Tenor  Chris  Merritt

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Chris Merritt was born in Oklahoma City on September 27, 1952 and began singing lessons at the age of 15, making his operatic debut in an Oklahoma City University student production of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe two years later. He entered the training program at The Santa Fe Opera at 21, and made his professional debut in Verdi’s Falstaff (Dr Caius) in 1975; throughout the late 1970s he performed regularly in Germany and Austria, and from the early 1980s began to attract considerable attention for his affinity with high-lying bel canto roles such as Arturo in I puritani, Argirio in Tancredi (which he sang opposite Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall), and Idreno in Semiramide, with which he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1985. Following a series of professional setbacks which led to him crowdfunding an audition tour in 2015, Merritt resumed a successful career in character-roles such as Herodes in Strauss’s Salome, Emperor Altoum in Puccini’s Turandot and the Witch in Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel.

A more detailied biography can be found at the bottom of this webpage.

==  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Chris Merritt has been at Lyric Opera of Chicago on several occasions, and on two of his visits
his first, and his most recentwe met for interviews.  There is a chart later on this webpage detailing the dates and roles.

The first time we met was in November of 1985.  He was relatively new to the opera-biz, yet had a maturity that allowed for solid performances and clear ideas.  When we met again eight years later, in December of 1993, he was moving from the lighter bel canto repertoire to heavier standard fare.  At that time, we continued to chat about various topics, and even got into some subjects that were quite deep.  

Portions of each conversation were used on WNIB, Classical 97, and now each one is presented in its entirety.

Bruce Duffie:   How does someone from Oklahoma City get to the stage of the New York City Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the other great stages of the world?

Chris Merritt:   A lot of hard work!  [Both laugh]  It would be like anybody else.  We still have a very fine music school there, vocally speaking, one of the top ten or fifteen in the nation.  It has produced an incredible number of professional singers of different levels, who sing anywhere from opera to Broadway.  We always had people in our school who had vision of the way it is in the big world, with the great traditions, and that is what to aim for.

merritt BD:   Did you decide to go into opera or Broadway, or did the voice decide that for you?

Merritt:   I never considered Broadway.  I just always had gone for classical music.  I started out with piano, and studied it for thirteen years, and the teachers that I had led me into the vocal department.  I went to Oklahoma City University, and all of these things were just channeled tributaries that went into one great river of classical music.  I did musicals and operettas like everybody does when they’re teenagers.  You sing in choruses, and behold a whole gamut of things.  But it was just things that I did to work on gaining experience, and to have to something to do to make money as time rolled on and I went further down the road.  Somehow classical music was just always the thing, basically opera, and with it a generous helping of art song literature, including Lieder and chanson.

BD:   Do you still sing concerts as well as opera?

Merritt:   When I’ve had time I’ve given recitals.  That’s been hard to do.  I gave quite a few recitals back in my college years, but when I started singing professionally, from 1978 to 1984, those six years were packed with opera.  It was almost impossible to get any time, because to do recital work and concert work is something that you really have to set aside.  There’s no company or place telling you that certain dates are rehearsals, and you have to do this, and you have to do that.  There’s nobody planning that out for you.  It’s all up to you.  You’re the one who has to get things as close to perfect as you possibly can in that amount of time.  So, you have to have a big chunk of time to be able to work on that.

BD:   Is it better or worse being your own producer?

Merritt:   It’s a different kind of stress because usually the artistic managers and the rehearsal departments have all those different stresses on them, and your only stress is learning your role and being there at the time of rehearsals.  But when you’re the person who is producing and deciding how things are done, and when things are done, it’s a different kind of stress.  They don’t have pluses and minuses in the long run, but recital work is much more intimate and personal, not just in the physical aspect of being closer to your audience.

BD:   Where did you go immediately after graduation?

Merritt:   My first professional engagement was in Salzburg.  I was a member of the ensemble for three years, from 1978 to 1981.  It was a small house, and was a wonderful place to start.

BD:   Is this a good thing for younger singers?

Merritt:   No, no, no, no, no, it was a professional house.  In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, they have 173 professional houses, and they do performances all season long.  For a young singer just out of school, and especially for an American, it was a wonderful place to start out because it had such a variety of experience available at any and all times.  For one thing, it’s been Karajan’s home, and he lives there part of the time.  He’s from Salzburg, and he’s also in charge of the Festivals.  Therefore, at least once every six weeks to two months he was auditioning, working on plans, working on rehearsals, working on performances, and with him came the influx of singers, directors, and people that like.  All that had to do with the Festival seasons, and at the same time I was there to do my job of being in the regular ensemble.  That was with the Landestheater, Salzburg, and we did our own season.  Besides that, there was also the Mozarteum Orchestra, which we worked with.  That is one of the finer orchestras of Europe, and they do quite a bit of recording work.  The Mozarteum Orchestra was also our house orchestra for the Landestheater, Salzburg, so I worked with this orchestra constantly, and did concerts with them, and had the opportunity to see them in concerts with the really big-name people.  It was an experience for me not only to get my professional wings, and to do roles, and get repertoire under my belt, but to have all of this exposure to different things, and to different facets and different levels of experience, from professional grades of superstars down to course levels.

BD:   What kind of roles were you singing then those three years?

Merritt:   My professional debut was Lindoro in L’Italiana in Algeri, and then during those three years I did Faust, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, L’Elisir d’Amore...  We did a beautiful production of La Finta Giardiniera, where I did Contino Belfiore.

BD:   Was that in Italian or German?

Merritt:   That was in German.  We did most everything in German because of the size of the house and the size of the company.

BD:   So, then you were the Graf rather than the Contino.

Merritt:   Right.  [Both laugh]  Then I did the Steuermann in The Flying Dutchman.  Because the Festivals didn’t go all year round, the houses that they use
the Grosses Festspielhaus, the Felsenreichtschule, and the Kleines Festspielhauswere only used during the summer, and at the Easter Festival time.  Therefore, while the Festivals were not on, those stages belonged to the Landestheater, Salzburg, and we had our own festivals besides having our own regular Landestheater house.  We did big spectacular productions like The Flying Dutchman, Manon Lescaut, and Jenůfa.  So, I did the Steuermann in the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, which was incredible for a twenty-five-year-old, tenor!

BD:   Was it the same production that Karajan used?

Merritt:   Not in his production, but a production of our own.  It was with a very fine director, and Leif Roar was the Dutchman.  I can’t remember the name of the Senta, but Herman Winkler was Erik, and again we used the Mozarteum Orchestra.  Leopold Hager conducted, and Karajan’s directing assistant, was our director.  It was a very large production, but it was under our auspices and not the Festival’s.  I had exposure to be able to do things like that in those sized houses with those sized orchestras.  It was a wonderful way for me to start, and still not be in a huge house.  I could still be in a house where they did repertoire that was okay for me.  L’Elisir d’Amore, La Finta Giardiniera and things like that were wonderful for me, whereas if I had gone to a big house, or even a medium-sized house, I immediately would have had to do things not suited to my voice.  If you’re really specifically in one particular Fach, you don’t sing that often because they don’t get around to your repertoire as often as they would in a smaller house, or you’re pushed into singing things that you shouldn’t sing at your age.

merritt BD:   Is it right to consider you a Rossini Tenor?

Merritt:   In the sense that I sing Rossini, I guess you could say that, sure!  [Both laugh]  But I also sing Donizetti, and Bellini.  I would rather consider myself a bel canto singer.  If there were such a thing, I would like to consider myself a dramatic coloratura tenor, because I don’t do any of the lighter roles.  I’ve done L
Italiana in Algeri and Cenerentola, but otherwise basically I do the heavier Rossini things, such as William Tell, and Tancredi.  I do Semiramide which is kind of in between, but I don’t do The Barber of Seville and those type of things.

BD:   You’ve already let those go?

Merritt:   No, I really never got into them in the first place.  I’ve never done The Barber of Seville, and Cenerentola I do every once in a while, but I’m not wild about doing it.  It’s okay.  It’s a wonderful piece for those that do it well, but I just don’t feel like I do it as well as I do the more dramatic things.

BD:   You want to sing heavier roles in small houses?

Merritt:   No!  I don’t want to sing heavier roles.  I don’t consider Rossini as being heavy.

BD:   Arnold [in William Tell] is not light...

Merritt:   No, it’s not light in the sense of other Rossini, but I cannot imagine Mario Del Monaco having been Arnold, as in a heavy voice doing a heavy role, or I can imagine Domingo doing Arnold.  You would have to have some sort of Rossini tenor to be able to do Arnold.

BD:   You’re talking about the flexibility of the voice?

Merritt:   Yes, basically.  I always want to center everything I do on Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.

BD:   Is there any one role that you particularly enjoy, and you get asked to do a lot?

Merritt:   Arturo in I Puritani.  I also enjoy Lucia di Lammermoor, and L’Elisir d’Amore.  I’ve only done a couple of performances of William Tell, but just about everywhere I go, I’m asked to do it, so there’ll be more and more coming along, and I enjoy doing that.  I love singing that.  It’s a really wonderful role, but I love singing I Puritani the best of anything I do so far.

BD:   What sort of a guy is Arturo?

Merritt:   He’s basically a combination of Edgardo in Lucia, and Percy in Anna Bolena.  [Both laugh]  You could actually use the same costume for all of them, and the same fencing.  They’re basically built the same way.

BD:   Buckle your swash the same way!

Merritt:   [Continues laughing]  Right, buckle your swash the same way.  For Arnold, you have to buckle a little more swash because it’s a little higher than the rest of them.  But I like them.  They’re good characters because they’re not just a pretty face.  They’re really good-hearted characters, and a lot of times they have some of the most meaningful music, the most heartfelt music that the composer put into their operas.  They tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

BD:   How much do you delve into each character that you play?

