Baritone  Robert  Merrill

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert Merrill

(b. 4 June 1917 in New York City; d. 23 October 2004 in New Rochelle, New York), baritone who enjoyed a long career with the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Merrill was born Moishe (Morris) Miller, one of two sons born to Abraham Millstein, a sewing machine operator, and Lotza (Lillian) Balaban Millstein, a singer. The couple took the name Miller after emigrating from Poland to the United States. Merrill’s mother did not have the opportunity to study voice or sing professionally in Poland and determined that her son would become a singer, but all Merrill wanted to do was play baseball. While attending New Utrecht High School, he played baseball for the school team and also played semiprofessional ball, earning $10 a game. Merrill tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers but was rejected and turned to singing. Merrill’s mother was his first teacher. She persuaded him to sing for the radio station WFOX, where he was employed imitating the crooning of Bing Crosby three times a week, unpaid and using the name Merrill Miller to “keep my musical activities secret from the gang.” When Merrill was sixteen, his voice changed to a “booming baritone,” and his mother employed the professional voice teacher Samuel Margolis, who was Merrill’s teacher throughout his career.

Merrill dropped out of high school and began working for his uncle, sweeping floors and making deliveries. One afternoon, while pushing a handcart of dresses in the garment district of New York City, Merrill overheard a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera House and became determined to be an opera star. To support his vocal studies with Margolis, Merrill worked a number of menial jobs and sang wherever he could get a paycheck. He was particularly successful on the “borscht circuit,” becoming a favorite at Grossinger’s resort in the Catskill Mountains. Merrill tried out for the Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour in 1936 and won first prize, singing the classic baritone aria “Largo al factotum,” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This opportunity led to other engagements singing in theaters, clubs, and synagogues.

Merrill’s dream was to sing opera, and in 1941 he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. Singing “Largo al factotum” in the manner that had wowed audiences at Grossinger’s, Merrill failed, but he continued singing where he could. The exposure resulted in his being offered the opportunity to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Movietone News. Merrill’s recording of the national anthem was played at every theater in the country and earned him the sobriquet “the Star-Spangled Baritone.” He attracted the attention of the music agent Moe Grant, who found Merrill work at Radio City Music Hall and on the radio show Serenade to America. In 1944, when Merrill was rehearsing for a benefit, the conductor Mark Warrow renamed him Robert Merrill because the name “had star quality.” Merrill made his opera debut in 1944, singing Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida in Newark, New Jersey. In November 1944 Merrill again auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera, singing a disciplined “Largo al factotum.” In the finals, Merrill sang Iago’s “Credo” from Otello and won a contract, which he signed in June 1945.

On 15 December 1945 Merrill made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the lead role of Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata. Merrill sang at the Met for thirty-one consecutive seasons. He became the principal Verdi baritone, singing major roles, including Rodrigo in Don Carlos at the opening night gala to celebrate the beginning of the era of Rudolf Bing, the general manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972. Merrill sang 132 performances of Germont. Roles in operas by composers other than Verdi included Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, Figaro in The Barber of Seville, and Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. In 1946 the conductor Arturo Toscanini invited Merrill to audition for the NBC radio broadcast of La Traviata. Merrill sang Germont in the two-part broadcast, and Toscanini engaged him again in 1954 to sing Renato in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.


Merrill was the only singer chosen to appear at a service held by both houses of Congress in July 1946 in memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Merrill sang the president’s favorite “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Merrill’s career at the Metropolitan Opera was interrupted in 1951 when he played the part of Bill Merridew in the film Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952), later described by Merrill “the biggest turkey in Hollywood history.” When filming conflicted with his opera obligations and Merrill told Bing that he could not travel with the company for the spring tour, Bing fired him. It took a public apology in a letter published in the New York Times for Bing to agree to reinstate the baritone.

Merrill married the Metropolitan Opera soprano Roberta Peters on 30 March 1952; they divorced on 26 June 1952. On 30 May 1954 Merrill married the pianist Marion Machno, and the couple had two children.

Although his singing career centered on the Metropolitan Opera, Merrill also sang at major opera houses in Rome, London, and Venice. He continued to sing on the radio as the featured soloist on The RCA Victor Show, on television, and in concerts. He had a successful recording career in both classical and popular music. In 1947 Merrill’s recording of “The Whiffenpoof Song” was number one on the Hit Parade.


Merrill became a popular guest on television, not only singing arias for Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town but also telling stories on The Tonight Show, first with Jack Paar and then with Johnny Carson. Merrill’s anecdotes helped make opera more accessible to a public who had preconceived ideas about opera stars being boring and stiff. Merrill retired from the Met in 1976 after 787 performances, having sung twenty-one roles. He took the stage again in 1983 for the centennial gala, singing Sigmund Romberg’s “Will You Remember” with his former costar Anna Moffo.

