Robert Merrill

Long-serving baritone at the Met
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The Independent Online

Moishe Miller (Robert Merrill), opera singer: born New York 4 June 1917; married 1952 Roberta Peters (marriage dissolved), 1954 Marion Machno (one son, one daughter); died New York 23 October 2004.

One of the great American baritones of the 20th century, Robert Merrill spent most of his career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he sang for 30 years.

His repertory included roles in Italian operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Puccini, as well as several French roles, but it was the operas of Verdi in which he made the greatest impression. As Germont in La traviata, as Amonasro in Aida, as Renato in Un ballo in maschera, as Posa in Don Carlos, he poured out streams of beautiful tone, seemingly without effort. He was not a subtle singer, but a generous one, as his many recordings of Verdi opera demonstrate. He also gave many concerts throughout the United States, and recitals accompanied by his second wife, the pianist Marion Machno.

He was born Moishe Miller in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917, the son of the former Abraham and Lillian Millstein, immigrants from Warsaw, who had changed their name to Miller. His mother was a concert singer, and gave him his first singing lessons. Later he studied with Samuel Margolis in New York.

Changing his name to Robert Merrill, he made his début in 1943 at Trenton as Amonasro, and in 1945 won the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air. This resulted in his Metropolitan début in 1945 as Germont, the first of 85 performances of that role he gave for the Met. Also that year, he was chosen by Toscanini to sing Germont in his NBC broadcast of La traviata, later issued as a recording. Merrill also sang Renato in Toscanini's broadcast of Un ballo in maschera in 1954.

In 1950 Rudolf Bing became managing director of the Metropolitan, and his first season opened with a new production of Verdi's Don Carlos. Merrill sang Posa, scoring a tremendous personal success, but in 1951 he was suspended by Bing for not fulfilling his contractual obligations on the Met tour. He was, in fact, in Hollywood, making a film, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952 - Marshmallow Moon in the UK). After he apologised, Bing took the prodigal back.

During the 1950s, Merrill's career gained great momentum. He added many roles to his repertory, but it was as Germont that he made his San Francisco début in 1957, and his European début, at La Fenice in Venice, in 1960.

Though a lyric baritone, unlike his great predecessor Leonard Warren, whose voice was heroic in character, Merrill sang several of the heavier Verdi roles at the Metropolitan, including Rigoletto, Iago in Otello and Don Carlo in La forza del destino. Warren died on stage during a performance La forza del destino in 1960. Later Don Carlo became one of Merrill's best roles.

In 1967 Merrill made a very belated UK début at Covent Garden, singing Germont. His voice was still in very good shape, while his musicality and generosity of spirit more than made up for any lack of dramatic tension. He continued to sing at the Met until 1975 when he went with the company to Tokyo. Later in the year he gave a concert at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with his wife Marion.

Merrill wrote two books of autobiography, Once More from the Beginning (1965) and Between Acts (1977), as well as a novel, The Divas (1978). His recorded legacy includes Showboat and Carousel as well as many complete Verdi operas.

Elizabeth Forbes