Dozens gathered in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s Stamps Auditorium on Thursday night to commemorate George Shirley, University emeritus professor of voice, as the recipient of the 2016 Shirley Verrett Award.
Established in 2011, the Women of Color in the Academy Project presents the annual award, which includes a $5,000 stipend, to a University faculty member whose work supports the success of female students and faculty in the arts who come from diverse backgrounds. The Women of Color in the Academy Project is a campus-wide faculty network that provides support for the development of scholars who are women of color.
Attendees at Thursday’s event included community members from Shirley’s hometown of Detroit and a number of current students and colleagues.
“Music feeds my soul,” Shirley said. “It feeds my spirit, and to share this moment with people, some of whom I don’t know, many of whom I do, it’s indescribably delicious.”
Opera singer Marcia Porter performed at the ceremony followed by a performance by one of Shirley’s current students, School of Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Kaswanna Kanyinda. Her first piece, she explained, told the story of a person who experienced trials and tribulations while working toward a goal, and the second song was about how the individual became lost to the world after reaching that goal.
Kanyinda celebrated Shirley through song, attributing many of her successes and accomplishments to his instruction.
“He helped me to understand that music isn’t about perfection,” Kanyinda said. “It’s about sharing who you are, what you’ve been through and who you could be through song. I know that I wouldn’t be on this path, and I know I wouldn’t have achieved what I have without this man’s guidance.”
School of Music, Theatre & Dance graduate student Dorian Dillard II also attended the ceremony to honor Shirley’s mentorship. He said he met Shirley in 2011 when he won second place in the first George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition. Since then, Dillard said, Shirley has served as a mentor and father figure to him and others.
“It’s an honor to be in the presence of a legend,” Dillard said. “One thing that I always take away from George Shirley is to remain humble. And know that everybody is somebody and everybody matters. He’s very humble and beyond deserving.”
Olwyn Shirley, George Shirley’s daughter, attended the event as well. With pride, she said he has always had many children: his students. He showed the same attention and devotion to his students as he did to her and her brother, she said.
“His door is always open,” Shirley said. “They come to the house, he hosts parties for them, he encourages them, and I watch him and I feel so blessed to have him.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily following the ceremony, Shirley said the most important advice he’d like to impart on his students is to enjoy the challenge of expressing themselves through music. He described this gift of expression as a public service that should never be taken lightly.
“You’re serving the composer, you’re serving the poet, you’re serving the public,” Shirley said. “It’s a kind of public service that is blessed.”
Shirley announced during his speech that he will use his monetary prize to fund his George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition. He said the competition was established to encourage the next generation of musicians and to acknowledge many operatic songs written by African American composers who are not as widely known.
“I want people to know this music,” Shirley said. “And the best way of doing that is getting young people interested in performing it, helping them to appreciate it and to perform it for people so audiences will know more of it.”
Shirley is known internationally as an esteemed performer, teacher and lecturer. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest public artistic honor. He has performed in more than 80 operatic roles throughout his career and won a Grammy Award in 1968 for one of his roles.
Although Shirley’s name is prominent in the global art community, he has also remained loyal to his Michigan roots, as evidenced by the large number of attendees from his hometown of Detroit. Detroit natives Stephanie Donaldson and Reverend Barbara Kelley came in support of Shirley, explaining that they attended the same church as him in their youth.
While he was studying music education at Wayne State University, Shirley found the time to start and conduct the first chancellor choir in the People’s Community Church.
“I’ve had occasion to attend some of his performances, operatic performances, and he’s just a wonderful human being,” Kelley said. “He’s a hero for me.”
Shirley said his life has revolved around music since his mother sang to him while she was pregnant. He added that he remembers singing with his parents at the age of four, noting that his mother had a beautiful voice.
“It’s my language,” Shirley said. “It’s a language that I believe everyone speaks. I’ve always known that my life would be centered on music in some way. So to me, it’s like the air I breathe, it’s the food I eat, it’s what makes me feel good, it’s the way I express myself, it’s a spiritual life force. I’m grateful for that.”