Every year, when the Kennedy Center Honors are announced, arts reporters receive outraged letters from readers who simply cannot fathom the thinking that went into the selection process. The list of honorees is rarely contested too fiercely; rather, it is the hypothetical -- and necessarily much longer -- list of the excluded that draws comment. And, until his death on Saturday at the age of 87, nobody in the classical music world was more prominent on that particular roster than the baritone Robert Merrill. The Kennedy Center missed a great one.
Merrill -- the Brooklyn boy who rode the subway to the Metropolitan Opera, where he would sing more than 500 performances over the course of three decades. Merrill -- an early (and unusually tasteful) "crossover" artist, who seemed as comfortable on "The Ed Sullivan Show" or in "Fiddler on the Roof" as he was in costume for a Verdi tragedy. And Merrill -- the celebrated baseball fan, who sang the national anthem on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium for many years, and died at home while watching the first game of the World Series.
Robert Merrill, right, with Alan Young and Dinah Shore, his co-stars in "Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick," Merrill's unsuccessful bid to become a movie star.
(1951 Photo -- AP)
Setting aside his purely artistic accomplishments, Merrill helped democratize the once-exclusive world of opera, which had long been implicitly dismissive of American endeavor and explicitly anti-Semitic. At the turn of the 20th century, only a handful of American singers were engaged by the Met, while subscriptions to the coveted "boxes" were strictly off-limits to Jews. All this changed after World War II, when Merrill, soprano Roberta Peters (to whom he was briefly married) and tenor Richard Tucker -- proud, Jewish, born-and-bred New Yorkers -- became three of the house's brightest stars.
Over the course of his long tenure at the Met, Merrill sang most of the leading roles in the standard repertory. After the sudden and shocking onstage death of Leonard Warren in 1960, he became in effect the "house baritone" at the Met, a position he enjoyed until the 1970s and the advent of Sherrill Milnes. His voice was firm, strong and distinctive, and he employed it with precision and spirit. He sang often and eagerly -- as Escamillo in "Carmen," Marcello in "La Boheme," in the title role of "Rigoletto," as Germont in "La Traviata," among many others -- and recorded prolifically, mostly for RCA Victor. In 1983 he returned to the Met to participate in an eight-hour centennial celebration that was telecast throughout the world.
In his invaluable study "The Grand Tradition," the British critic J.B. Steane called Merrill "indisputably America's principal baritone," although he admitted to finding his artistry somewhat generic. "His records are not stamped with the sort of individuality that lodges immediately in a listener's memory; they are simply the work of a very good opera singer and source of unfailing pleasure to the ear."
Merrill was born Moishe Miller on June 4, 1917. As a boy growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, he was ungainly and unhappy, and he had a tendency to stutter when he wasn't singing. His first vocal hero was Bing Crosby, and one can discern the influence of Crosby's inspired crooning on some of Merrill's own recordings.
One day during Merrill's late teens, he sneaked into the Metropolitan Opera House, which was just around the corner from his menial job in Manhattan's garment district. There he heard a rehearsal of "La Traviata" with soprano Lucrezia Bori and baritone Lawrence Tibbett. He was, he later said, "awestruck," and he determined then and there to pursue a career in opera.
He paid his dues, singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs in New York and resort hotels in the Catskills. In 1941 he attended a public audition at the Met -- they had such things in those days -- and was summarily rejected. It wasn't until 1945 that he made his house debut in "Traviata," the very work that had enticed him into opera in the first place. The legendary Italian conductor Toscanini, no pushover, was duly impressed, and signed Merrill up for a broadcast performance of "Traviata" that was later issued on disc and remains available after almost 60 years. Merrill then appeared in a further broadcast with Toscanini, this time Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera"; it, too, remains available on CD.
In 1951, Merrill asked for a temporary release from the Met in order to make a film entitled "Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick." His request was denied, but Merrill went to Hollywood anyway, determined to be a movie star. The experiment was not a success. "After 'Aaron Slick' was released in April 1952, it had the peculiar distinction of filling box offices from coast to coast with patrons demanding refunds," Merrill wrote in his autobiography. "The film continues to bedevil me on late, late television. Half the Met chorus and many of the soloists blame me for keeping them up late, but they swear they enjoy it."
Merrill was forced to make a full apology to the Met's newly ensconced general manager, Rudolf Bing, before he was reinstated. He spent most of the rest of his career at the Met -- a far cry from the obsessively jet-setting opera stars of the present day -- and ended his career one of the most beloved singers of his time.
Part of this was due to Merrill's personal warmth and decency. He seems to have been a genuinely nice man -- a courteous colleague, a supportive mentor, a funny and unpretentious dinner companion. He was married for 50 years to the pianist Marion Machno, who survives him, as do his son, David, his daughter, Lizanne, three grandchildren -- and many grateful listeners.