Shirley Verrett, the acclaimed American mezzo turned soprano, has succumbed to heart trouble at the age of 79.

The Juilliard School graduate, known for the dramatic intensity of her performances, enjoyed a career spanning four decades at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. As part of a pioneering generation of black opera singers, Verrett overcame racial prejudice in the predominantly white, Eurocentric opera world. She performed title roles in Puccini’s Tosca (opposite Luciano Pavarotti), Bellini’s Norma and Verdi’s Aida.