Merritt:   I don’t think I get to delve into it as much as I possibly could because there’s just the time factor... unless it
s a new role.  I Puritani, for instance, I’ve done since 1981, and I’ve done it in different productions in Europe and in America.  So, each time you get to redo a character, you’ve already gotten by the learning of the role, and doing it for the first time.  All those different stepping-stones are passed, so you’re in a place where you can pick it up and sing.  You do go deeper and deeper so, in that sense, I like to go as far as I can and keep going on until infinity.  But to prepare a new role, for instance, Percy, which I am doing here in Chicago, I do as much as I can.  I research the story as much as I can, and I consider the different aspects of each character, and how they relate to you.  Its the different relations between the different characters, and why things are happening that way.  I research that as much as I can, but sometimes it gets short-changed because of my time factor, my schedule of learning, and having roles that I need to learn.  There’s only so much time that you can give to a new role, and you get it as far along as you possibly can.  I’m sure the audience doesn’t really think of all these things when they’re watching.  It’s been so long since I’ve been just a plain audience member at an opera that I’ve never seen before, or known before, or read before, or heard of before.  It’s hard for me to relate and understand that a person in the audience seeing that for the first time, just doesn’t see all the levels of things that go into it as we perceive when we’re up there.  Tonight’s performance [at Lyric Opera] is Traviata [with Catherine Malfitano, Francisco Araiza, Pablo Elvira, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti], and that’s a piece I’ve known for ages and ages.  I sang it a long time ago, and Ive seen different productions of it, and I’ve listened to it, and I’ve looked at the story, so I see it on all kinds of different levels and aspects.  But maybe the audience just doesn’t see all these different things.  Maybe it’s not as paramount.  It should always be paramount to me, but it’s doesn’t come over as being so panic-stricken that we’ve got to take it as far as we possibly can, or we’ve got to delve in as hard as we possibly can.  You can’t drive yourself crazy trying to do something like that.  I’ve sometimes felt guilty because I just didn’t get it as far as I wanted to.  I didn’t get into this aspect of the role as much as I wanted to, and I keep thinking that the audience will realize it, and they’ll know, and they’ll understand that I didn’t do this, and wonder what’s wrong with me because I didnt do this, or didn’t do that.

BD:   You forget about the fact that a lot of times they come just for beautiful singing?

Merritt:   Exactly!  You know the old saying ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’.  You get so close and so involved with something that you cannot back away, and look at it and know that for right now this isn’t bad.  The audience will enjoy this.  The point you’re trying to get across will probably, more than likely, get across, and nobody will be any the worse for it.  You won’t come off as being a bad artist, and the audience will enjoy it, so the next time you pick up this role, you’ll develop it a little further, and you’ll do everything you possibly can.  It’s a real human factor that everybody has to keep perspective of when they encounter an artist on stage.  That person is also a human being, and they also think things and feel things, and have their own personal life.  So, everything is relative as far as everybody being a human being is concerned.

BD:   Do you think that the over-abundance of recordings today has made live audiences demand that kind of perfection?

Merritt:   I think it has, especially the way a lot of the recordings tend to be so perfected.  In the old days, you got up and you sang your thing, and took pot-luck.  You took that recording of it, and that was it.  I tend to enjoy those recordings more than I do the really perfect slick ones of nowadays.  The reverb in the sound may not have been as good in the old days, and it may not have been picture-perfect and letter-perfect from beginning to end, but they have such a thrill, and realness.

merritt BD:   What about those non-commercial recordings?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1985, before he had made most of his commercial discs.]

Merritt:   They always pop up.  People are coming back stage for autographs and they’ll bring these things.  There’s a pirated recording of my Vienna State Opera debut.  We did La Juive where I did Léopold with Carreras, and Siepi, and Ilona Tokody.  Somebody pirated it, and it’s been out on the market for a long time.  Just about everywhere I go, people have that recording, and they’re always asking me to sign it.

BD:   Are you happy that this is out even though you haven’t received any monetary reward from it?

Merritt:   Yes, except a lot of it is recorded high.  It tends to push up and I don’t know what happened but pitch is a half-step higher than what it should be.  A friend of mine in New York had the recording, and we were listening to it.  Fortunately, he has one of those machines that you can vary the speed.  So, we put it right and made a cassette of it, so I have a set of cassettes with the adjusted speed.  It’s on pitch, but on the original, my first aria is a half-step high, and I sound like Minnie Mouse!  [Both laugh]  Siepi sounds like a baritone instead of a bass, but it’s basically a pretty good recording.

BD:   Are you glad that your performances are being preserved in some archive in some place?

Merritt:   Oh, yes, and I enjoy it... not from an egotistical standpoint, but I like having that chronicle of what I’ve been doing.  I don’t think it’s out, but there’s a recording that we made of my Carnegie Hall debut when we did a concert version of Tancredi, and it was a wonderful evening.  It was a very thrilling evening with Marilyn Horne and Lella Cuberli, and Justino Díaz.  The orchestra was fabulous, the chorus was impeccable, and it was just one of those magic evenings when everything clicked beautifully.  The audience was electrifying and electrified.  They gave to us, and we gave to them.  [See a portion of the review at left]  There is a house tape of that, which they always do at Carnegie Hall for archive reasons.  I got a set of cassette tapes of the whole thing, and I’m really thrilled with having something that I can look back on.  Who knows where I’ll be in ten or fifteen years?  Nobody can predict the future, but at least I’ll have these things on tape that I can listen to, and remember all the things that happened.  I’ve just done Maometto II, which is the original The Siege of Corinth, in the Rossini Festival in Pesaro this last summer.

BD:   You’re not on the record, are you?

Merritt:   No, the record came out right before we did the performances.  That was Ernesto Palacio.  But the Italian television broadcast it.  They filmed the dress rehearsal and all the performances, and then they made an edit of all the pieces.  I’m sure there’s egotism in that, but it’s not that I want to hear myself.  It’s that I like to have it as a remembrance of what I did, and who I sang with, and the people I got to know and was privileged enough to work with.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say you don’t know where you’ll be in ten years.  If you could call the shots, where would you want to be?

Merritt:   [Ponders a moment]  I can’t think that I would want to be in any place any differently than where I am now.  Some friends and I were just talking about that, if there was anywhere that I’d like to sing that I haven’t been able to sing yet.  This year [1985] has been a big year for me.  I debuted in Hamburg, Covent Garden, The Rossini Festival in Pesaro, La Scala, and Chicago in a six-month period.  In 1983 I debuted at Carnegie Hall, and then at the Paris Opera, and in 1981 I made my debut in at the New York City, and the Vienna State Opera.  As to other places, I’d like to sing in Berlin, and in Munich.  I’d also like to sing in Rome, and the Cologne Opera.

BD:   So, it’s just a few different opera houses?

Merritt:   There are few different opera houses, but I would like to be able to do good quality work.  It
s not so much quantity, but quality.  I’m not necessarily one who wants to be working constantly, and push my career to a white heat, but basically do what Joan Sutherland didhave quality productions, and be able to do the operas that are meaningful to me.  This involves doing the repertoire I lovewhich is the bel canto thingsand being able to do them in places where they will be appreciated for the music, as well as for being appreciated as a singer.  For instance, in northern Germany, oddly enough, people wouldn’t think of it, but they are absolutely nuts over bel canto things there.  I did quite a few Puritanis up there, which was like a revelation, because in northern Germany, whoever heard of doing Bellini?

BD:   [With a smile]  Yes, they do Weber and Marschner.

Merritt:   [Laughs]  Exactly, and at each performance we had, the people lost their minds, not just from the singing standpoint
though the singing was very goodit was like they were discovering a whole facet of music that had never been opened up to them before, and they were elevated to new heights.  Then I did Semiramide in Hamburg, and again the people went crazy over the repertoire, and over the whole aura of opera being written for singers.  It was the whole bel canto idea, with singers singing the wonderful music as beautifully as they can, and the whole presentation itself.  It was like a whole new revelation to those people, and that’s what’s thrilling to meto be able to bring this type of music to a public that loves it and appreciates it as much as I do.

BD:   Is it maybe a break for the public, because they’ve been having so much drama?

Merritt:   I think so.  They’ve always been led around through the years being told by the powers that be that there is basically only Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss.  Other than that, they really don’t want to mess with those things.  They acknowledge they’re there, but they don’t worry about those, and the audiences have just gone along with them.  I love Wagner and Strauss and Mozart, but somehow bel canto just got laid by the wayside.

BD:   Do you think you will ever want to sing Siegfried?

Merritt:   No!  [Both laugh]  I’ve sung quite a bit with Marilyn Horne.  We’re very good friends, and she’s done a lot for my career.  She’s one of the driving forces behind a lot of stuff that I’ve done, and ever since I’ve known her and sung with her, she’s always had this bug about me singing Wagner.  She keeps saying, “Chris, I hear it!  I hear it in your voice!  I swear it!”  Then, when she speaks about me to others, she will always say, “I hear him singing Wagner.”  I keep saying, “Marilyn, you’re crazy!  [They laugh]  I don’t know what it is you’re hearing, but I can’t imagine it.”  [Wistfully]  Maybe, who knows?  In ten or fifteen years, who knows what’s going to be down the road?

BD:   What she hears in your voice is a freeness and a ring that you don’t get in most Wagner tenors.  On the other hand, you are right that if you start singing Wagner, your career will last a wonderful two years.

Merritt:   [Laughs]  A wonderful two years, maybe!  Who knows?  For one thing, I don’t know if I’m mature enough for Wagner, anyway.  It took me a long time to warm to Wagner as a listener.  When I was between seventeen and twenty-five, I was discovering operas, discovering repertoire, and discovering recordings.  I would buy Wagner recordings, and I always had the feeling that seventy percent of it was just over my head.  I really didn’t understand what was going on, and try as I might to get into it, somehow it evaded me.  Now it’s better.  I’m older, and I can hear more facets than what I did.  But still, I don’t know if I would ever have the presence of mind, or a presence of talent, or intellect to get into it.  Who knows?  Maybe she’s right.  Maybe she’s a soothsayer, but I just can
t imagine it.

merritt BD:   We’ll see.  We’ll do another interview in fifteen years.  [As it turned out, we met again eight years later, and that conversation is included on this webpage.]  Are you conscious of the fact that you are one of the few tall tenors around?

