The Japanese soprano and mezzo-soprano, Mitsuko Shirai, met Hartmut Höll in Stuttgart in the 1970’s when both were studying at the Conservatory. Holl was a student activist and as a pianist tended to disdain singers as being large people who made a lot of noise. However, he met the diminutive Shirai, who was born in Japan but had quickly mastered excellent German, and found her not only svelte but intelligent: they began conversing about Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus, and the conversation is still going on over 20 years later. Shirai and Höll teamed up as a duo both as artists and, shortly thereafter, in marriage. Between 1973 and 1976, Shirai won singing competitions in Vienna, Athens and Munich. In 1982 Mitsuko Shirai was awarded the Robert Schumann Prize of the City of Zwickau.
Mitsuko Shirai in a Lieder duo with her husband Hartmut Höll, has set a high standard as an interpreter of German lied ever since. The duo has given recitals in Europe, Scandinavia, Israel, Africa, Japan, South America, Russia, the USA and Canada, but they are especially well known in Germany and Japan. A committee of Japanese artists awarded her the Great Idemitsu Music Award 1996 in appreciation of her artistic work. She was Praised by Der Stern as “the first leading lady of Lieder singing”. Her voice encompasses both the soprano and mezzo fields. She has covered a wide range of Lieder running from Louis Spohr to Anton Webern.
Mitsuko Shirai is not just limited to recital singing. A contralto, Shirai has also found acclaim for her performances of Gustav Mahler's orchestral songs. She has appeared in concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker, New Japan Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Paris and the Wiener Symphoniker; Conductors she has worked with include Riccardo Chailly, Inbal, Ahronovitch, Ferenczik and Wolfgang Sawallisch. Her repertoire includes G. Mahler's Symphony No. 8, Berlioz' Les Nuits d'Été, Alban Berg's 7 Early Songs, Paul Hindemith's Das Marienleben, Complete vocal works of A. Webern, Schubert's Winterreise and Lieder by Johannes Brahms, Wolff and Schumann. Shirai has also appeared in operas, most frequently in Mozart, but also in such rarities as Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot. She made her stage debut in Frankfurt in 1987, as Despina in Così fan Tutte. Concert performances of Mozart's Lucio Silla, and Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. She opened Suntory Hall in Tokyo with Alexander Nevsky by Prokofiev.
As a professor in Karlsruhe, Mitsuko Shirai directs together with Hartmut Höll since 1994 a “Lied centre” for voice and piano duos at the Musikhochschule in Karlsruhe. She has also been a professor with the Mozarteum Salzburg for several years. Mitsuko Shirai and Hartmut Höll give master-classes for lied in at the Savonlinna Festival, Finland, at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, the International Music Seminar in Weimar, the Mozarteum Salzburg, in the USA (Tanglewood, Cincinnati) as well as at the Isaac Stern's Music Centre in Jerusalem.
Mitsuko Shirai is one of the most frequently recorded Lieder singers of modern times. She has recorded for Philips, Camerata, and others, the vast majority of her recordings have appeared on the Capriccio label. Her recordings include Mozart, Schumann, Johannes Brahms Lieder (Capriccio); J.S. Bach, Mozart and Spohr Lieder (Eurodisc), Sacred music by Mozart (Philips); Frauenliebe und-leben by Schumann; Lieder by Felix Mendelssohn and Schumann (EMI); works by Schubert, Alban Berg and Wolff, among others. Many of her recordings have received numerous international awards.