In addition to concert appearances and touring in summer stock productions, Merrill wrote two autobiographies: Once More from the Beginning with Sanford Dody (1965) and Between Acts: An Irreverent Look at Opera and Other Madness with Robert Saffron (1976). Merrill also wrote with Fred Jarvis the novel The Divas (1978).

Merrill’s passion for baseball never abated. He was an ardent New York Yankees fan, and beginning in 1969 he sang the national anthem wearing his Yankees jersey, number 1½, to inaugurate each season. Merrill’s recording of the national anthem was played before every home game. In 1986 Merrill became the first person to sing the national anthem and then throw out the first pitch of the home opener at Yankee Stadium. Merrill died of natural causes in New Rochelle on 23 October 2004 while he was watching the World Series. He is buried in Sharon Gardens Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.

Trained entirely in the United States, Merrill was the baritone of choice for years at the Metropolitan Opera. His exposure to the public ranged beyond the stage to radio, television, and even Yankee Stadium. A major part of his work was creating a visibility for opera and its stars.

“Rise of Merrill,” Newsweek (3 July 1950), covers Merrill’s early years; Milton Bracker, “Brooklyn Greets Own Opera Star,” New York Times (3 Apr. 1960), emphasizes Merrill’s baseball prowess; Ira Siff, “Most Valuable Player,” Opera News (Aug. 2003), is a detailed discussion of Merrill’s career. Obituaries are in the New York Times (26 Oct. 2004) and Opera News (Jan. 2005).

Marcia B. Dinneen


In February of 1986, Robert Merrill had a new recording about to be issued, and we began our telephone chat about it.  Naturally, I also asked about many other facets of his long and distinguished career.  He was in very good humor, and there was much laughter sprinkled throughout our conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me about the new recording.
Robert Merrill:   It’s called My Country Has Been Good To Me.  Gladys Shelley wrote it, and my son, David Merrill, arranged the song, and we recorded it.  It’s about a country that’s been good to me.  It’s in the vein of God Bless America.  
It’s a good song.  I heard it sung recently in a television studio with the chorus.  So I inquired, and got a copy, and the record company is interested in it.  My son and I went into his studio and recorded it, and it’s doing pretty well.  It’s going to be released in about ten days, or two weeks, and we’re having fun with it.

BD:   This is not your first recording of a patriotic song.

Merrill:   Oh no, no.  This is more in a popular vein, though.  It’s patriotic, but it’s when you hear it, it’s a little different.  The background is different.  My son recorded it electronically, synthesizing the background.  He has made several important albums in the popular field, and has done background music for a few movies and some TV.

BD:   [Note that Merrill was nearing 70 when this interview took place.]  So, you’re still very active in singing and recording?

Merrill:   Oh, my gosh, yes.  I’m almost as busy as ever.  I don’t do as much opera, but I do a great many symphonic concerts, and recitals, and I play some summer theaters.  I do my own show, The Robert Merrill Show, and industrials.  I do between thirty-five and forty appearances a year, and I enjoy every moment of it.  It’s fun, and there’s not that much pressure as when you do many operas and you’re involved in a repertory theater.

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about that.  What are the different pressures doing a one-man-show as opposed to doing a show when you’re involved with everybody else?

Merrill:   When you’re involved with conductors and casts and stage directors, and you have four acts of an opera, you have to be good all the time.  There’s no doubt about it, even with what I’m doing now, singing with symphony orchestras, where I do four or five arias, and then perhaps other things in the second half.  I had a wonderful time last year with the fiftieth anniversary of the Grant Park concerts.  That was something.  There is pressure everywhere, but opera has the most pressure.  There’s so much involved, and you have many, many rehearsals.  When you do an opera for the first time in the season, you have two weeks of rehearsals, and you’re on.  It takes a great deal of energy.

BD:   But if you are dropped into it in the middle of a run, you may get a piano run-through and that’s it?

Merrill:   We’ve had that, yes.  And, if you’re doing it the second time around, you have a piano run-down, and some small stage direction.  It’s a little easier on your energy, but then again, the pressure is that you haven’t been in that first production, and you’re floundering a little.  When they’re sitting in the theater, the audience is not concerned with how much rehearsal you have.  They want to see a performance.