Merritt:   Yes, I am.  I’m very conscious of that.  It’s funny.  [Vis-à-vis the photo at left, see my interviews with Mariella Devia, and Sandro Sequi.]

BD:   You can stand beside Sutherland and not be dwarfed like so many other tenors.

Merritt:   Oddly enough, being here and singing with Joan Sutherland is like a once-in-a-lifetime gift.  It was something that just fell into my lap, and I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t expect it, but it happened.  Since I was seventeen or eighteen, when I really began knowing what was going on in opera, I have been an avid, almost fanatic Joan Sutherland fan.  I read everything about her.  I got hold of every biography that I possibly could, and collected recordings.  I went to Dallas and looked for pirated recordings because she used to sing there a lot.  I practically had a shrine built to her in my bedroom when I was going to college.  There was always something about her being very tall, and being a very large, big-boned woman.  She had had this problem all of her professional singing career, feeling out of place because she was so tall, especially against the tenors, and she would have this way of walking to compensate for her tallness, walking with her knees bent, or a little bit hunched over so that she would always seem at least a little smaller when she was standing next to the tenor.  That always stuck in my mind because if some day I could ever sing with her, I’d know she’d like me because I’m tall.  I always tried to find out how tall she was, because they never said how tall she was in the books, and I always thought she can’t be six foot two.  I’m six foot two, and she’s got to be shorter than me, so it would be work out great.  The second time I saw her live was in a performance on the Met tour of The Tales of Hoffmann.  I went to Dallas to see it, and in my college where I went to school, we had in our dormitories what they call ‘suites’, where two roommates shared a bathroom, so that you were four suite-mates.  We four suite-mates were also good friends from high school and junior high, and we all went together to see Joan Sutherland.  We were all Joan Sutherland fanatics, and the shortest one of us was six feet tall.  He’s a dancer now on The Mitzi Gaynor Show.  Then, my best friend, John, was six foot one, and I’m six foot two, and Charles was six foot five.

BD:   All you needed was a center and you’d have had a basketball team!

Merritt:   [Laughs]  Exactly.  So, after the show we all went with the adoring fans backstage to the dressing rooms to see the people.  There was a line at Joan Sutherland’s dressing room door, and you had to wait.  She would talk to each person.  All four of us wanted to stick together to talk to her, so we worked our way into the room, and as we were standing there, she stood in the middle of us and was shorter than any of us.  She looked around and said, “This is wonderful!”  She closed the door and said, “I just want to enjoy this moment!”  We had the best visit with her.  She’s such a down to earth person, almost a homebody.  She loves her private life and her home, and she loves her family.  I had, of course, read about her family, and I knew her son’s name was Adam.  So, I asked her about Adam, and she was just on Cloud Nine that somebody had asked her about her family.  She said, “Oh, I have a picture of him right here,” and she got out her pictures, and showed them from his school days, or on a skiing trip in Switzerland when he went to school there.  It was interesting to me because I had only seen pictures of him when he was two years old in her biographies.

BD:   Did you relate all of this to her when you met for the rehearsals here?

Merritt:   Yes.  I told her the whole thing, and how she had affected me in centralizing what I wanted to do in my career.  I told her the whole story, and she loved it.  She said, “Well, you sentimental old thing, you!”  There are times when she can sing something and I would immediately break into tears.  I don’t know why.  It just affected me that way.  I told her that, and she said, “Oh, you’re silly!  Go on!”  I said, “Allow me, as an adoring fan, to be affected this way, because you have a gift that’s once in a century.  That’s the way it affects me, and it’s my right to have it affect me that way!  There’s nothing you can do about it, so let me carry on!  Some day you’ll look back at this, and think that was wonderful, that it was nice that people appreciated me that way.”   So, at the dress rehearsal she sang the note at the end, and immediately tears burst into my eyes.  She turned around and looked at me, and she said, “You are such a sentimental thing!”

When you’re on stage performing, and there are 3,500 people in the house, how do you not get caught up in it so much that it dries up your throat?

Merritt:   Now I’m beyond that.  I’ve
gotten past that now.  We’ve developed as colleagues, and we’ve developed as friends, and she has become a real person to me.  You see in the duet how we have to hold each other and look right in each other’s face.  The first couple of days at rehearsals, all I could do was stand there, and think, “I’m looking right into Joan Sutherland, nose to nose!  How is this possible?”  [Much laughter]  She’d open her mouth and sing, and I’d think, “I’m looking in Joan Sutherland’s mouth!”  But soon that awe kind of wore off.  I’m still in awe, but in a much more real and human way, more like in awe of a family member, or somebody that you respect, who you look up to, who you want to pattern your life after, who you really love and cherish.  You have a personal contact, so that idolatry has broken down, and they become real flesh and blood.  It’s more real to me now.
BD:   You’ve matured in just a few weeks in a way that you might not have been able to do had you not sung with her.

Merritt:   Exactly, and it was that way when I first worked with Marilyn Horne.  I was in awe of her also, and that has matured.

BD:   Does it give you a sense of satisfaction to know that you can take your place beside them?

Merritt:   Oh my God, of course, but I can’t think of things like that because it can get overwhelming.

BD:   Do you sing better with Joan Sutherland than you would with another soprano?

Merritt:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s hard to say because I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of really fine sopranos.  Each one of them is different in their own way.  Singing with Joan Sutherland is, on a very basic level, practically instinctively easy for me.  I don’t know what it is.  On the opening night, the high note we sing together at the end of the duet rattles my brain.  We’re on the same wavelength.  Please don’t think that I’m saying I’m on the same level as Joan Sutherland.  I would never, ever say that, but somehow our basic instincts come out.  We react the same way to a lot of things, and we do things the same way.  I’ve sung with Monserrat Caballé in Semiramide, and she’s also the same way.  One soprano that I love singing with, and that I get along with perfectly both musically and vocally is June Anderson.  She and I adore singing with each other, and we get along very well personally and professionally.  It’s just a very good professional chemistry for us.  We did I Puritani together at the New York City Opera, and it was such a success.  We were able to melt into each other musically and dramatically.  Something clicked, like it does with Joan Sutherland.

BD:   That’s very encouraging, because you’re more likely to get chances to sing with Anderson over a career than you are with Joan Sutherland.

Merritt:   I understand that, and she and I both sensed that the very first time we sang together.  She has requested to be able to sing with me.  She sings I Puritani a lot too, and we love doing that together, and we would like to do Lucia di Lammermoor together, and we would like to do The Daughter of the Regiment together.  But we only get to see each other once every six months now.  Once in a while we run into each other, as we did here [she was singing in Samson of Handel with Jon Vickers], and we saw each other in Italy this summer.  We’re doing Semiramide together in Covent Garden, and that will be fun.  It will be a concert version, but at least that will better than nothing.

BD:   How far ahead are you booked?

Merritt:   I’m getting through the end of 1988 now, and into 1989.

BD:   Is that a good feeling to know that on a certain Wednesday you’ll be doing a certain opera in a certain place?

Merritt:   Sure.  It’s a very good feeling, not just for the monetary security.  I have a family at home, and it’s nice to know that I’ll be able to provide for them.  I can’t really say that I ever did worry about that.  Since I’ve sung professionally, I’ve always worked all the time, especially in those first six years because I was contracted at these opera houses in Europe.  My first contract was for two years, and then one year, and then three years.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you decide which roles you will accept and learn, and which roles you will turn down?

Merritt:   Basically it’s just common sense about myself, and my own awareness and knowledge of the repertoire.  I have no grand ideals about what is there.  I’m squarely into the middle of the bel canto repertoire, but I’ve had some offers of ridiculous things
like Marilyn Horne thinking I’ll sing Wagner.  After I sang at the New York City Opera, they immediately saw tenor stars in their eyes.  When they hear someone who can sing high notes, they immediately say they can do this, and this, and this, and they wanted me to do Tosca, and all these things that were too heavy.  Those are beautiful roles, and who knows, maybe in fifteen years I’ll be able to sing something like that in a decent sized house, but common sense tells me that I’m not going to be able to sing those roles.  Selfishly, I love the bel canto repertoire so much that I’ve stubbornly stayed in that.  That helps me more than anything.  I was talking with Donald Kaasch the other day.  Hes one of the guys with the Opera Center [the training school at Lyric Opera of Chicago].  He’s new, and has a beautiful voice that reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age.  I think his voice is a lot prettier than mine is, but he has basically the same type of voice physiologically, with the same problems and the same range.  He knows that hes pretty much basically in the bel canto repertoire. As a matter of fact, he’s more a leggiero, one who can sing The Barber of Seville and those types of roles.  He was explaining to me that it’s hard for him, because he was raised all his life hearing people like Jussi Björling and Mario del Monaco, singing Trovatore, and Tosca, and La Bohème, and La Forza del Destino, and Un Ballo in Maschera.  He was raised thinking “Now, that’s a tenor!”  He says that inside of him, in the back of his mind exists this real Verdian spinto tenor that is aching to break free, and he knows that it’s just not there.  Hes not that type of tenor.

BD:   [Ever the optimist]  Maybe he’ll finally look up to Chris Merritt and say, “Now there’s a tenor!”

Merritt:   [Laughs]  He’s been very kind to me, telling me how he really looks up to me.  But it’s odd for me.  It’s hard to relate to that, because I’ve been lucky in that the type of repertoire I really go crazy over happens to be the exact type of music I need to sing anyway.  That’s the way it’s always been, so it’s hard for me to relate to him.

BD:   But you see how easy it would have been for you to fall into the trap.  If you had looked up to that bigger repertoire, you could be at the New York City Opera doing [Verdi
s] Otello.

