MEMORIES OF ROBERT MERRILL: AMERICAN OPERATIC ICON
by James Engdahl, Engdahl Artists International
Robert Merrill, born Moishe Miller in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, passed away last Saturday, October 22, 2004, as he watched the first game of the World Series on television. If there was anything that would have given him as much pleasure as his singing career did, it would have been playing baseball!
I have been asked to share my memories of Mr. Merrill. They were few but were each great lessons to me as a young singer as to what to expect from an artist's life.
The first time I saw Robert Merrill was after a Met performance of Un ballo in Maschera with Nicolei Gedda and Roberta Peters during my first year in New York. I had never seen either these artists before and I was very excited as I had tickets to three shows including the broadcast! Ms. Peters made the first appearance and sang well that day. Mr. Gedda entered and sang with his exemplary style but in the balcony, I found him hard to hear with the exception of his wonderful top voice. Then Robert Merrill entered to sporadic applause, something that truly surprised me, as here was one of America's greatest singers. His voice sounded a bit thin but with that wonderful color I had grown up admiring. He sang the rest of the opera well but I was a bit disappointed.
Next came the broadcast and Mr. Merrill made his entrance to huge applause and I joined in and smiled. Then he sang his first phrase and the size of the voice not only had doubled but that velvet gleamed for the rest of the afternoon. I mentioned this to a long time member of the Met family and he said, "Oh, that's because it was a broadcast and he wanted America to know he was still there!"
The next time I saw him was in concert where he sang arias like "Non piu andrai" from Nozze di Figaro and of all things, "O du mein holder" from Wagner's Tannhauser, both roles he had never sung on stage to my knowledge. The Mozart went well but I had a glimpse of the Catskills side of him I had heard of often but never seen. Then came the Wagner! Mr. Merrill stood silently of the stage and poured out his voice with an artistry I had never heard from him before. As I listened, all I could think about was what we missed in not hearing his Wolfram!
The third time I saw him was at a Richard Tucker Foundation Gala and I was wondering what he would sing. The Master of Ceremonies announced his name, the audience cheered and as the orchestra began the Toreador Song from Carmen, he burst onto the stage with an energy and virility that belied his age (around 70) and he sang superbly throughout the aria, although I noticed he has lowered it a step or so. He finished to a standing ovation and he was an icon across America again.
The last time I saw him was at a premiere at the Jewish Museum of a film highlighting Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker and Mr. Merrill's early appearances on television. As I saw him leave his limo, he had become fairly heavy and moved very slowly. He seemed disoriented as to where he was and where to go. His loving wife Marion guided him into the theater and we watched the film, an excellent documentary. The discussion panel announced his being in the theater and as I watched him rise from his chair, the performer's gleam and smile appeared and he knew just how to address the moment.
A singer, no matter how artistic, is like an athlete and remembered mainly by his last out appearance, I was glad I was there to see Robert Merrill, American operatic icon, hit one last ball out of the park!
[To hear Robert Merrill sing the Toreador Song, click here.]
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