Robert Merrill (1917 – 2004) had perhaps the smoothest, richest, and most effortlessly beautiful baritone voice of the 20th Century. He sang at the Metropolitan Opera for 31 seasons singing almost every baritone role in the Met’s repertoire.
Moishe Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York to Orthodix Jewish immigrants who came from Warsaw, Poland. His father was a shoe salesman and his mother had been an aspiring opera singer in Poland and it was she who encouraged Merrill to sing. He was an overweight child with a stuttering problem, but the stutter vanished when he sang, which certainly gave him an extra incentive to study music. He supplemented the family income by singing at bar mitzvahs and weddings and paid for his early singing lessons with extra money he earned as a semipro baseball pitcher.
Merrill enjoyed singing popular music and admired Bing Crosby. He sang on radio as a popular crooner under the name Merrill Miller until an agent found him work at Radio City Music Hall and later with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. He sang his first opera role as Amonasro in a 1944 Trenton, New Jersey production of “Aida” and recorded two duets with Jeanette MacDonald for RCA Victor in 1945. The same year he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air singing “Largo al Factotum” from his favorite opera, “Barber of Seville. He made his Metropolitan debut the next year.
Merrill had an easygoing, endearing personality and, while he took his music seriously, was always unpretentious in his personal life. He was an early performer on television, appearing on NBC’s “Saturday Night Revue” in 1949. Rudolph Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was not fond of television and felt that appearing in movies demeaned opera, so when Merrill signed to appear in the 1951 film “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” – which would also have conflicted with some of Merrill’s opera assignments – Bing issued an ultimatum. “Them or us.” Merrill stood firm and was fired. The film was a disaster at the box office. Merrill was allowed back at the Met by Bing only after considerable groveling and several public apologies.
Merrill married soprano Roberta Peters but the union lasted only three months, still they parted on good terms and later appeared together several times, both on stage and on television.
His marriage to his second wife Marion was more successful, lasting until his death fifty years later and producing two children.
Merill became close personal friends with the two dominant tenors at the Met, Jussi Bjorling and Richard Tucker. With Bjorling he recorded several operas inclusing the definitive version of “La Boheme” with Bjorling and Victoria de Los Angeles conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and a magnificent album of duets including “Au Fond du Temple Saint” from Bizet’s opera “The Pearl Fishers.”
Merrill and Richard Tucker were both observant Jews (Tucker continued to serve as a Cantor at a local synagogue throughout his operatic career) and they appeared together frequently at the Met, on TV, and gave a joint concert at Carnegie Hall.
While consistently praised for his vocal beauty, his acting and his interpretations frequently left something to be desired. He was very much a “Stand-And-Sing” performer. One critic complained that he gave “by all odds the most insensitive impersonation of the season” issuing “loud, coarse sounds” with “no grace, no charm, as he butchered the text and galumphed around the stage.” In time Merrill improved but he never achieved te elegance of Guiseppe de Luca or the dramatic intensity of Lawrence Tibbett. It will always be for his personal charm and incredibly beautiful voice that he is remembered. Merrill retired from the Met in 1976 but continued singing on TV, in music festivals.,
A true baseball fan, Merrill sang the national anthem to open the 1969 baseball season at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees brought him back on Opening Day each year after that. He wore his own Yankee uniform with the number “1½” on the back and a recorded version of the anthem was played on those occasions he could not attend. Merrill joked that an entire generation of people know him as “The ‘Say-Can-You-See’ guy!” Robert Merrill died at the age of 85 while watching the 2004 World Series