Merritt:   Exactly!  Well, maybe I would have.  It’s hard to say.  There are so many variables and factors in there.  I’m sure it could have happened that way.  In ten years, I would like to be able to acceptably do La Bohème.  I love Bohème, and I love doing it.  I’ve done it before, quite a few performances in a medium-sized house.  That’s one of the safer roles that you can do, because it’s not dramatic at the wrong parts of the voice, like a lot of heavy repertoire is, especially in Verdi.  But I just can’t imagine that I would ever want to do Trovatore, or Forza, or Turandot...  [As can be seen in the chart below, he would, indeed, sing Trovatore just a few seasons later!]

Chris Merritt at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1985-86 - Anna Bolena (Percy) with Sutherland, Toczyska, Zilio, Plishka, Doss; Bonynge, Mansouri, Schuler

1988-89 - Tancredi (Argirio) with Horne, Cuberli, Cox, Redmon, Sharon Graham; Bartoletti, Copley, Conklin, Schuler

1990-91 - [Opening Night]  Alceste (Admète) with Norman, Doss; Bertini, Wilson, Tallchief

1991-92 - I Puritani (Arturo) with Anderson, Plishka/Kavrakos, Maultsby, Coni; Renzetti,  Sequi, Schuler

1992-93 - [Opening Night]  Otello [Rossini] (Otello) with Cuberli, Croft, Blake, Maultsby, Runey; Renzetti, Pizzi/Tessitore, Schuler

1993-94 - Trovatore (Manrico) with Kazarnovskaya, Zajick, Gavanelli, Langan; Richard Buckley, Frisell, Benois, Schuler

merritt BD:   What adjustments do you make for a small house to a medium-sized house to a large house?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with José van Dam, Dawn Upshaw, John Aler, and Tom Krause.]

Merritt:   I don’t think I make any adjustments.  I don’t feel like I do.  There’s always the adjustment that you have to make in the size of space that you’re singing into.  You can’t get out of that.  It’s like the difference when somebody is singing in their bath tub as opposed to singing out the window into the open air.  There’s always that adjustment of space, and you have to adjust to that for every different opera house you go to.  If anybody tries to tell you differently, they’re a fool because it’s just not possible in a biological sense.  There’s more space in a large house than there is in a smaller house, and you have more reverberation coming back in a small house, because the back wall is closer to you.  You hear it faster.  It’s all acoustics, but adjusting to sing?  I don’t think there’s much more adjustment.  On a personal basis, I’m always aware of trying to refine whatever it is I’m doing at the point that I’m doing it, the point of development where I am at a certain given time.  I’ll always try to hone in, and fine tune or re-tune, or whatever it is that I’m capable of doing at that time.  Maybe that comes across as some facet of the technique, but to me it’s a personal satisfaction of being able to get out there and concentrate on it.  I’m going to try to get this whittled down.  Some nights it’s successful, and some nights it’s not.  It’s always something to work for and to work on.  You’re not always out there on the stage singing your guts out.  You’re not out there just blowing it out into the air.  I always try to find something to be able to hook into, and really work on as an artist, and as a singer, and as a human being, whether it be on the emotional level, or a character development, or the vocal level, or the combination of all of it, trying to balance all three, or working on one particular facet.  For me, it makes it much more interesting.  I can’t imagine just going out on stage and just singing for singing sake.  Zinka Milanov was a fabulous soprano.  She had an incredibly gorgeous voice, and a career that lasted a long time.  She sang gloriously all the way through it.  She was very sage-ish about these things, and one time she said,
Before thirty you sing with you, and after thirty you sing with technique.  Ever since I’ve heard that, it always stuck in the back of my mind.  I keep thinking, “Thank God I’m over thirty!  [Laughs]  I’m over thirty now, and I know what’s going on!  There’s got to be more than just getting out there and letting loose with a pretty sound.  It’s like searching for a high plane of truth.  There’s always got to be something more there.  Not something more in a violent sense, like a body builder trying to build more muscle, but something more fine-tuned.  [Pauses a moment]  Maybe you can make yourself crazy in trying to reach that goal, I don’t know...

BD:   Do you rely on a prompter?  [See my interview with prompter Jane Klaviter.]

Merritt:   When I’m first doing a role, yes.  Where I went to school, we had the good fortune of being able to do lots of productions.  We did full-scale, wonderful productions of operas, and because of the size of the staff, the two things that we never had were coaches and prompters.  It was up to you to teach yourself your role, and, by God, you better do it as perfect as you could get it done.  Then it was up to you to work out the fine points with the conductor.  But when you came in there with that role learned, you’d better have combed it through with a fine-toothed comb.  The second thing was no prompter.  You had to have the thing memorized spic-and-span, top to bottom, and you had to know it in and out without any kind of problem.  Thank God none of them ever happened to me, but I saw a lot of funny things happen in performances of people who weren’t as well-prepared.

BD:   At that point, did you know you were going on to a professional career?

Merritt:   I always knew I was going on to a professional career.  I didn’t know exactly how I’d be doing it, or how I was going to arrive, but I did a lot of roles.  At school, I did Faust, and Hoffmann, and Traviata, and Rigoletto, and Così and Madam Butterfly...

BD:   [Surprised]  Roles that you won’t do now?

Merritt:   I do Così and Faust and Rigoletto, but no, I wouldn’t do Butterfly or Hoffmann now.  But we got so used to not having a prompter, that when I went to my first engagement in Europe, and they did have prompters, that bothered me.  To have somebody down in that little box saying things to me made me think I was saying something wrong.  I knew what the words were, and it took me a while to get used to that.  Eventually I learned how to shut them out because I was so programmed to do it all on my own without any kind of help from anyone else.

BD:   Now do you go to the prompters and ask them not to prompt you?

Merritt:   Yes, I do that because professional prompters are used to just having to spew out all the words at all time.  So, you have to be the one to decide what helps you and what hinders you.  There are some singers that have to have prompters, and hang on every word, and there are some that don’t.  Some people remember better than others.  I don’t know if it has anything to do with it, but I’ve always had the type of memory.

BD:   As a student in Oklahoma, did you spend four or five months on one role?

Merritt:   No, not us.  We spent one month on a role.  We didn’t start working on it until then, and not before.  We had two weeks of working on the role, and then two weeks of rehearsal.  They tried to keep it as close to reality as they possibly could, which was wonderful.  We had a horribly exacting man who was our conductor, who conducted everything, and I have to thank him.  I always said that if I could work so many operas and so many performances under this man, I could work under any conductor in the world, and it’s true.  I love the man as a person.  We always got along well, and he was always good to me, but woe be unto you if you didn’t do what he thought you were capable of doing.  The man himself is a very fine composer, and has won many, many international prizes.

BD:   What’s his name?

Merritt:   Ray Luke, and he composed an opera, Medea, which won a big prize at a competition.  Sarah Caldwell produced it in Boston.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re scheduling performances, do you purposely leave some vacant space for yourself?

Merritt:   That’s hard to say, because I’ve only been singing at different opera houses and internationally for a year.  I started in 1978 in Salzburg, and was there for three years.  Then I was three years in Augsburg, and I was at those houses as an ensemble tenor, so I was there all through the season.  I had three-year contracts, so I was always there.  I told my wife that I was aiming for an international career, and luckily I was able to do it.  So, at the end of my six years, in 1984, I didn’t renew any of my contracts as an ensemble singer.

BD:   I assume they wanted you to stay?

Merritt:   Yes, but I had already told them that after my second three-year contract I was going back home to try my hand at international singing.  So, that’s exactly what we did.  In 1984 we moved back to America, and I began singing in Chicago, at La Scala, and Covent Garden.  So, it’s hard for me to say if I ever schedule time off because I’ve only planned my career now for a year-and-a-half.


See my interview with John Fiore

BD:   You’re booked into 1988?

Merritt:   Yes, and this past year was really rough.  For instance, last summer I was away from home for five months straight.  I had a three-week break in between, and I flew home and made myself have a vacation with my kids.  That was almost more work than it was vacation, because I was so intent on making myself go home and be a family man, and doing the right thing, that it almost became part of the work because I had to schedule everything and do it a certain way.

BD:   Your next roles were Poppa and Hubby.

Merritt:   [Laughs]  Yes, exactly, and it had to work out a certain way, on a certain schedule.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Were the reviews good?

Merritt:   Yes, I think so.  The kids didn’t greet me with,
Who’s that? so I think it worked out all right.  [Much laughter] But that was rough, and I have to be away from home a lot.  However, I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve been able to have a three- or four-week period to prepare roles that are coming up.  At least I don’t have to jump up and run somewhere.  This time, right after Chicago was originally intended for a production of I Puritani in Parma with June Anderson, but that got canceled.  They said it was too expensive.  [Laughs]  I don’t know if *we* were too expensive, or if it was the whole production, but it got canceled last spring, and I told my manager not to schedule anything in that slot.  In the middle of this, I also had a concert scheduled to do a Rossini Stabat Mater in Paris for Radio France, but that’s only one week, so I told my manager I want a rest.  I’ll have three-and-a-half weeks before Paris, and I’ll have four weeks after Paris to be able to relax and prepare things the way I want to, because from the end of January through the middle May, I have back-to-back things in Paris, and New York, and then Italy, and then Covent Garden, and then Toronto, and then New York again.

BD:   Will you be back in Chicago?

Merritt:   Chicago right now isn’t planned again until 1988.  La Scala wants to schedule William Tell at the same time with Riccardo Muti, so I don’t know what to do about that.  I would rather come to Chicago.  What I would rather happen is for La Scala to re-schedule William Tell a little bit later so that I can do both of them, but they want to plan it for the opening night at the beginning of December.  It’s with Riccardo Muti, and they’re very, very interested in me doing William Tell there.  
[As it turned out, Merritt sang and recorded William Tell in December, and then appeared in Tancredi in Chicago in January.]  The role in Tancredi is real tour de force for me.  It’s a fabulous role with three arias, and a big scene with Marilyn that is one of those rip-roaring duets.  It’s such a wonderful role that I hate to give up.  I’ve only gotten to do it in a concert version, and I’d love to do a staged version.  They’ve done a beautiful, gorgeous production around Marilyn in Venice, and I’m hoping that they’ll be able to do something like that here because it is a glorious opera.  It’s so gorgeous, especially for her, and for everybody, for all three of us, she and I and Lella.  I really hope that I can get to do that.  That would be fun.

