George Shirley, the first African-American tenor and the second black man to sing a leading role at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York, will be awarded the 2014 National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama on Thursday during a White House ceremony.
Shirley, who was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 18, 1934, received an offer in 1961 from the Metropolitan Opera after winning first place in the Metropolitan Opera auditions. He sang “Nessun Dorma” or “None Shall Sleep.” One of the best-known tenor arias in all of opera, it is the aria in the last act of Puccini’s “Turandot.”
Shirley was the first black man awarded a contract by Metropolitan Opera. He was, however, the second black man to perform there. The first was Robert McFerrin, father of singer Bobby McFerrin. Robert McFerrin, a baritone, performed at the Met in 1953.
Shirley had another first beside his name. In 1955, he became Detroit’s first black music teacher. He had won a scholarship to Wayne State University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Music Education.
Shirley performed 28 major roles in 26 operas during 11 seasons at the Met (see today’s video). He is currently the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan.
Shirley will be one of 21 individuals who will receive the prestigious awards, according to the White House Press Office.