Review

I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer

Shirley Verrett with Christopher Brooks



The autobiographies of American opera and concert singers tend to
follow a well-worn path: discovery of the voice, early training,
rise through the musical ranks --- and then a pedestrian recital of
concert triumphs in cities A, B and C, opera productions under
superstar maestros D, E and F, and of course, offstage chitchat
about big-name colleagues G, H and I, with dollops of praise for
those who were "good colleagues" and catty remarks about those who
were "difficult." It is the kind of stuff that opera buffs and
"canary fanciers" lap up eagerly, but it seldom gives us insight
into either character or purely musical matters.

Soprano Shirley Verrett has not entirely avoided this trap in her
career memoir, but her candidness, her serious attitude in the face
of both musical and racial challenges, and her efforts at honest
self-appraisal lift this book several notches above the prevailing
level. Verrett comes across as a self-confident and outspoken woman
who stood up for herself, learned (after the fact) from her
mistakes, and has few if any regrets. She has in fact little to
regret, as anyone who heard her as Azucena, Norma or Lady Macbeth,
or perhaps on the symphony or recital circuit, can attest.

Born into a black family of devout Seventh Day Adventists in New
Orleans, Verrett showed vocal aptitude early. Her first musical
experiences revolved around her black church and community. Her
church's doctrine frowned upon opera because it dealt so often with
immoral stories. Her parents were dubious about such a career for
their talented daughter, but eventually they came around and
proudly followed her progress.

Verrett adds her quota of evidence to the now well-known indictment
of the classical concert world for its hostility to black singers
as late as the 1960s. When none other than Leopold Stokowski
invited her to sing with the Houston Symphony, he had to rescind
his invitation when the orchestra board refused to accept a black
soloist. Stokowski later made amends by giving her a prestigious
date with the much better known Philadelphia Orchestra. Verrett
twists the knife deftly by ironically thanking the Houston board
for aiding her career.

The tone of Verrett's book is chatty and conversational, with
frequent references to "Tommy" Schippers and "Jimmy" Levine. Her
writer-collaborator Christopher Brooks has done a good job of
humanizing his subject, though he simply cannot avoid a certain
amount of then-I-flew-there-and-sang-this-under-maestro-so-and-so
boilerplate. There are however a number of misspelled names and odd
inaccuracies (e.g., the late Harold Schonberg of the New York
Times
is twice identified as music critic of "the New York
Times Magazine
").

Verrett is honest about herself, confessing when she did or said
something dumb, or when her performances fell short of her own
standards. She is also forthcoming about her failed first marriage
and on the medical problems that assailed her late in her career.
Only in the book's last few pages does she get into her philosophy
and methods of teaching voice (she has been teaching at the
University of Michigan since retirement). One wishes she had gone
more deeply into that subject. She tells her students to "get up on
that stage and don't bore me." Good advice. We'd like more.

There is enough routine backstage gossip in I NEVER WALKED ALONE to
keep happy those who are more interested in personalities than in
music. That is a seemingly unavoidable aspect of such books. But
there is also a very honest portrait here of a talented singer who
knew her own worth and was not about to take guff or shabby
treatment from anybody. Those lucky enough to have heard Shirley
Verrett sing will recognize her in these pages.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

I Never Walked Alone: The Autobiography of an American Singer
Shirley Verrett with Christopher Brooks

  • Publication Date: April 30, 2003
  • Genres: Autobiography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • ISBN-10: 0471209910
  • ISBN-13: 9780471209911