BD:   I hope it all works out.

Merritt:   Ardis [Krainik, the General Director of Lyric Opera] asked me what other things I would be interested in, so I told her I’d like to do I Puritani with June Anderson, and also The Daughter of the Regiment.  Of course, I have to be careful of treading on Alfredo Kraus’s repertoire because I know he is a favorite here.

merritt BD:   We’ve had him here almost every year for twenty years, and it’s been wonderful.

Merritt:   Of course!  He’s practically the darling of Chicago, as well as he should be.  He’s phenomenal.

BD:   [After a brief interruption for a jovial phone conversation, we returned to the interview.]  Are you enjoying life?

Merritt:   I am, pretty much.  Nothing is perfect, and you always wish you could do this or that.  If I had the best of all possible worlds, I would be two people in order to be able to be on the road all the time, because I dearly enjoy traveling, and meeting new people, and discovering new places and cities.  I’m a city person anyway, and I love discovering the charms of every new city, and sharing that with my wife.  But my children are school age, and it’s impossible for them to travel during the school year.  So, I’m away from home and away from them more that I like to be.

BD:   Do you bring them with you in the summer?

Merritt:   Yes, I do.  As a matter of fact, this summer I’m going back to the Rossini Festival in Pesaro again.  This will be with Marilyn Horne, and she’s another one of the prima donnas that can, and does, demand to have several days between each performance.

BD:   I would think that’s great for you.

Merritt:   Yes, that’s great for me, but it also means that my time in Pesaro is extended, because we have a regular rehearsal period, and there’s got to be two days between the orchestra rehearsal and the general rehearsal, and two days between the general rehearsal and the first performance.  So, that stretches out to a five- or six-week period, which is great for me.  Pesaro is right on the Adriatic, and it’s a beautiful city, and it’s in the summer, and I’ll be there for over a month, so there’s no way I’m not going to take my wife and kids to that.  We’ll put our children out on the streets, and force them to learn Italian from the urchins!  [Both laugh]  Seriously, they’ll be able to go down to the ocean every day, and I’ll be able to work.  That, to me, is the best of all worlds.  I want more than anything for my children to be able to grow up and have a normal middle-class all-American life.

BD:   Where’s home for you now?

Merritt:   Baltimore, and we’re planning to stay there as long as we possibly can.  I don’t want them to become
opera singers’ children and be put in private schools.  Not that I’m against private schools, but I went to public schools, and I loved everything about it, good and bad.  That was the only way that I learned about life.  I don’t ever want to put them into an isolated situation where they go to private schools, and have a housekeeper that takes care of them.  It’s too insulated and isolated.  I want them to have their best friends, that they go over and spend the night, and go out on camping trips.  I don’t want them to grow up expecting that everybody’s going to be there at their every beck and call.  I want to expose them to the world, to the beauties of Europe, of Paris and Rome and London, and all the things that I love, and have that facet of their personalities expanded.  But I don’t want them to grow up and think that they’re rich brats.  [Laughs]  I want them to know a normal life, like I do, and like my wife knew.  In my business it’s very hard to do, but we’re striving for it as much as we can.  My wife and I are very family-oriented as far as our families go.  We both came from very normal middle-class all-American backgrounds, and those families are very dear to us, and very close to us.  Because of that, they’re also very close to the children, so I don’t think there would be any way for them to get a lopsided view of the silver-spoon-type of life.  They’re so closely related to their aunts and uncles, and their grandmother and their cousins that don’t have that type of life.  They have the regular nine-to-five jobs, and worry about paying the mortgage, and I want the children to know how all those things are, and to enjoy them, and to learn to cope.

BD:   I wish you lots of luck in raising the kids and, of course, lots of luck in the career.  It sounds like things are working just really the way you want them.

Merritt:   Yes, I think they are.

BD:   I was very impressed with the performance.  It was the first time I heard you.

Merritt:   I’m sorry, as you came on the night I was sick.

BD:   Danny [Newman, Press Representative of Lyric Opera] made the announcement for you...

Merritt:   I know Danny.  He’s a sweetheart.

BD:   ...but you sounded fine.  One of the things I thought is that sometimes singers will ask to make an announcement, and of course then they give a better performance because the pressure is off.

Merritt:   I have a feeling that I probably would have been able to get through the performance without anybody in the audience having known any different, but I had gone to the doctor that day, and he told me that my right tonsil was swollen and was infected.  So, he started me on penicillin.

BD:   That will dry you out.

Merritt:   Some singers react differently.  It makes my voice feel brittle, and I have to walk on eggshells all the time.  So, this is a pretty demanding role, and it’s a long evening.  It’s four hours by the time I do the make-up and everything, and you have to make the decision about having someone give an announcement for you pretty far ahead of time.  There’s no way I’m going to be able to tell in the morning what I’m going to feel like in the third act of tonight, which is about seven hours from now.  I don’t know how the penicillin is going to react on my voice, so I think I’d better do that just in case.  Maybe in the third act I’ll give out and the audience is wondering what’s wrong with that singer?  They think he’s just flipped out, and nobody understands.  [Both laugh]  I’m not a friend of giving announcements.  In Europe, most everywhere I sang they don’t like to do that, and urge you not to.  I got used to not doing that.  I got used to singing sick... not damaging myself by singing where I didn’t feel that I could give my best, but doing it without any announcement, and doing it as well as I could.  I got used to being able to do that.

BD:   [After a bit of chit-chat about the apartment where he was staying]  Do you walk to the opera house, or do you take a cab?

Merritt:   It depends on the weather, and also depends on how I feel.  The last week or so, with this infection, I’ve been taking cabs a lot.  But during rehearsals, I walked every day because I could walk right through downtown.  I love cities, and I love discovering, and it’s as nice walk.  It takes about twenty minutes or so.

BD:   Hans Sotin mentioned to me that he liked to walk right along the river.

Merritt:   I tried that one day, and thought it was boring!  [Both laugh]  I want to walk in the streets, and see the guys with their ghetto blasters.  I want it all.  I want to see the real life here!  I love the city.  My wife fell head over heels in love with Chicago, and asked me why I can’t sing here any more until 1988.  We both love New York, too.  It’s also a great city.  [After a bit of chit-chat about the sights and sounds of Chicago, we got onto the subject of composer-societies]  I know the people of the Rossini Society in Pesaro, and there’s a Donizetti Society in Bergamo.  I’ve got a book from the Rossini Society in London.  They wrote a very interesting volume, and gave a copy of it to Samuel Ramey.  They came to his performances of Maometto II in Italy, and gave him a copy with a great big dedication to him from the Society.  He wasn’t really interested in the book, so he gave it to me.  [Laughs]  I loved it because it had a big article on Rubini.  I very closely follow what Rubini did.

rubini Giovanni Battista Rubini (7 April 1794 – 3 March 1854) was an Italian tenor, as famous in his time as Enrico Caruso in a later day. His ringing and expressive coloratura dexterity in the highest register of his voice, the tenorino, inspired the writing of operatic roles which today are almost impossible to cast. As a singer Rubini was the major early exponent of the Romantic style of the bel canto era of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.

Rubini is remembered as an extraordinary bel canto singer, one of the most famous in Europe in the 1820s to 1840s. Richard Osborne, in his 1990 biography of Rossini, notes in regard to an aria from Rossini's 1821 "pastoral cantata", La riconoscenza, which was "written for the preternaturally gifted young tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini" whom the composer had heard singing the Prince in his La cenerentola, and whose artistry he described as "singing which you can feel in your soul". He also popularized the use of a pervasive vibrato as a means of heightening the emotional impact of his operatic performances, and was admired for the "infectious" joy he took to sing, his great agility, and refined musicianship.

Born in Romano di Lombardia, Rubini began as a violinist at twelve years of age at the Teatro Riccardi in Bergamo. His first appearance as singer was 1814 in Pavia in Le lagrime d'una vedova by Pietro Generali.

After ten years spent in Naples between 1815 and 1825, during which he also scored spectacular successes in France in the 1825/26 season in operas by Rossini, he moved permanently to Paris, performing in La Cenerentola, Otello, and La donna del lago. He divided his time between Paris (in the Autumn and Winter) and London (in the Spring).

His special relation with Vincenzo Bellini began with Bianca e Fernando (1826) and continued until I puritani (1835), when he was one of the long-remembered "Puritani quartet" for whose voices the opera was written. The three other members of the illustrious quartet were Giulia Grisi, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. The four appeared together again in Donizetti's Marino Faliero during the same season, then travelled to London with the Irish composer Michael William Balfe for a further round of operatic engagements.

Rubini was admitted as an honorary member of the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna, and retired with a great fortune in 1845. He died in his hometown of Romano in 1854, and is buried in the cemetery there, within a large marble monument.

BD:   Should we call you a
Rubini Tenor?

Merritt:   I don’t know about his sound, but I like to follow his examples of repertoire.  The book has an extensive list of all of his repertoire, and when he sang it year-by-year, chronicling of all of his performances as close as they can get.  It showed when he introduced certain roles into his repertoire, and how often he sang them, and what operas he mixed
one night doing this, and the next night doing thatand where he sang the roles.  Of course, to Sam it meant nothing.  What does it mean to a bass to read about Rubini?  So, I read it in a couple of nights, and he told me to keep it.

BD:   [Noting that we had been together for over an hour-and-a-half]  You have been most gracious.  Thank you so very much for meeting with me.

Merritt:   My pleasure.

