. Shirley has recorded for the RCA, COLUMBIA, DECCA, ANGEL, VANGUARD, C.R.I, CAPRICCIO, PHILIPS, and ALBANY labels; he received a GRAMMY AWARD in 1968 for his role (FERRANDO) in the prize-winning RCA recording of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE. He has performed more than 80 operatic roles over the span of his 63-year career, as well as oratorio and concert literature with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras (e.g., London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, London Symphony, and the major orchestras of New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Boston) and conductors (Solti, Stravinsky, Leinsdorf, Ormandy, Klemperer, Bernstein, Maazel, Colin Davis, von Karajan, Schippers, Steinberg, Ozawa, et al.). As recitalist he has collaborated with William Bolcom, Charles Wadsworth, Philip Eisenberg, Martin Isepp, Jonathan Brice, John Wustman, Kelly Wyatt, George Posell, and Martin Katz, to name but a few.

He was the first Black tenor and the second African-American male to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained for eleven years as a leading artist. He was the first black high school vocal music teacher in the Detroit Public Schools and the first black member of the United States Army Chorus in Washington, D.C. The Opera News January 2004 issue featured a retrospective of Mr. Shirley’s career, Reunion: George Shirley, by Eric Myers. A new article, Talking With A Legend, written by Kenneth Overton and published in the Opera News February 24, 2022 issue, again focuses on the tenor’s 63-year presence on the lyric stage.

George Shirley is The Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In 2015, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, and in 2022 Opera America inducted him into their new Hall of Fame.


George Shirley

Creative Washtenaw Medals for Arts, Sciences & Humanities + 21st Century Awards

Creative Washtenaw: THE pARTy!

George Shirley's congratulatory letter from Creative Washtenaw

George Shirley interview on NPR's 1A

Creative Washtenaw's Lifetime Achievement medal.
Creative Washtenaw
Creative Washtenaw's Lifetime Achievement medal.


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in to hear our conversations about the impact and reach of Washtenaw County's arts and creative industries and the artists and creatives who choose to live here and add to our local quality of life and place. The pARTy! is back! After a four-year pandemic pause, Creative Washtenaw's signature benefit, celebrating remarkable talent in our community returns. Mark your calendars for February 27th at Washtenaw Community College. And, to catch up, we are honoring 12 medalists, three each for the lifetime achievement, outstanding service, and the ignitors. It's a remarkable list which you can find at Creative Wasthenaw dot org. The Lifetime Achievement Medal recognizes outstanding and sustained artistic accomplishments worthy of national and/or international acclaim. Over the next few weeks, we're going to focus on the award winners and with some new and some archived interviews. So, let's get started. Star tenor of World Opera and a Grammy Award winner, Ann Arborite George Shirley is a legendary performer, a National Medal of the Arts recipient, which is our nation's highest accolade for artists, he is in the Opera Hall of Fame, he was raised in Detroit, and he joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1987 and is the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University emeritus professor of music at the University School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Professor Shirley. George, welcome to creative:impact.

George Shirley: Thank you. Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

Deb Polich: I'm really excited about this interview. And finally adding you to Creative Washtenaw's Hall of Fame for the Arts.

George Shirley: Well, I'm honored to be added, and thank you.

Deb Polich: And so deserving. So, you were raised in Detroit as I was, and I credit the Detroit Public Schools for introducing me to and igniting my passion for the arts. Was it in school or somewhere else that you began to understand that your voice--your beautiful tenor voice--was rare and remarkable?

George Shirley: Well, I don't know exactly when that happened, but I thought of it that way. I mean, I started singing with my parents when I was four years old in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born. And we moved to Detroit in 1940. And I began school here, actually. And the music education program in the public schools of Detroit was second to none in this country. And by the time we got to sixth grade, anyone who had any musical talent at all was musically literate because we were taught to read music from the first grade on. In junior high school, we had a wonderful choir. Senior high school was fabulous. I went to Northern High School. And every year, we did Messiah, and I started singing solos in 11th grade. First experience with the Verdi Requiem, which was on one of our spring concerts where I did the solos. All of that, not expecting that that was going to feed me into a career as a professional singer. I mean, I got solos in college and in high school, and people enjoyed my singing. As a matter of fact, before we came to Detroit, my parents entered me in a children's contest in Indianapolis sponsored by a large department store. And I won second prize, which was the opportunity to make my first recording. I sang "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky," an old Bing Crosby. And my dad played the piano for me.

Deb Polich: Wonderful.

George Shirley: Up until the seventies, my parents still had that recording. At the end of it, you heard this little voice say, "My name is George Irving Shirley. And I'm five years old."

Deb Polich: Oh, my gosh.

