Obituary: Ruby Mercer

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The Independent Culture
RUBY MERCER, American-born, Canadian by adoption, had two quite distinct careers. In her youth she trained as a music teacher, then became a singer and appeared successfully as a soprano at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, on Broadway and in opera houses and concert halls across America. She spent a year under contract to MGM in Hollywood, though she never actually appeared before the cameras. She also broadcast frequently, and became a radio personality, hosting 13 shows each week, including the popular Mr and Mrs Opera on WNYC.

After her marriage to a Canadian businessman, Mercer moved to Toronto, where she founded, and for 30 years edited, the quarterly magazine Opera Canada. She also founded the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus and wrote two excellent biographies of Canadian singers: The Tenor of his Time (1976), a life of Edward Johnson, the Toronto-born tenor who was manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1935 to 1950; and The Quilicos (1991), about the baritone Louis Quilico, his wife Edna, a pianist, and his son Gino, also a baritone.

Ruby Mercer was born in Athens, Ohio, in 1906. A foundling, she was brought up in the house of a choirmaster, where music and singing were part of everyday life. After training as a music teacher at Ohio University, she took a job in Honolulu, but did not stay there long, as a visiting singer from England heard her sing and recommended that she became a professional.

Mercer enrolled at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and after graduating, obtained a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. While singing Zerbinetia in a student performance of Struass's Ariadne auf Naxos, she was heard by Edward Johnson, who had just become manager of the Metropolitan, and who arranged an audition for her.

Having made her professional debut as Nannetta in Falstaff at Philadelphia, Mercer made her Metropolitan debut on 6 June 1936 as Nedda in Pagliacci, obtaining excellent reviews. The following season she sang Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, and prepared Violetta in La Traviata, though she never got to sing the role as the opera house closed owing to a heat wave.

Ruby Mercer was a very handsome woman as well as a fine singer with a beautiful voice, and in 1937 she was tempted to Hollywood by MGM; but no parts were forthcoming, and it turned out that the studio was merely using her to force Jeanette MacDonald to renew her contract at a more reasonable salary.

Returning to New York, she sang at Radio City Music Hall, and in 1940 appeared at the New York World Fair in The Gay New Orleans Revue. She also sang in three shows on Broadway, including in 1941 Offenbach's La Vie parisienne. Throughout the 1940s she toured the North American continent in opera, operetta and musical, appearing in such shows as Sigmund Romberg's New Moon and Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier, as well as La Boheme and Die Fledermaus. Her career on radio also flourished. When in 1958 she married Geza Por, a Hungarian-born businessman from Toronto, the second, Canadian half of her life began.

Ruby Mercer found little opera in Canada, and even worse, little awareness of opera, so she set about changing matters as quickly as possible, envisaging a magazine on the lines of Opera News in New York. The first number of Opera Canada was published in spring 1969. At first limited to reviews on opera performances in Canada, and to news about Canadian singers at home and abroad, it grew steadily in size and scope, including a section of opera reviews world-wide. I became the UK correspondent in 1973, but did not meet Mercer face-to-face until 1983. By then, through countless letters and phone calls, we had become firm friends. She was a most stimulating companion, she had been everywhere, she knew everybody in the opera world.

An intrepid traveller, who made expeditions to Africa, South America, China and such faraway places, Mercer planned many summer trips to European festivals, but she was accident-prone, and these trips did not always materialise. Once she was badly burned in Kenya when she stepped in a hidden fire-pit. She did come to Europe in 1989, visiting London, Glyndebourne, Vienna, Bayreuth and Salzburg, as well as Budapest, in order to visit her husband's relations. She revisited Hawaii, where she got the idea for the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, founded in 1968 with 40 children, a number that has now grown to 160.

On another trip to Hawaii she met the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who had appeared on her radio show Mr and Mrs Opera, and commissioned him to write a children's opera for the CCOC. The result, Chip and his Dog, was performed at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1979.

She continued to broadcast frequently in Toronto, on CBC and CFMX. She even made a stage appearance as Princess Bozena in Kalman's Countess Maritza at Toronto Operetta Theatre in 1986. Meanwhile honours and awards rolled in: in 1983 the Canadian Music Council Medal; in 1986 the Governor of Ohio's Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts; in 1988 a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toronto Arts Awards; and many more. In 1990, at the age of 84 and exactly 30 years after founding Opera Canada, Ruby Mercer retired as editor. She became a Canadian citizen the following year, and in 1995 was named a Member of the Order of Canada.

Ruby Mercer, singer, broadcaster and magazine editor: born Athens, Ohio 26 July 1906; OC 1995; married 1958 Geza Por (deceased); died Toronto, Ontario 26 January 1999.

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