BD:   Do you think that the public should know how much agony you go through, with rehearsals, or any technical problems of actual singing?
Merrill:   No, I don’t think the public should know that at all.  They should sit back and relax, and enjoy it.  Frankly, you’re better off because if they’re sitting there thinking that this poor soul has rehearsed all day and all week, so he may be sounding tired, when you’re not actually tired!  [Both laugh]  You may be in fine voice.

BD:   What do you expect from the public, and does that change if you’re doing an opera, or if you’re doing a concert?

Merrill:   I expect the public to react to the way I feel.  If I’m doing a good performance, and I feel good, and I’m not cheating them, I know I’m going to get a wonderful reaction.  The night you’re a little off, and you’re tired, you’re a human-being and the audience will react.  The audience feels as one person, believe it or not.  They react to how you perform, and how you feel.  That’s why I always try to give my best at all times, even when I’m not feeling well. The public many times doesn’t even know it.

BD:   The public can expect the best out of you at all times?

Merrill:   I’ve always been that way, whether I perform in a theater in the round, or even playing at Atlantic City, which I’ve done throughout my career.  Not many people know that.  I used to play Las Vegas, and I enjoyed that very much, too.  They’re there to hear you, and enjoy and relax, and have fun.  Opera can be fun, but it’s a serious art, and you take it seriously.

BD:   In opera, where is the balance between art and entertainment?

Merrill:   The people are there to be entertained.  They want to hear beautiful singing and the beautiful melodies.  They expect decent acting, costumes, and scenery.  That’s entertainment!

BD:   They made a song about that...  [Both laugh]

Merrill:   That Entertainment!  It’s the so-called
legitimate theater, and I’ve never understood the use of that term at all.

BD:   Is it a mistake for the opera fan to look down his nose at an opera star doing cabaret?

Merrill:   Oh no, not at all.  I could never understand that.  I was a pioneer as far as that’s concerned.  When I went on the talk shows with Jack Paar many years ago, Rudolph Bing wasn’t happy about it.  But I love talking.  I’m an individual.  I’m a human-being.  When I’m playing Rigoletto, I’m the hunchback, and I’m a character, but I’m still a human-being.  When I went on his show, I discussed the opera, and I discussed my life, and people saw me as a human-being and not a jester on a stage with a hunchback, or a man on a pedestal.  It’s marvelous, and you gain an audience from that.  They become curious, and they come to the opera.  Pavarotti has been doing it lately with his appearances.  He has fun.  He sings popular songs, and not just the opera.
BD:   All of this is audience-building?

Merrill:   Yes, it’s audience-building, and performing, and entertaining.

BD:   What’s the best way to get young people to come into the opera?  Might it be by being on talk-shows, and showing that you’re just a just a regular human-being?

Merrill:   The Metropolitan used to bus people in.  I don’t think they do that anymore, but it was a marvelous thing to do.  We used to bus young people from high schools, and sometimes elementary schools.  We’d give matinee performances for that, and they were marvelous.  They were the most honest audiences in the world.  They’d laugh at the right time, and they’d applaud.  I will never forget my first one.  It was with Risë Stevens in Carmen, and when I gave her a big kiss as Escamillo, they squealed.  [Both laugh]  One of the newspapers called me the Bobby Socks Idol of the Met [more laughter] and the kids loved it.  So that’s the way to bring them in.  The schools are missing a great deal by not playing operatic recordings for them, and getting them acquainted with it.

BD:   Do you think the TV is helping the cause?
Merrill:   The televised live performances are certainly helping, if they’re done well.  Sometimes, I’m concerned about live performances where the young people have never seen opera before.  They expect a movie, but they’re seeing people doing it live, and looking at a conductor.  It’s maybe a little static occasionally, and the lighting may not be perfect.  They’re spoiled because of the movies and the television, so they may have a different feeling about it.  But generally speaking, I think most of them are curious, and ask their parents to take them.

BD:   Let me take this one step further.  Does the operatic aficionado get spoiled by the perfection of the recording, and then expect that same perfection when they come to the live theater?

Merrill:   I think in many cases, yes.  They expect the sound, the quality, and everything to be the same.  But the real aficionados know that, and have been going to live performances and seeing operas all their lives.  So they realize that technically you sound a little different on the recording than you may on a large stage.

BD:   That doesn’t make the recording a fraud, does it?

Merrill:   No, absolutely not, oh no, no.  I’m sure they understand that.  At least I hope so!  [Both laugh]  I’ve never had any people say otherwise.  In many cases, some fans have come back-stage, and said that I sound bigger and better on stage than I do on recordings.  I don’t know what kind of record players they have, and that’s also important to know how they’re listening to their recordings.

