George Shirley (b. 1934)

by Randye Jones

George Irving Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 18, 1934. At age 6, his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he began music lessons. He was active as a vocalist at churches in the area and as a baritone horn player in a local band.

Shirley entered Wayne State University in Detroit as a music education major, receiving his bachelors degree in 1955. He was drafted into the military the following year and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus. After his discharge in 1959, he continued studying voice with Therny Georgi, then he moved to New York where his professional career began.

Soprano Leontyne Price, conductor Karl Bohm, and George Shirley posing during a production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," 1966-67. Printed on front: "Louis Melancon, Metropolitan Opera, New York City."
Soprano Leontyne Price, conductor Karl Bohm, and George Shirley posing during a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” 1966-67. Printed on front: “Louis Melancon, Metropolitan Opera, New York City.”

He made his debut with a small opera troupe at Woodstock, New York, as Eisenstein in their production of Die Fledermaus. He then journeyed to Italy and made his European debut as Rodolfo in the Puccini opera, La Boheme. In 1961, he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions by performing “Nessum dorma,” beginning an eleven-year association with the house. While at the Met, he sang a 28 different roles from 26 operas, especially those of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner.

Shirley received a Grammy Award in 1968 for singing the role Ferrando in the RCA recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

George Shirley as Ferrando, 1968. Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Louis Melancon

From the 1960s to the present, Shirley has performed on the concert stage, singing recitals and oratorios. He has premiered several works during his career, on both the concert and operatic stages. In recent years, he again became involved with education. He taught at the University of Maryland from 1980 until he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1987. He served there as Director of the Vocal Arts Division, Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music.

Shirley accepted a role in an opera, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he had declined previously in his career. He sang the role of Sportin’ Life in the 1998 production at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria. He discussed his decision to final perform the role, the importance of the opera and its controversial story line in a 2019 documentary film.

George Shirley receiving the National Medal of Arts Award from President Barack Obama, 2015

In December, 2014, Shirley released a recording of Negro Spirituals entitled “George Shirley at 80: My Time Has Come!” In 2015, he received the National Medal of Arts Award, which is presented to individuals or organizations who have contributed significantly to the cultural life of the United States. Shirley stated, “I was stunned when informed by NEA Chairman Jane Chu that I had been selected to receive the National Medal of Arts Award. I had never seriously entertained the possibility of such official endorsement of my service to the arts by those tasked with making such decisions. I feel today as I felt some 54 years ago–dazed and incredulous–when I heard the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions announce that I had just won first prize plus a performance contract with that esteemed company.”1

George Shirley is a tenor whose voice was known for its vibrancy and flexibility. His power and richness of sound easily filled a opera house or a concert hall.





1 “U-M’s University Musical Society, George Shirley to receive National Medal of Arts” Michigan News, accessed September 11, 2015,

The Singer Speaks

George Shirley hosted a radio broadcast, Classical Music and the Afro-American in the 1970s. Listen to the historic broadcast, African-Americans and Opera, from March 26, 1974, and hosted by WNYC, which includes performance excerpts.

databaseThe Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.


To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 21, 2024. Accessed:.