Eight years later we met again for another conversation

While setting up, we chatted about publicity . . . . .

BD:   Do you like dealing with all of the publicity surrounding a major operatic career?

Merritt:   Sure.  I don’t mind it at all!

BD:   Is it a help or a hindrance to a career?

Merritt:   If you’re allowed to say what you feel you need to say, it’s a help.  But often it’s a double-edged sword.  It could be a hindrance if your words are taken out of context.

BD:   [Making a connection to the topic of the interview]  When you’re on stage performing, are you generally allowed to say what you want to say about the role?

Merritt:   In the final analysis, I think so.  The people that you contend with the most are your producer (called in the U.S. the stage director), together with costume designer.  They give you the physical aspect of it, and your conductor gives you the musical momentum.  Those are the two that you most often have to butt heads with, if there is any head-butting.  During preparation time, if you’re lucky there’s a great romance going on.  That happens maybe fifty percent of the time.  But a decent romance can happen seventy percent of the time.

merritt BD:   What do you do with the other thirty percent?

Merritt:   For the other thirty percent, unfortunately it can happen that you just have people who are diametrically opposed to what you’re trying to do, to the package that you’re trying to put together for your audience.

BD:   How flexible can you be?

Merritt:   That depends on the people.  For me, the best possible world is to be able to give and take.  I don’t mind arguing a good point, fighting about it, screaming and hollering a little bit, or gnashing my teeth if everybody does it equally with equal weight, and for the same kinds of reasons.  I find it really tiring and boring if you have to do it because of the other baggage that they are carrying, their ego-centric ways, or their Divo-ism or Diva-ism, or their insecurities, or their superiority complexes.  If those are the reasons that you’re battling, then that’s not good work.  But that’s anywhere in any kind of business.  Because ours is so focused, your time together is so short in relation to people who work in the corporate world of business.  They can do those types of things, and it lasts over a long period of time.  In order to put together a package that comes out on the opening night, our time, if you’re lucky, is four weeks maximum.

BD:   Is that enough time?

Merritt:   [Thinks a moment]  By the time you reach a certain level of proficiency
the singers, the stage director and designers, and the conductorit should be enough time.  In the early years of careers it takes more time because you have to learn to wood-shave, to cut away things or tactics that are unnecessary, that are superfluous, and go right for the point.  As years go on, with experience you learn to go right to that center goal.  You learn what you’re doing, and you learn to help the other people go towards their goals, so you all wind up on the same target, if not in the same goal mark in the center.  But it’s a difficult task, because, speaking from one singing-artist’s standpoint, there is the singing-artist, the stage director, and the conductor, so you have to try to lasso everybody together amicably.

BD:   Do you lose the composer in there some place, or is he represented by the conductor?

Merritt:   The composer, hopefully, is being represented by everyone.  It is work that goes back and forth between the singer/conductor, singer/director, director/conductor, and then there are all the little offshoots, like conductor/chorus, director/chorus, chorus master/conductor.  The final outcome is, basically, service to the composer.  That’s first and foremost, because without the composer there would nothing to work on.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that most times it all comes together?

Merritt:   In one way or another, sure.  It has to come together.  This is my eighteenth year of professional singing, and I’ve never been in a production where it hasn’t all come together on opening night.  I have been in situations where, up to the final dress rehearsal, one might be convinced that it will never come together, but there’s that certain magic which makes that certain spark, that shot of adrenaline on everybody’s part.  Then, all of a sudden, you do that one final rehearsal and everything falls together.  Always the reaction is surprise that we did it.

BD:   Whether it falls together or comes together on opening night, does it come together, perhaps, better the second, and fifth, and eighth performance?

Merritt:   Oh sure, it should always do that.  I’m not of the school that an opening night performance is the final stamp-approved perfect product.  It is just the opening night product, of which the date has been agreed upon by the opera house, singers, conductor, orchestras, and so on and so forth.

BD:   And the public?

Merritt:   And the public!  But as to that opening night being the perfect production, I don’t think there ever is a perfect product.  There are always going to be things that can go much, much better.  [Laughs]  There are things that could, of course, also go worse.  The old wives
tale in the theater is to watch out for the second performance, because that’s always the one that can pull everything down.  The adrenaline of the opening night has gone, the pressure of the opening night has gone, and the second night can always be the one that just throws you for a loop.  Then you have to climb the mountain back again to get back to a certain level.

BD:   Once everything is ready, and you’ve done it in front of a crowd, can
t you relax and do it even better?

Merritt:   I finally started being able to make it that way for myself, but that’s a very personal self-discipline.  If you just go along with the natural ebb and flow of events, it will happen that the second performance will be the downer, and then you have to come back up again.  You need to consciously make an effort to pace yourself, and watch out for the pitfalls.  I’ve been lucky enough to be able to get myself out of that rut the majority number of times, so that I feel better about the second performance than I do the opening night performance, which is a good sign for me because that’s going towards a positive, rather than allowing the negative to take its course the way it wants to.  Going back to this idea of the second or fifth or eighth performance being better, dare I say even if God were singing, it has to get better.  The universe keeps expanding.  It has never stood still, and performances never stand still.  They should get better.  You should be able to hone in more and more on what it is you’re trying to do with the piece you’re doing.  You should be able to get rid of those nerves, or those secondary problems that you might carry with you on stage on an opening night
worries, concerns, mishaps, whatever the things may beand be able to focus yourself more and more on what you’re doing, without having to look over your shoulder to worry about what has happened, or what has gone on.  Any time that people are pointed towards their positive direction, a forward-going direction of attaining a certain goal, or their own personal goal, or a collective goal, it’s going to have to always get better and better.  That’s why, when I go to see operas, I like to see a progression.  If I had time, I would go to two or three different performances, to see where it is going, how much looser it is.  In the looseness, it comes together even more because it starts gelling, it starts feeling comfortable and natural, like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I ask this question of most singers, but since you are changing repertoire a little bit, it becomes more poignant.  How do you decide which roles you are going to sing, and which roles you’re going to decline?

Merritt:   That comes with maturity and self-knowledge.  I can only speak for my career, and I’ve been, knock on wood, very lucky to enjoy a pretty lucrative career.  I find that there are different levels of career maturity.  I made my debut in 1975 as Fenton in Verdi’s Falstaff.  Make no mistake, that’s not Rossini, Donizetti, or Bellini, but for ten years I sang nothing but Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, Charpentier, all the normal lyric tenor things.  I was working on my craft as singer, as a performing artist, as a musician.  Contemporarily, I was working on trying to build my public image, my visibility, and without being under scrutiny of a magnifying glass, being able to perform on a stage, and being able to be the best kind of artist that I could be under all kinds of adverse conditions
being sick, not feeling well, having been up all night with the baby, anything that could happen to a normal human-beingand learning how to cope with those things, and being able to go out the next day and sell it one hundred and fifty percent, and give everything I’ve got without ruining myself.  I was very lucky to be able to do that for the first ten years of my career.   From 1975 to 1985, I did that with the normal lyric tenor repertoire of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Gianni Schicchi, and lots of Mozart.  At the same time, I had always harbored a great love and admiration for the bel canto repertoire.  I knew least about Rossini, because, at that time, everything was centered around Donizetti and Bellini.  I started loosely turning my devotion towards Rossini, because around 1983, when I was working on breaking myself into the international opera level of career, and singing in international houses, it so happened that all of the major conductors and orchestras were looking towards the Rossini Bicentennial in 1992.  Everyone was working themselves towards that frenzy, which means that they were more interested in finding their particular niche, and not doing yet another version of The Barber of Seville, or yet another version of The Italian Girl in Algiers, but finding something really unusual for them to link their orchestra conductor’s name with.  For example, Claudio Abbado linked his name with Il viaggio a Reims.  He was the one that excavated it with the Rossini scholars in Pesaro.  Up until that time, people were not really noticing those other operas.

BD:   They were just names in the history books.

Merritt:   Right.  Then, people started digging and scouring and discovering, and that’s when the Rossini Foundation of Pesaro really started working, and revving full throttle to get these things cranked out as fast as possible.  There are certain singers and conductors who would always do that, but I got swept up into that hurricane, and it carried me along because I filled a gap that they really needed for the serious Rossini operas.

BD:   Was it something that you really wanted to do, or was it just a fortuitous place that you were able to fill?


Merritt:   It was a fortuitous place that I was able to fill... not that I didn’t want to do it.  I remember, in 1983 I did a round of auditions that my manager in Manhattan had put me through.  I came here to Chicago to audition for Claudio Abbado, I went to New York to audition for Eve Queler, and I went to New York to audition for Alberto Zedda, who is the grandfather of the Rossini Renaissance of our time.  I was singing arias such as Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, but unbeknownst to me, they were listening for this particular niche in the Rossini world that I didn’t know existed at that time.  They knew it existed, but didn’t think that they were going to be able to fill.  That is what is called the baritenor, the man for whom Rossini wrote quite a few of his serious operas, including these particular roles like Rossini’s Otello, and Pirro in Ermione, and Antenore in Zelmira, and Ricciardo in Ricciardo e Zoraide, and Rodrigo in La Donna del Lago, and on and on.  [Baritenor (or its Italian form, baritenore) is still used today to describe a type of tenor voice which came to particular prominence in Rossini
s operas.  It is characterized by a dark, weighty lower octave and a ringing upper one, but with sufficient agility for coloratura singing.  Rossini used this type of voice to portray noble (and usually older), leading characters, often in contrast to the higher, lighter voices of the tenore di grazia or the tenore contraltino, who portrayed the young, impetuous lovers.]

BD:   Even up to Arnold?

Merritt:   No, William Tell was a French opera, so that was written for a completely different person, Adolphe Nourrit.  T
hat was his homage to the French Grand Opera, complete with ballet and being in five acts.  That was a whole different kettle of fish, and was his veering towards the more dramatic, romantic opera that developed into Verdi, and on into what we know today.

