George Shirley enjoyed a moment in the spotlight when Wayne State kicked off its yearlong Sesquicentennial Celebration in January — and the spotlight is certainly a place where Shirley shines.
One of the most illustrious voices of the 20th century, Shirley (who graduated from the College of Education in 1956) was among the handful of alumni and faculty featured in student performances that paid tribute to 150 years of university highlights. The creative presentation blended an archival recording of Shirley’s performance as Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte — for which he won a 1968 Grammy — with a live performance by Eric Taylor, who earned his master of fine arts from WSU in 2014 and now serves as artistic director of the nonprofit Detroit Children’s Choir. An honored guest at the event, Shirley basked in a standing ovation from the full house after the final note rang out.
“George Shirley is an iconic musician and artist who firmly placed the footprints of Wayne State University on the world’s greatest stages,” says Norah Duncan IV, WSU Department of Music professor and chair. “Now, more that 60 years after his graduation, he continues to perform and to teach, coach and inspire young artists.”
In addition to his musical achievements, Shirley was a civil rights pioneer many times over. Following his WSU graduation, he was the first African American to be appointed to a high school music teaching position in Detroit Public Schools. He also was the first African American member of the U.S. Army Soldiers’ Chorus and the first African American tenor to perform a leading role with New York’s renowned Metropolitan Opera.
Shirley was drafted by the Army a year after leaving WSU, when he was teaching music at Miller High School in Detroit. During basic training, he picked up where he had left off with the Wayne State marching band and played the euphonium in an Army band. Shortly after that, he earned a spot on the newly formed Soldiers’ Chorus alongside former opera tenor Therny Georgi, who recognized his talent and invited Shirley to study with him.
Upon being discharged from the Army in 1959, Shirley made his professional debut in New York. Just two years later, he entered and won the Metropolitan Opera’s 1961 national auditions, appearing in 26 shows over the next 11 years. Over the course of his career, he performed more than 80 roles in the world’s greatest opera houses, and served on the faculty at the University of Michigan, among other teaching positions. Wayne State presented him with an honorary doctorate in 2012, and in 2015 he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony.
“George Shirley is an institution who stands for perseverance, fortitude, an unmitigated pursuit of excellence and music’s ability to give voice to our humanity,” Duncan says. “We are humbly proud of our esteemed alumnus and friend.”
As part of our Sesquicentennial Celebration throughout 2018, Wayne State University will share stories that highlight the people, places and moments that contribute to our 150-year history. Learn more at 150.wayne.edu.