BD:   They might be listening in a small room, perhaps on a smaller equipment, and then when they go to the opera house, they realize you’re filling this great big huge barn.

Merrill:   Yes, and then you’re sharing it with other people.  There are people sitting around you.  The atmosphere also helps.

BD:   There is a sense of camaraderie, which adds to the theater ambiance.  Speaking of which, you played in a number of different opera houses.  How did that affect your vocal production, if at all?

Merrill:   I’m never concerned with how large or small a theater is.  I sing the same way all the time.  It’s wrong to change, and some young artists come into the Metropolitan, and see this huge house.  They try to eat it up, and sing louder, and they hurt themselves.  Occasionally, when I see one that’s having problems, when we are backstage I tell them just to sing.  If the theater has 3,600 seats, you sing the same as you did in smaller theaters.  You can make your voice sound louder, but it won’t sound natural.  You’re forcing it, and you lose quality when you do that.

BD:   You have to rely on a solid technique?

Merrill:   All the time!  [Laughs]  Debuts at the Met can be terrifying because of that.  You fill the house if you sing naturally.  I sang with Lily Pons during my first couple of years at the Met, and she never sang loud.  She sang the same all the time, and you could hear her in the last row in the balcony.  The volume of the air will be there if you sing correctly.

BD:   Are there some young singers who should make it, but don’t?

Merrill:   I’m sure there are always many that don’t make it for various reasons.  It’s hard to put your finger on it.  There’s personality, musicianship, flare, and the need to be willing to work hard.  There are many, many reasons why some drop out.  You find that in any activity, even in sports.  I love sports, and I participated.  I love baseball...


BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Are there perhaps a few that make it that really shouldn’t?

Merrill:   Not in opera... occasionally in rock, or maybe in pop music.  They might get lucky if they can get a hit record, and they become very famous, but I don’t think that can happen in opera.  No, you can’t fool people in the opera.  It’s a great art, and you really have to know your craft.  The audience will accept you if you deliver.

BD:   Let me ask you about translations.  Do you believe opera should be performed in the language of the audience?

Merrill:   There are some operas that can be.  The buffo operas of Rossini and Donizetti occasionally can be, but I can’t see the Verdi and the Puccini operas translated.  No, and I find it difficult to sing.  I’ve tried it and it is even hard to listen to.

BD:   You don’t find a close communication when the audience knows exactly what you’ve sung?

Merrill:   The City Opera is trying the translations on the screen.

BD:   Is that the ideal compromise?

Merrill:   Yes, I think it is.  What happens when you do it in English, people know the melodies, and they’re occasionally listening too seriously to the words.  They’re so concerned about listening to the words that they forget to listen to the voice and the beauty of the music.  It takes away from the experience just by being so concerned about knowing every word and hearing every word.  It becomes difficult some times.  Puccini, and Rossini, and Verdi all collaborated with the gentlemen that wrote those words.  The words and music go together so well, that when you inject some other vowels in the translation, it hurts the music.
BD:   Let me ask the ‘Capriccio’ question then.  Which is more important in operathe drama or the music?

Merrill:   The music!  [Both laugh]  Oh, absolutely.  I’ve done some of my best performances, my most exciting performances in concert form.  Look at the things I did with Toscanini
Traviata and Ballo in Maschera.  I don’t ever remember singing more exciting performances, and we didn’t even wear a costume.  In opera, the scenery and the costumes are the frame of the beautiful music.  When you look at a Renoir, and if it didn’t have a good, beautiful frame, you’d still enjoy it because it’s so beautiful.

BD:   For those concert performances, was it Toscanini that provided the spark?

Merrill:   I think so, the inspiration.

BD:   If he were in the pit of a staged opera, would he not provide the same kind of spark?

Merrill:   Oh, absolutely.  There’s no doubt about it.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t wear costumes, but the primary reason for going to an opera is to hear the beautiful music and the singing.  It’s a singing art, my friend.

BD:   Are there any conductors that you would put in the same league as Toscanini?

Merrill:   Some were maybe close... [both laugh]  I’ve sung with everyone, including Fritz Reiner.  You name them, and they’re all magnificent.  They all inject their own personality, their own feelings, their own interpretations, and the understanding of the artist.  If you didn’t understand the words, or your interpretation, or if you were blasé about your work, then Toscanini would blow up.  But if he felt that you knew what you were singing about, musically, he smiled when you sang.  I had no trouble with him, and very few of the artists I sang with had trouble with him because they knew what they were doing.  The job of a great conductor is to keep the flow of the music, what the composer wanted, and realize that the singers are human-beings.  They also want to do what the composer had said or written.  Toscanini said,
I go for a 110%.  Then if I get 80%, I’m very happy.