Adolphe Nourrit (3 March 1802 – 8 March 1839) was a French operatic tenor, librettist, and composer. One of the most esteemed opera singers of the 1820s and 1830s, he was particularly associated with the works of Gioachino Rossini and Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Nourrit was raised in Montpellier, Hérault. His father, Louis Nourrit, was a well-known operatic tenor and diamond merchant. Louis' example deeply influenced Adolphe (and Adolphe's brother Auguste, who would also become a tenor). Adolphe studied singing and musical theory with his father and then, despite his father's objections, took lessons with Manuel del Pópulo Vicente García. He began his performing career shortly after finishing his studies with García, which lasted for 18 months.

Not yet 20 years of age, Adolphe Nourrit made his professional operatic debut in 1821 as Pylades in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, being welcomed by his father performing the tiny role of a Scythian. In 1826, he succeeded Louis as the principal tenor at the Paris Opéra, a position he held until 1836.

nourrit While at the Opéra, he became a pupil of Gioachino Rossini with whom he would work frequently. Nourrit created all principal tenor roles in Rossini's French operas, namely Néocles in Le siège de Corinthe (1826), Aménophis in the revised version of Moïse et Pharaon (1827), the title role in Le comte Ory (1828), and Arnold in William Tell (1829). He was also the first to perform the roles of Masaniello in Auber's La muette de Portici (1828), Robert in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, Eleazar in Halévy's La Juive (1835), and Raoul in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1836), among other parts. When La muette de Portici was performed in Brussels on 25 August 1830, the duet "Amour sacré de la patrie", with Nourrit in the tenor role, was the key to the "opera riot" that sparked the Belgian Revolution.

Nourrit was an intelligent and cultured singer. He possessed a mellow and powerful vocal timbre during his prime, and was a master of the head voice. His range extended up to E5, although he never went higher than D5 in public. He sang during a turning-point in French operatic vocalism, when performers began using a rounder, more open-throated and Italianate method of voice production than hitherto had been the case, with less resort to falsetto by tenors. Indeed, the scores of the musical passages written for Nourrit by Rossini, Meyerbeer and others, contain orchestral markings which indicate that he could not have been singing in falsetto in his upper register. This was a departure from the practice of earlier male operatic interpreters.

As Nourrit's status at the Opéra increased, so did his influence upon new productions. Composers often sought, and usually accepted, his advice. For example, when it came to La Juive, he wrote the words of Eléazar's aria "Rachel, quand du Seigneur", and he also insisted that Meyerbeer rework the love-duet climax of Act 4 of Les Huguenots until it met with his approval.

While at the Opéra, Nourrit received consistent positive reviews for his performances, and his popularity led to his appointment as the professeur de déclamation pour la tragédie lyrique at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1827. He had many successful students, including the dramatic soprano Cornélie Falcon. [She and Nourrit are credited with being primarily responsible for raising artistic standards at the Opéra, and the roles in which she excelled came to be known as "falcon soprano" parts. For more about Falcon, see my interview with Lucia Valentini Terrani.]  In addition, he was concerned more broadly with the social aspects of singing, particularly with the "missionary" role of the performer. In the early 1830s, he embraced the ideas of Saint-Simonianism, and dreamed of founding a grand opéra populaire which would introduce operatic works to the masses.

Beside singing and teaching, Nourrit composed and wrote scenarios for ballets at the Opéra de Paris, including the libretto for La Sylphide (1832).

Nourrit's fame faded in the late 1830s, however, as new singers gained the favour of the Parisian public. In October 1836, impresario Duponchel engaged Gilbert Duprez, who commanded an exciting high C from the chest, as joint "First Tenor" with Nourrit at the Opéra de Paris. Nourrit accepted this arrangement as a hedge against his falling ill. He sang his Guillaume Tell part exceptionally well with Duprez in the audience on 5 October 1836 but five days later, during La muette de Portici, with Duprez again in the house, he suddenly went hoarse. After the performance, Hector Berlioz and George Osborne walked Nourrit up and down the streets as he despaired aloud and talked of suicide. On 14 October, he resigned from the Opéra.

Throughout this vexed period in his life, Nourrit enjoyed success as a recitalist. He was the first to introduce Franz Schubert's lieder to Parisian audiences at the celebrated soirées organized by Franz Liszt, Chrétien Urhan, and Alexandre Batta at the Salons d’Erard in 1837. The intimacy of the salon apparently suited him well, and although criticized for a weakening voice, his singing displayed impressive nuances of feeling and a wide dramatic range. His farewell performance at the Opéra happened on 1 April 1837. He embarked immediately on a tour of the provinces, but a liver ailment (possibly caused by alcoholism) forced him to cut short this venture.

While listening to Duprez at the Opéra on 22 November 1837, he decided to go to Italy in the hope of mastering the Italian manner of singing in order to succeed the great Italian virtuoso tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini when Rubini retired from the stage. He duly left Paris in December of that year. The following March, he began studies in Naples with the composer Gaetano Donizetti, who was a friend of Duprez.

He also asked Donizetti to provide an opera for his début in Naples. Donizetti complied, but the new work, Poliuto, was banned from performance on the secular stage by the authorities because of its Christian subject matter, and Nourrit felt betrayed. Meanwhile, he had been working hard to eradicate excessive nasal resonance from his tone production, only to lose his head voice as a result. His wife, arriving in Italy in July 1838, was shocked by what she considered to be the impaired sound of his singing, and by the fragile state of his physique. He was being leeched regularly, and was constantly hoarse. Nonetheless, his delayed Neapolitan début, which took place in Saverio Mercadante's Il giuramento on 14 November 1838, proved to be a success.

As Nourrit's liver disease worsened, so did his mental state, and his memory began to fail as well. On 7 March 1839 he sang at a benefit concert but was disappointed by the quality of his performance and the audience's reaction to it. The following morning, he jumped to his death from the Hotel Barbaia. His body was returned to Paris for burial. At Marseilles, while the body was in transit to Paris, Frédéric Chopin played an organ transcription of Schubert's lied Die Gestirne at a memorial service.

He is buried in Montmartre Cemetery with his wife, who survived him by only a few months, dying shortly after the birth of their youngest son.

BD:   Having performed all of the roles that you mentioned, and also Arnold, can you see a link amongst them?

Merritt:   Yes.  I don’t know Ciro in Babilonia, or several of the serious operas that he didn’t write for Naples, but most of them he wrote for the San Carlo in Naples, starting with Elizabeth, Queen of England, and on through to his last one of the Naples era.  All of those, especially one called Ermione, has a little feeling of William Tell.  It’s very easy to see that because Ermione is almost a romantic, epic, through-composed type of piece, even if the pieces themselves are still set.  If somebody has an aria, then there’s applause, and then there’s another scene, but even within that sense, you can hear in the back of his mind that the wheels are turning, pointing towards the future of what eventually became the Stabat Mater, the Petite Messe Solennelle, and William Tell, which were the greatest works of the latter part of his life.  

Ermione was first performed at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, on 27 March 1819. For reasons that are as yet unclear, the opera was withdrawn on 19 April after only seven performances, and was not seen again until over a hundred years after Rossini's death. One possible explanation for its failure might be Rossini's choice to renounce the use of secco recitative in favour of accompanied declamation and to connect each closed number to the next in a manner reminiscent of Gluck's French operas and of Spontini (the latter was also to have a huge influence on Weber's Euryanthe, four years later)

Despite the opera's failure, Rossini seemed to be quite fond of this work and kept its manuscript, along with a few other from his Neapolitan years, until his death. The autograph score was then delivered by the widow, Olympe Pélissier, to Eugène Lecomte who entrusted it to the Bibliothèque Musée de l'Opéra de Paris. Eventually, a concert performance was given in Siena in August 1977.

In old age, when asked if he would have liked Ermione to be translated and produced on French stages, the composer is reported to have replied, "It's my little Italian Guillaume Tell, and it will not see the light of day until after my death."

The first modern staging was at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro on 22 August 1987, with Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake.



But I had a love for the bel canto, and a desire to discover Rossini.  It wasn’t something that was repugnant to me by any means, because it was the type of music that I adored listening to, just from a bystander’s participatory vantage.  They were offering Rossini right and left, all over the world, because every great place that you can imagine was trying to do their thing for the Rossini renaissance.
BD:   Both big and little houses?

Merritt:   Both big and little houses, both great and small conductors, with great and small orchestras.  Everybody was going for the 1992 culmination, and I, being in the position of someone trying to break into the international realm of singing, was being offered wonderful possibilities of performing repertoire I didn’t know, which was great fun for me.  I was learning more and more about Rossini that nobody in this day and age probably ever thought about.

BD:   You were really the right person at the right time for these things.

Merritt:   Yes, and I didn’t know it.  It wasn’t something that I was going for.  I was able to sing with the baritone-type of the lower-heavier sound, as well as all the top notes, together with the coloratura and everything that was pre-requisite for these.  And they were fun roles because they were dramatic and with intent.  They had a lot of thrust, and character, and bite, and sometimes they were evil.  If they were not outwardly evil, they were inwardly evil, self-serving types of very thankful roles.  There’s not a soprano today who has a voice of any weight and character who would not give her eye-teeth to do Ortrud [in Lohengrin] rather than Elsa, because Ortrud is the role that you can really sink your teeth into.  These roles that I was learning were that type of character.  I would much rather do Otello than Rodrigo in the Otello of Rossini.  I would much rather do Pirro than Oreste, although I’ve done both roles.  Even if he’s not loved by the audience, Pirro is a role that’s more interesting.  I’ve always had that instinct for drama of the problems of normal human life.  Even the evil forces behind a character have something to really hook onto.  For instance, during this run of Il Trovatore, that I’d give my eye-teeth to be able to sing Azucena, because that’s the great role.  Manrico is a wonderful role, and I certainly don’t moan a whole lot about singing it because it’s a wonderful, spectacular piece to do.  But if I had my
druthers, I’d rather put on the wig and the schmatta [ragged piece of clothing] and go out and sing Azucena, because she’s the one that gets to really bite into everything and just give it all she’s got.