George Shirley: So, this whole thing started a long time ago, and the idea of my becoming an opera singer, which we weren't focused on opera in our in our home. It was religious music. I began to appreciate classical music at some point, 11th or 12th grade. But my parents bought my first record player, and I started buying recordings of orchestras because that music fascinated me. But still, I focused on becoming a music teacher.

Deb Polich: Which you did become. And you were the first--one of your many firsts--African American to teach music in a Detroit high school.

George Shirley: Vocal music.

Deb Polich: Vocal music.

George Shirley: Yes, vocal music. I was the first vocal music teacher on the high school level.

Deb Polich: Well, thanks for that clarification. And then, did you expect to spend your entire career as a public schoolteacher?

George Shirley: Yeah. Until Uncle Sam changed that. By draft in 1956. I mean, I started teaching at Miller High School my last semester at Wayne University, 1955. My counselor, a woman named Marva O'Hara, was instrumental in my being appointed to an emergency position, a substitute position, at Miller High. And then, when I graduated, it was my job. I was focused on doing what I planned to do, which was teach.

Deb Polich: And you mention that the Army interrupted you, but then came the first Black member of the United States Army chorus. And did that put you on your path to the opera stage?

George Shirley, 1961
Carl Van Vechten
Wikipedia Media Commons
George Shirley, 1961

George Shirley: Yes, it did. One of my colleagues, a very close friend, Jack Gillespie, kept urging me to come and study with the man he was working with privately in D.C. because the guys and, of course, we.'re all continuing their studies with private teachers in the area. And I kept putting Jack off until finally, just to get him off my back. I said, "Okay, I'm going back to the old guy." And I did this. This teacher had had a career in Europe. Timmy George was his name. Part Greek, part Turk. And so, I went over and sang for him. And he looked at me and said, "Well, you study with me one year. I guarantee you have a career." Well, I wasn't interested in a singing career, but I just thought, "Okay, I'll keep studying." And, eventually, I decided, "Well, maybe this old guy knows something that I don't." And I don't want to go back to Detroit, resume my teaching career, then two years down the road, kick myself for not finding out if, you know, he was on to something. And I signed up for the next two years because it was a three-year commitment to the course, which is another reason I didn't want to initially go into it, because I only wanted to spend two years, get out, and come back to my job in Detroit. So, okay, let's just find out.

Deb Polich: So, you stayed there, and then the history continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Ann Arborite George Shirley, international opera star and National Medal of the Arts winner. So, you eventually became the first African American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera, and you stayed there for about 11 seasons, correct?

George Shirley: Well, that's not quite correct.

Deb Polich: Okay.

George Shirley: I wasn't the first African American.

Deb Polich: Oh, okay.

George Shirley: The first African American was the great Marian Anderson.

Deb Polich: Oh, sure. Of course.

George Shirley: She opened it. And then the first male to sing at the Met was right after her, Robert McFerrin, who was a baritone. So, there were a number of sopranos that came after that, including Leontyne Price. But I was the first African-American tenor to sing with the company. And it was interesting because that's the guy who gets those romantic leads, and a lot of people are not that comfortable with that.

Deb Polich: Right. Right. Right.

George Shirley: So, I soprano, but that was out of my hands, and everyone else was in the hands of the intelligence that created life. And I just followed the script.

Deb Polich: And you did come back to teaching. And while you were doing that, you still continued to perform. And, in 2016, President Obama placed the National Medal of the Arts around your neck. Tell us about that experience.

George Shirley receiving his National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
The University of Michigan
George Shirley receiving his National Medal of Arts from President Obama.

George Shirley: Oh, it was special. I mean, I had sung at the White House before with the Army chorus and then with the local opera company, the Washington Opera Society. We did a performance there of excerpts from The Magic Flute, and I sang the role of Tamino. This was for the Eisenhower administration. But getting the Medal of Honor from the first Black president of the United States was on a level completely different than any other.

Deb Polich: And so well deserving. So, I'm going to ask a question. You do a lot of interviews. Is there any question you don't get asked that you wish you were asked?

George Shirley: Well, not to this point. I think people have taken the opportunity to ask me whatever was burning in their minds to know, and I've done my best to try to answer those questions.

Deb Polich: And you do such a great job of that, as well as singing and everything else that you do. George, it's truly been an honor to have you as my guest, and we look forward to celebrating you at the pARTy! on February 27th.

George Shirley: Well, thank you so much, Deb. I appreciate your and your board's willingness to give me this recognition. And I will continue to strive to be worthy of it.

Deb Polich: So well-deserved. That's George Shirley, international star of opera and National Medal of the Arts winner. And we appreciate George being here and look forward to celebrating him on February 27th. Find out more at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public Radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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