BD:   So, he’d shoot for more than was capable of, and then get as much of that as he could?

Merrill:   That’s right, that’s right.

BD:   Without naming names, I assume that occasionally you would wind up with a dud conductor...  [Merrill laughs]  How do you compensate for that, or what do you do to make sure the performance doesn’t fall apart?

Merrill:   It happens very rarely, but mainly I’m just concerned with myself, that’s all.  I just make sure that I do what I can do.  Occasionally a conductor wants the tempo too fast, and during rehearsals I’ve told some conductors that it’s easier to wave the stick than to get out there and sing words.  When you’re singing words, if the tempo is too fast you can’t speak.  You can’t sing those words.  There have been one or two, but very rarely have I had problems.  At rehearsals there were occasionally blow-ups, and temperaments, but when the performance is on, it usually works.  It works even with an inferior conductor.

BD:   You’ve sung with great singers, and with lesser singers.  Do you find your performances were better when you were singing with great singers?

Merrill:   Sometimes you’re inspired more, yes.  It happens, but ninety per cent of the singers I’ve sung with at the Metropolitan were great artists.  They wouldn’t have gotten there if they weren’t.  You react differently to some than to others, but basically, they were all there to perform.  I’ve had very little change in my interpretation.

BD:   Is it still the case today that only the great artists wind up at the Met?

Merrill:   Generally speaking, yes.  Today, the world has gotten so much larger, and the transportation makes it that you can fly anywhere in the world within ten hours.  Even in New York, it’s more difficult to collect a repertory company during the season today than it was years ago.  Today, they’re singing all over the place.
BD:   Occasionally, I will read in a newspaper or a magazine that the critics are lamenting that people are starting at the Met before they should.

Merrill:   That always happens.  The repertoire is so large now.  When I started in 1945, we had thirteen weeks, and a repertoire of twelve operas.  So, we could keep our artists here for the season.  If you engaged an artist to sing eight performances of Aïda or Traviata, they were here.  Today it’s thirty different operas in thirty-two weeks.

BD:   Is it too much?

Merrill:   Sometimes I feel that it is.  You cannot keep those artists here for that longer period.  They’re earning an awful lot of money all around the world today.  It used to be the Met which paid the most.  Today, it’s Vienna, and Paris, and other places all over the world.  They’re paying very well, and it is more difficult to get the artists here.

BD:   Are there, perhaps, too many young singers coming up today?

Merrill:   No, I don’t think there are ever too many.  You need as many as you can get.  The question, as you asked before, is whether they are ready, and that’s another story.  [Asking and answering his own question]  Are they rushed?  I feel sometimes they are, and it’s a mistake.  I never let myself feel rushed into a role.  I waited eight, or even ten years for some things.  It was eight years for Rigoletto, and twenty years for Scarpia and La Gioconda.  The fact that I could sing them vocally wouldn’t be a problem, but I didn’t think I was mature enough to sing those roles the way I would like to sing them.  You see, that’s the difference.

BD:   You were setting up your own standard?

Merrill:   That’s right, and it worked.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that perhaps Rigoletto was your favorite role?

Merrill:   No, no, they were all my favorites.  Gosh, I like the Barber.  When I finally did Otello late in my career, I fell in love with Iago, and Rodrigo in Don Carlo was one of my favorites.  It’s a beautiful role.  La Traviata was my Met debut, and I sang it that same year with Toscanini, and debuted in Europe in the role.  If I have just one more role to sing before I quit, I may choose Traviata.

BD:   Do you like considering yourself a
Verdi baritone?

Merrill:   I’ve sang eighty per cent of my roles with Verdi.

BD:   What is it about Verdi’s writing that was so good for your voice?

Merrill:   First of all, he wrote many more operas, and he wrote well for the baritone.  How many Puccini operas do they do in season?  Usually one or two, but there are maybe six or seven of Verdi.  Verdi was a prolific writer.

BD:   Did he write well for all the voices, or just the baritone?

Merrill:   I think he wrote well for all the voices.  I would have loved very much to hear him try to sing Il balen del suo sorriso from Trovatore.  [Much laughter]  Some of the things he wrote were difficult.  The tessituras were high, and Rigoletto is a difficult opera to sing, and to maintain the emotion and the endurance, because it’s both lyric and dramatic.

BD:   Verdi is drawing on all of the resources of you, the singing actor?

Merrill:   Absolutely.  It’s quite difficult.  Sometimes, after a night of Rigoletto, you walk off perspiring and you say, “I’d like to hear Verdi try to do it!”  [Both laugh]  But that was the magnificence.

