Shirley Verett, who has become renowned for her performances with opera companies, leans back into the couch, lifting her arms above her head like a globe, and quietly talks about her career.
"Concerts are my first love. It was my parents' idea that I would be great, great like Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes and Dorothy Maynor. From my reading, most opera singers found the love of recitals later, after opera, like Lotte Lehmann. And, of course, black singers had to have another recourse because the opera companies were not opened to us."
Although she has been a famous opera star for many years now, a singer whom the La Scala begged to join them for the next two years, Verrett makes sure her schedule leaves room for her first love.
Tonight at the Kennedy Center Verrett will demonstrate the form, and the spirit, that inspired her with selections of Handel, Strauss, Mozart, Debussy, chaussons and American Negro spirituals.
She paused a minute, her eyes resting on a coffee table with books of Strauss and Handel, and a copy of Rosalind Russell's biography.
"But my husband once said that if you think about my programs, they are quite religious. And I am doing 'Exsultate, jubilate,' and sometimes I do include 'Resurrection,' but I really don't think the programs are religious," she said, again pausing and then smiling broadly, "because sometimes I am quite sexy."
The career of Shirley Verrett took off because she had faith in herself and kept taking shape because others - from her parents to her masters - had faith in her.
She didn't like Maria Callas' voice on recordings but Callas' "presence on the stage at the Met in 1956 was a very big influence. She showed me what opera could be, I knew it was more than I was getting at Julliard."
What Verrett asked of people was simply: Have faith is what distinguishes the people she likes and the ones she doesn't. "Maestro Sicilinai had faith in me. Well, let's say Itlay had faith in me. When I was with RCA I started doing things in Rome. Maestro Sicilinai, became interested in me and asked me to come up and talk. When I got there they asked for my music, and I said you called me to talk, not to audition.
"I intrigued them, especially the maestro, because I have a lot of confidence in me. I told him I am not here to sing, talk is not singing. Then he laughed and said, 'I heard your 'Carmen' in Spoleto.' And I boldly replied, 'Well, it's better now.' And he was the man who had faith in Callas very early in her career."
With a lite that's solidly scheduled - she does 20 concerts, about 15 opera performances, made one appearance at the White House this year and will do a film of "Macbeth" for television in 1979 - Verrett regrets she hasn't had the time for civil rights pursuits. "I have started working with the (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund but I don't have the time to go out and make speeches. Yet I feel the legal arena is where the most critical problems will be solved," said Verrett, who is comfortably in her 40s. "I feel my part is to out and do an excellent performance. When I am out on stage I am the singer, period" - and she reaches back to the collar of her black silk flowered dress - "but back here is this thing. I want to make it easier for those who come along after, by doing my best."
Though the United States trained her - she studied in Los Angeles with Anna Fitziu, a former Metropolitian singer: appeared on the Arthur Godfrey "Talent-Scouts," and studied at Julliard - Europe gave her recognition first.
Her first professional appearance was at Spoleto in 1962, then she performed at the Bolshoi Theater, then made her debut at La Scala in 1967. She appeared in her first opera there in 1969 and made her debut a the Metropolitan in [WORD ILLEGIBLE].
Next month, Verrett will star in Verdi's "unBallo in Maschera," the second opera in the celebration of La Scala's 200th year. "They would like me to live there, they think of not find the right studio. "And his said. She has turned down their offers because her artist husband, an American of Italian descent, could not find the right studio. 'And his life is just as important is mine, and I never mention his name in interviews because he really cherishes his privacy."
Twice she has become an overnight success, in 1973 when she sang both Cassandra and Dido in the five-hour stagging of berlioz "Less Troyens" at the met, and in 1975 when she opened the La Scala season with Lady Macbeth in a production that had been specially mounted for her. "I feel they were triumphs, but the didn't know I had that voice. They lose sight - some of them, not all - that you have to have technique before you can stand up there for five hours.
"In America there's a tendency to look for the home run, or as my husband says, the grand slam. I became an overnight success in America in 1973 but, at least, the public knew where I had been, even if the critics didn't.
"I have great faith in the public."