Robert Merrill, 85, the baritone who gave his booming voice to major roles at the Metropolitan Opera for more than 30 seasons, while winning nationwide popularity on radio, television and at baseball games, died Saturday.
According to a family friend, the Brooklyn-born star died at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. No cause of death was given.
Mr. Merrill was one of the foremost and most enduring of the generation of home-grown performers who took on the great roles of French and Italian opera at the Met in New York after World War II.
Rich, warm and powerful, his voice offered vivid life to more than 20 roles during hundreds of performances in the nation's premier operatic venue.
In addition, he won a wide following in a long career on radio and television, as a popular entertainer with a repertoire that extended to operetta and the tunes of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.
Many baseball fans believed the season had not officially begun if he did not sing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium, a tradition he began in 1969. In addition to Opening Day, he sang at playoff and World Series games.
Although students of opera claimed to see shortcomings in his dramatic interpretations, he was admired for the resonance and ring of his notes and the size of his voice.
"If you think you've hit a false note," he once was quoted, "sing loud. When in doubt, sing loud."
In 1993, during President Bill Clinton's first year in office White House ceremonies were held to honor 18 of the nation's leaders in the arts and humanities.
In a memorable moment, Leontyne Price rose after dinner to sing an impromptu version of "Stardust," and Merrill then stood to sing "I'll be Loving You (Always)."
"It was awesome, wasn't it?" Clinton said.
Merrill was born June 4, 1919 (some references say 1917) and grew up as Moishe Miller. Although he was said to have harbored an ambition to become a professional baseball player, he was guided into voice training by his mother.
After appearances on radio and on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, he won the Met's "Audition of the Air" in 1945. That December, he made his debut as Germont in Verdi's "La Traviata."
The 1960s were described as the peak of his operatic career. But it extended into the 1970s, giving him a longevity that few matched. He was said to be the first American singer to perform 500 times at the Met.
He was also known for his on-air performances in such shows as "The Bell Telephone Hour" and "The Voice of Firestone." These, in addition to recordings, variety shows and the Met's radio broadcasts, brought his voice into living rooms far beyond Manhattan. He played Tevye on stage in "Fiddler on the Roof."
Among the operatic roles for which he was known were Amonasro in "Aida," Renato in "Un Ballo in Maschera" and Escamillo in "Carmen." He sang Valentine in "Faust" and Marcello in "La Boheme."
He was renowned as Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," his favorite opera. He opened the Met's 1954 season as Figaro.
He and his wife, the former Marion Machno, had two children.