BD:   When you come off stage after a role, how long does it take for you to get back to being Robert Merrill again?

Merrill:   Very fast.  Once I get off stage, it’s over.  I don’t even remember what I’ve done.  I don’t think about any mistakes, or if it was great or marvelous.  I become Bob Merrill again, and my first question to my wife is,
“Where are we going to eat?  [Both laugh]  At that point it’s too late to worry about it, my friend, and I don’t believe in taking home your problems.  Before the following performance of the same role, I have a pretty good idea what I didn’t like in the previous performance.  But I’m not overtly concerned about it, and I dont worry about it before I go on, because then you’ll make the same mistakes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about a few specific roles.  Tell me about Germont.  What kind of a guy is he?
Merrill:   He’s a father.  Anyone that’s a father, and anyone that has a son wants him to be happy.  He realizes that his sixteen-year-old boy is living with a courtesan, or a woman of the world who is older, and he was concerned.  He also had a daughter, and he wanted to direct the son on the right path.  The aria Di Provenza il mar, while he’s telling his son to come back to his province, to return and leave this woman, is the most poignant part of the opera.  Later he realizes that she wasn’t that bad a girl, especially when she was sick and dying.  It’s a wonderful role.  When you do baritone roles, you’re either the father or a villain.  The tenor is always the romantic lead, and I resented that.

BD:   Did you ever feel that maybe you should have been born a tenor?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Carlo Bergonzi, and Sir John Pritchard.]

Merrill:   No, but Verdi should have made the baritone occasionally the romantic lead.  I always feel we’re better looking than the tenors!  [Much laughter]  I came close in Carmen, you know.

BD:   You wind up stealing her away from the tenor...

Merrill:   ...and he winds up killing her!  I walked off with the bull!  [More laughter]

BD:   [With a sly grin]  I hope the two of you were very happy...  [The laughter continues]  Going back to Traviata a moment, did you ever get a chance to sing the Cabaletta on stage?

Merrill:   Yes, I did.  We had a production where we did it.  I recorded it, you know.

BD:   Yes, I know it’s on the recording.  I don’t know why, but for some reason that’s one of my favorite little pieces that never gets done.  Why is it always cut?

Merrill:   After the Di Provenza and the full dramatic scene with his son, the Cabaletta dramatically and theatrically doesn’t work.  Musically it does, but theater-wise it doesn’t work.  I did it a few times, and it’s difficult after you’ve sung the aria and then you have to go into that Cabaletta.  I’ll get Verdi to sing it for you.

BD:   Are there any roles that you sang that were really too long?

Merrill:   No, not really.

BD:   You didn’t sing Wotan, or anything that was so very long?

Merrill:   No, no.

BD:   Was that something that entered into your decision of which roles you would sing?

Merrill:   No, not at all.  It wasn’t the length of the role, it was the quality of it, and whether I was ready to sing the part.  No, it had nothing to do with the length.

BD:   Are there any roles that you wish you’d had the opportunity to sing, but they just never came around?

Merrill:   I had a choice many times, but I was so busy.  I learned one role a year, and sometimes two, but not more than that.  This was the repertoire that the Met and other managers wanted me to do, which was the heavier Verdi parts. I didn’t have time to sing lighter roles.  I would love to have sung Don Giovanni, but I never got around to it.  I’d do Mozart arias occasionally, and I don’t know whether I’d have been a good Don Giovanni or not, but it would have been fun.

BD:   Did you ever sing any new operas by contemporary composers?

Merrill:   No.  Again, I never had the opportunity.  I was too busy.  I was asked occasionally if I was interested, but I really didn’t have the time to learn a part and do it once.  It
s rough because they’re not done often enough.  They don’t become part of the repertoire.

BD:   Are there any great modern operas?

Merrill:   I don’t know of any, I really don’t.

BD:   Then where is opera going if we’re not getting new operas written that can stand alongside those of Verdi?

Merrill:   There’s enough repertoire to do operas for the next hundred years.  They’re reviving now some Mozart operas that haven’t been done in a very long time, and some smaller operas companies are finding some old Rossini operas that people never heard before.  There’s a great deal that they could do, but as far as doing new music, I don’t know where you get the composers that could spend two or three years to write an opera, and never have it performed.  It’s difficult.  I don’t think I’d want my son to write contemporary operas, because I don’t think he’d make a living at it.
BD:   Is this going to spell the death of opera?

Merrill:   No, oh no, no way!  Absolutely not.

