Classical Roots: A trailblazer and a visionary

As part of the 40th Anniversary Classical Roots Celebration, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in March (2018) honored vocalist and educator George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to join the Metropolitan Opera, and academic and leader Earl Lewis, outgoing president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I had the honor of interviewing the luminaries prior to the gala:

George Shirley: Born to sing (and teach)

By Leslie D. Green

Born April 18, 1934, George Shirley credits his love of music to his education.

“Anyone with musical chops could read music by sixth grade,” says Shirley, 83. His music teacher at Northern High School exposed him to Handel, Verdi, and other greats of choral music, but also inspired him to become an educator himself.

Shirley sang at his church, the historic Ebenezer AME in Detroit, and formed a community band to pay his tuition as a music education student at Wayne State University. Then, in 1955, the U.S. Army formed an official chorus. Some of Shirley’s friends auditioned and were accepted; he thought about auditioning himself, but was hesitant about a three-year Army commitment.

“Plus,” he says, “I knew there had never been a black member.”

But a year after securing a job at as the first black vocal music teacher in a Detroit public school, Shirley was drafted. “The Army was not something I looked forward to,” he says. “We pushed our wedding date up. I was enjoying teaching. But I believe that God works in ways that I can’t understand.”

Though his military experience was tedious, Shirley was now in the Army — so why not try out for the chorus? In 1957, he and a few friends (who were white) drove to Fort Myers, FL to audition. His friends, who went first, were rejected.

“I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go,’” Shirley says. But he was a hit, and Samuel Loboda, who managed the chorus, fought all the way to Pentagon for him. Shirley became the U.S. Army Chorus’s first black member.

When he joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1961, Shirley was the first African-American tenor and the second African-American lead to perform with the company. “It was a thrill. I was sort of in a daze. I still find it hard to believe I ended up in this profession,” he says. He performed major roles in more than 20 operas while at The Met, and in 1968 he earned a Grammy Award for his role in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

Though he traveled the world as an opera star, Shirley never strayed too far from educating young musicians. He has taught at Staten Island College, the University of Maryland, and the University of Michigan, where he is now the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice.

“I didn’t ask God for good gifts, to make me a teacher or a singer, or for the less good gifts. They were just given. I can only be grateful for what I was given,” he says.

(Read The Washington Post’s 1979 interview with Shirley.)

Earl Lewis: Educating Diversity

By Leslie D. Green

Praised for being a generous mentor and visionary, Earl Lewis advocates for and creates diversity and equity in the arts, in education, and in life.

He served on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley (1984-1989) and the University of Michigan (1989-2004), where he also directed the Center for Afro-American & African Studies and co-authored Defending Diversity: Affirmative Action at the University of Michigan (2004).

“By the time I became dean of the Graduate School in 1998, the school was embroiled in affirmative action cases,” says Lewis, 62, now President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

He said U-M’s multi-year effort to get people to value diversity resonated and continued as a part of his approach to leadership. And his interest in the arts cultivated further when he became a trustee of the University Musical Society (UMS) and served as provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and a professor of History and African-American Studies at Emory University (2004-2012).

“All the schools and colleges reported to me, including the museum and library. It broadened my perspective and view and connected me to a whole range of players,” says Lewis. “I certainly gained a passion for the ability for the arts to explain the human condition or human treatise in a way that academic text could not.

“Bringing classical art forms is critical to the health and vitality of a community,” he continues, arguing that arts institutions are vital places that can bring back struggling or suffering economies. Lewis became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008.

Mellon, which has supported the DSO for many years, recently pledged $2.75 million toward diversifying audiences and developing the next generation of musicians. Significantly, this gift enables the DSO to expand the African-American Fellowship to include two fellows.

Though Lewis’s term at Mellon ends March 16, he says his work won’t cease.

In addition to returning to the University of Michigan to teach, he plans to establish the Center for Social Solutions, which will focus on diversity and race, water in flood and drought-prone regions, and the dignity of labor in an automated world. He also hopes to launch a 10-year public humanities project, linked to theaters and museums around the country, on slavery’s continued impact on life.

Though he’ll be leaving the big budgets of Mellon behind, Lewis is excited about the future of these ideas: “It’s not just about the resources you have, but whether or not you can make a contribution that’s effective and important.”

Learn more about the DSO’s annual Classical Roots celebration.