by Shirley Verrett
(John Wiley & Sons, 336 pages, $30)
Opera-diva memoirs usually fall into two categories: turgidly bleak, or turgidly Technicolor. But a new memoir by 72-year-old soprano Shirley Verrett, I Never Walked Alone (written with Christopher Brooks), is in a class by itself.
A dry narrative that occasionally bursts into bloom with dashes of Verrett's positivist philosophy, I Never Walked Alone is interesting for two important reasons. No. 1, Verrett was a splendid singer in her prime, as famous for her portrayal of the mezzo-soprano gypsy Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore as for the soprano coloratura priestess Norma in Bellini's opera. She was strikingly beautiful, and a moving actress--her Carmen is famed for its psychological depth. She was also an artist of such high standards that she repeatedly refused offers that could have catapulted her to earlier and more lasting fame.
It wasn't just for the superb conviction she brought to her roles that Verrett was called by the Italians "la nera Callas"--the black Callas. She could be, like Callas, a temperamental, emotional performer, sensitive and proud, allowing a feud to ignite between herself and rival black soprano Grace Bumbry--which brings me to the second major reason for reading this book. It's stuffed with un-divalike apologies: for bad judgment, bad faith toward fellow singers, and bad performances she regrets.
Verrett is refreshingly candid about the performances she felt were her best, for which she never fails to give credit to her music-loving father, who gave Verrett her first lessons and always believed in her genius. In the end, the best proof of that is not in Verrett's memoirs, but in recordings, where all past divas reign supreme.