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BD:   One of the few comic roles that you did was Figaro in The Barber of Seville.  Tell me about him.
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Giorgio Tozzi, and Erich Leinsdorf.]

Merrill:   Oh, I enjoyed it.  It’s a great role.  I was quite fortunate to have studied the part with Giuseppe De Luca.  I heard him do it as a kid in Brooklyn.  A couple of my friends took the subway at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and stood on line at the Met in the winter to hear him, and I never forgot it.  It was a marvelous cast, but he stood out.  It wasn’t a big voice.  It was a beautiful quality, but his personality and interpretation of the part was just wonderful.  When I was finally asked to do it, luckily Mr. De Luca was in New York, and I got to work with him.  I did twelve lessons with him, working on it technically and musically.  I never forgot it, and it’s stayed with me.  He was a short man, and had a wonderful life.  He gave me one idea about the part, and it worked for me the first time I did it, and I kept it.  Figaro is always thinking.  You can see he is always thinking in his eyes.  He was very ambitious, always figuring how do I do this, and how do I make a dollar.  De Luca said he had busy eyes that were always thinking.  If you’re not thinking all the time on the stage, you will lose to Bartolo, and everyone else will steal from you.  You have to keep thinking with your eyes, and that’s what I did from the first time.  You can’t let down as Figaro.  You have to be involved all the time, and it worked.  It’s such a great idea.  That’s Figaro.

BD:   Does this still go on today, that young singers go to older singers for advice and guidance?

Merrill:   I don’t think it exists anymore.  I don’t think it’s happening at all, and that’s a mistake.  There are some wonderful artists like Licia Albanese, and Zinka Milanov, and Eleanor Steber, and they should be involved with the young singers.  They would inspire them, but it isn’t happening.  There was a young baritone, and I’m not going to mention his name.  Several years ago he was going to do his first Barber, and I said to him, “I had a wonderful teacher, Giuseppe De Luca.  I learned a great deal from him, and I could help you.”  Well, I never heard from him.  I told him to call me, and perhaps come over and we’d gab about it, but I never heard from him.  You have to want it, you see.  You have to want it.

BD:   Are singers perhaps too busy today?

Merrill:   No, I was very busy.  I had a radio show, and I did a lot of concerts.  I was a busy artist, but I realized the importance of doing well, and understanding what you’re doing, and knowing your craft.  I never rushed into things, and if I had the possibility of finding a De Luca, I found him.  I didn’t take chances.  You cannot take chances in opera.  You have to be very well prepared, not only vocally but artistically.  You have to mature into roles.  It’s not quantity, it’s quality.  I’d rather do twenty-five roles in my career than do fifty, and not do each of them well.  When they talk about Traviata today, or several of my other roles, they think about my performance.  But the artists today do so many different roles, and when they’re finished, or when they retire, they don’t remember what they sang.  They don’t relate to what they sang, and that’s the world we’re living in.  It’s complicated.  As I said before, today they can fly anywhere within ten hours, so it’s a temptation to grab at too many roles in too many countries.

BD:   What about the audience?  They’ve changed in forty years, so would their eyes be looking at Traviata or Rigoletto differently than when you started out?

Merrill:   Not really.  They understand what they’re going to hear.  As you said, they listen to recordings. [Both laugh]  I don’t know if the quality is there today, and I don
t know whether the new public realizes that there were great singers but they’ve never heard them.  They have nobody to compare with.
BD:   You have really quite a wide repertoire.  All of the roles you did were big masterworks?

Merrill:   Oh, absolutely.

BD:   What was perhaps your most obscure role?

Merrill:   Don Pasquale.

BD:   Oh, Malatesta in that opera?

Merrill:   Yes.  It isn’t done much, and it
s a beautiful opera.  I only did it in one or two seasons, and they took it out of the repertoire.  It’s a shame.

BD:   We’ve had it here in Chicago several times, always with Alfredo Kraus as Ernesto.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, also see my interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]

Merrill:   I did it with him.  He’s a great artist.  I’m an admirer of Alfredo, and bless him!  He’s still singing well, and he’s been around a long time.  He takes care of himself.  He’s got a good technique, and he thinks the way I did, and do, with my career, which is not to rush into things.  He does what he does very, very well because he specializes.

BD:   Tell me about Tonio in Pagliacci.

Merrill:   [Laughs]  Tonio is mostly just the Prologue.  I would love to have heard Leoncavallo sing that Prologue.  [More laughter]  It’s a beautiful aria.  Tonio is as short role, but a very exciting part.  There’s a lot you have to do in that hour, but after the Prologue it’s a dramatic role.  It’s not difficult vocally after the Prologue, but he’s a fabulous character, and you have to really portray him.

