Tenor George Shirley (Source: Detroit Public Library)

In 1961, tenor George Shirley was named a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and subsequently received the first contract given to a black tenor to perform with the company. Later, he would become the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Met. Shirley was also the first black member of the United States Army Chorus and first African-American music teacher in Detroit’s public high schools.

Barack Obama presents George Shirley with the National Medal of Arts in 2015

In 2015, former President Barack Obama awarded Shirley with the National Medal of Arts. In 2016, the National Opera Association presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to the trailblazing tenor. Currently, Shirley serves as an emeritus professor of voice at the University of Michigan, where his students have included, among others, countertenor David Daniels.

Shirley was particularly known for his performance of “Un aura amorosa” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. In the opera, Ferrando and Guglielmo are convinced that their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, would not be faithful to them if given the chance to be with another man. Ferrando proclaims his love for Dorabella, as well as his faith in love, singing “Un auro amorosa.” Hear a recording of George Shirley’s rendition, for which he won a Grammy in 1968, below.