BD:   Did you also sing Silvio?

Merrill:   No, but I recorded it.  I never sang it publicly.  They talked me into doing the recording when Leonard Warren was Tonio.  I would have loved to have sung the Prologue, and then sung Silvio.  It was done that way many years ago.  That would have been fun.  Silvio’s role is absolutely beautiful.  I recorded the duet with Licia Albanese many years ago, and then the complete opera with Victoria de los Angeles.   I love the role.  It’s awfully beautiful music there.


See my interviews with Robert Shaw, James McCracken,  and Tom Krause

BD:   Do you ever listen to your recordings?

Merrill:   Rarely. When friends come over, they want to hear this, and they want to hear that, so then we put them on and I listen.  Otherwise, I don’t particularly listen to myself sing.  [Laughs]  I like to go out and play golf, and read.  There are so many other things I prefer to do.  If I’m repeating a role, or I want to think back and see and hear what I’ve done, I put on the record.  But I’m never always happy with my recordings because I always felt I could do better.  Why didn’t I hold this note a little longer?  Why didn’t I do this or that?
BD:   It means that you’re continually growing.

Merrill:   Yes...

BD:   I assume you are glad that quite a number of your broadcasts exist?

Merrill:   My Lord, I think there are two or three hundred of them around which have been pirated.  Occasionally, they send me a few.  I just got one from Faust I did in the
40s, and it was quite good.  I’d forgotten about it, and it was a lovely performance.  It’s fun to hear those old programs, those old shows.  They’re not always recorded well, but they’re fun to hear.

BD:   Should a young baritone today get himself involved in a Candid Camera stunt like you did?

Merrill:   Why not?  It was fun, and difficult to do.  It wasn’t easy.  It was done on 10th Avenue in New York, which wasn’t the nicest neighborhood.  There were real characters that came there.   I think about the things that we didn’t use on the show, which were funnier than the ones they used.  They couldn’t use them because of the language!  [More laughter, which continues throughout this story]  They’re called ‘out-takes’.  One guy said to me, “Would you shut up?!?!  What are you trying to do, deafen me???”  It was really fun.

BD:   I remember one customer said that you should sing at the Met!

Merrill:   Yes!  One other guy said he could get me an audition on the Ed Sullivan Show!  He happened to be a camera man for that program.  The show was aired from about three blocks from the barber shop, and he walks in to get a haircut during his lunch-break.  I had sung with Ed previously, so he obviously wasn’t working on that program.  But it was funny.

BD:   Maybe he figured that he would he would score a coup if he could actually get some real talent, and be able to say, “I discovered this guy!”

Merrill:   Yes.  He was serious about getting me that audition.

BD:   I hope you gave him tickets to a performance at the Met...

Merrill:   Yes, after the shot, we did that.  The people eventually realized that I was Bob Merrill, and not the Barber of 10th Avenue.  It was fun, and it’s become a classic.  It’s played quite often.

BD:   Is singing opera fun?

Merrill:   Yes, it can be fun.  It’s difficult work, but it’s the most gratifying of all the arts.  I’ve been involved in all aspects of singing and performing, and opera is the most gratifying.  When you finish a performance, you feel you have created a role.  Perhaps people haven’t heard it for many years, so you work for ten days or two weeks with the stage direction.  Then, when it finally comes off, the public is enthusiastic.  It’s the most gratifying of all the arts, no doubt about it.

BD:   Are there stage directors today who are perhaps going to far with their ideas?

Merrill:   I haven’t been involved with the Met for about eight years now...

BD:   Do you still see their performances occasionally?

Merrill:   I see some of the performances, and some of them do go overboard.  I’m a traditionalist, so sometimes it hurts.  [Both laugh]  I’ll let it go at that.

BD:   You’ve given so many people much pleasure with your voice, and with your acting, and with your career.  What is next beyond this new recording?

Merrill:   I just want to keep performing, and doing things I enjoy.  As long as I feel I’m enjoying it, and having fun, I’ll go on.  I also want to see the Yankees when they’re in the world series!  [Much laughter]


BD:   [Noting that the Cubs had not been in a World Series since 1945]  I will hope it’s the Yankees versus the Cubs.  You and I will sit on opposite sides of the field.

Merrill:   That would be fun.  That’s what it’s all about!

BD:   Exactly!  Thank you for being a singer.

Merrill:   Thank you for asking me.  Chicago is very close to me.  I’ve done many performances there, and I love the place.  I have many, many, many friends there, and God bless them, I hope to see them soon.


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 23, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week, and again in 1987 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.