BD:   But I assume you do as much of that as you can with your character of Manrico.

Merritt:   Manrico has his different facets.  That goes back to what we were saying about the different levels, or different eras of a career, and that goes along with just normal maturing and self-discovery.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We talked about the Rossini roles, and how you’d gotten involved in all of this up to 1992 for the big celebrations.  After that, did you decide that you were going to leave most of these, and go back into the typical repertoire?

Merritt:   It’s kind of a two-way street, because it’s quite obvious to everybody that from 1985 or 1986 up to 1992, the world had been saturated with Rossini.  Practically every nook and cranny had done something of Rossini, and given their homage for his 200th birthday.  After that, many, many, many places
perhaps the vast majority of placeswent back to business as usual, with no more Rossini than they were doing before.

BD:   [With a bit of hopefulness]  With maybe a few more of his works sprinkled into the mix?

Merritt:   Here and there.

BD:   Is it safe to say they won’t be scared of Ermione like they would have been before?

Merritt:   No, they won’t be scared of Ermione.  As a matter of fact, I’ve got a project to do that opera in Brussels in two years’ time, and I got several Otellos still coming up.  People are still asking for those things, but now they’re going for the prime cuts.  From me they’re going for Otello, and Ermione, and William Tell, of course.  That will always stay, and perhaps Elisabetta here or there.  But as to unearthing the unusual things, that time is waning now because people are wanting to get back into the other things that took a back seat for a while.  It’s also necessary for people who were not classic Rossini singers in the first place, to be able to go back to their business as usual, which was working on building a musical performing persona of themselves, rather than particularly being a singing musicologist for a particular composer.

BD:   Is it sad that you’ve rediscovered all this Rossini, and find that it
s not going to hold the stages for years and years?

Merritt:   It is sad.  There is, of course, a fair amount of it that doesn’t need to hold the honored position.  There are, however, things that I am still championing, that I hope I will be able to keep in people’s consciousness, if not in everybody’s repertoire.  I can only be in certain places at certain times, so I can’t be everywhere.  This coming season, for instance, we’re doing another new production of Rossini’s Otello at San Francisco Opera, so that’s two of the three major opera houses of the United States that I’ve brought that role to.  Also, there are three other productions in Europe that are coming up.  The more prime choice things are the ones that are going to withstand the next twenty or thirty years, but you may not see Bianca e Falliero as often as we had done it, and certainly Ciro in Babilonia and Aureliano in Palmira will not even surface.  There’s one that Marilyn Horne and I had wanted to do for so long, but it just won’t happen.  [He later said that opera was Sigismondo.  
It was not a success, and Rossini later re-used some of its music in Elisabetta, regina dInghilterra, The Barber of Seville, and Adina.]  It’s one that never got realized, and after so much saturation, even with great intentions for so long, everything was thrown up for grabs, and after a while it got to be too much, and you saw the waning of the interest.

BD:   Is it good that amongst all of this festivity, you have left videos and audios of most of these works?

Merritt:   Yes, and I’m still trying my best to beat these people over the heads at major recordings companies, to do good studio well-manicured recordings of certain operas.  I want to record Rossini’s Otello.  I would like to do a studio French recording of William Tell.  I would like to do a recording of Ermione in the studio, as well as La Donna del Lago.  These are recordings I’ve done in live performances.  I’m all for live recording, because it does catalogue the performances as they were heard in the theater.  But I would like to have it in its best-of-all-possible-worlds, and that can only be achieved when you have five, six, seven days to be able to do everything correctly, so you can put your stamp on it.  Every good writer writes draft after draft after draft after draft before it becomes a chapter in the book, and we, as recording artists, should have the same possibility to write out different drafts before it becomes the chapter of music.

BD:   Do you sing differently for a microphone than you do for the theater audience?

Merritt:   No.  The unfortunate part for live recordings is the microphone placement.  With an audience there, it’s just impossible to place the microphones where they need to be to have a really bang-up acoustical studio recording sound.  June Anderson and I have talked about this quite often.  Live recordings are wonderful on one side of the scale, because they do give that actual feeling.

BD:   There’s a special spontaneity?

Merritt:   Yes, and they catalogue that.  That’s there for posterity, with what it was like in that theater with the audience listening, and the vibes between the audience and the performers.  However, with the audience there you just can’t put the microphones where they need to be.  As singers, we are taught to produce the sounds of our singing voices so that the best of what is received by the audience is received out there, not up close to us.  Unfortunately, you can’t place microphones out in the middle of the audience, or in front of the audience because they wouldn’t tolerate it, and it’s impossible to ensure they wouldn’t touch the microphones, or knock them over.  So, when you do a live recording, you have to rely on little microphones that are on the front of the stage, which get a strange type of sound.  They get an over-abundance of sound whenever you happen to turn your head down towards the stage.  You also have microphones that are placed on the sides of the proscenium which happen to get your voice if you happen to turn left or right.  Or, you can have one microphone that hangs from the middle of the theater.  On the other hand, the orchestra has their microphones placed strategically all over the pit, right above their instruments.  So, they have the most optimum sound.  If it’s a live recording, the orchestra will sound spectacular and the singers always sound funny.  I hate the William Tell recording that we have on Phillips Classics with Riccardo Muti.  The orchestra sounds spectacular, but the sound from the stage is abominable.  I can’t stand to listen to it.  [Perhaps the photograph on the cover of the CD (shown above-right) illustrates his point regarding the (aural) view of the balance between the stage and the pit.]

BD:   Would you ever wear a body mike?

Merritt:   That may be a possible solution.  With the Tosca that they did with Placido Domingo, Catherine Malfitano, and Ruggero Raimondi from the actual sites in Rome, they did those live.  In order to do it, they listened to the orchestra playback.  Zubin Mehta and the orchestra were in another place, and they had monitors around where the audience couldn’t see them, so they could watch him and hear the orchestra.  They sang out as they were acting on site, and they had microphones built into and around the wigs.  We happened to be in Italy at the time that was broadcast, and we heard the first airing of it when it actually happened live.  I was very pleased with the sound.  They were doing it live, but they weren’t lip-synching it.  This may be something for the future for live recordings on the stage.
BD:   All these techniques get more sophisticated every day.

Merritt:   Yes, but unless they can figure out some way to balance the ambiance of the theater so that the voice is heard properly, the best way to record is to do what we call studio recording.  Usually it’s done in a theater, but the microphones can be set up where the audience sits, but there’s no audience there.  Then the recording equipment gets the sound of what an audience would hear, rather than having the microphone right down your throat.

BD:   Without mentioning which ones, are there some recordings that you have made that you are pleased with?

Merritt:   Oh, sure!  Yes!  For instance, the year after William Tell, we did The Sicilian Vespers at La Scala, and they used different engineers.  EMI had their engineers, and Phillips used theirs, but what they learned from the Phillips recording of William Tell, they corrected for the EMI Vespers recording [shown at left].  I was much more pleased with the EMI recording.  My favorite recordings, though, are the ones that were done as we call studio recordings.  Armida I like a lot, and my first Ermione, and the Ivan Susanin on Sony Classics.  I love these recordings because we had several shots at it.  We had the ability to adjust and make the balances right.  Everything came out the way we wanted it to.

BD:   You had more control?

Merritt:   Yes, more control in the product that we’re trying to present, and the composer that we’re trying to serve.  If it comes off as something completely out of sync, or out of kilter, then it doesn’t really serve the composer, because then you have people saying how heavy he’s orchestrated for these singers, or how terrible the vocal line lies for that mezzo soprano.  It just may be that the microphones are in the wrong position at the time she’s singing a particular line on the stage, and it sounds stranger than what it really was in the theater.  There are so many different variables.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that you can get it all right, even in a performance?

Merritt:   Possibly in the future.  The Germans, and the Dutch, and the Americans, and the Japanese keep hurling themselves forward with technology, and coming out with better and newer and more sophisticated devices that are smaller, and more complicated.  I can’t figure out how to run them.  I have to get my son to program everything! [Much laughter]  I’m flabbergasted with my son.  He has a hand-held color TV that he can watch in his hand!  Who would ever have thought of that five years ago, or ten years ago?

BD:   I can remember Dick Tracy with his two-way-wrist-radio, and later the two-way-wrist-TV.

Merritt:   Exactly, and how far is that off now?  The television screen is almost the size of a large postage stamp, so I’m sure that some day that it will be a very easy thing to achieve optimum recording pleasure for both performer and for the audience.  It can’t be far down the road.

BD:   [Sadly]  I would assume on a little screen you have on your wrist, you can’t get too much subtlety...

Merritt:   No, that’s for sure.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you’re moving back into the more standard roles?

Merritt:   I’m picking up things that I had left along the way because I had no time.  I did try my best to keep up, and I kept up with La Bohème as much as I could.

BD:   Do you find that the audience is having a little trouble receiving you in the Verdi roles, having known you in the Rossini?

merritt Merritt:   Depends on where the audience is.  I’ve had no trouble here in America, I have to say, knock on wood.

BD:   I assume that you can convince them easily?

Merritt:   It’s something which is unfortunate that we have to even think about, because it just doesn’t feel very democratic.  As far as I’m concerned, a singer should be accepted for his own merits, and not particularly for the standard set.  The thing that bothers me the most is that singers or performers who are a threat to the listening audience and to the critical audience, are the ones that usually do not follow the classic book formula of what it is like, what it should be, and what sequence that person should follow.  If you look through history, the ones that we remember the most, and the ones that are most mythical in our minds are the ones that were the most challenging.  Maria Callas was certainly very challenging.  On one night she would sing Isolde, and the next night I Puritani.

BD:   But she soon gave up the heaviest roles.

Merritt:   She gave them up.  I’ve given up I Puritani, but she gave up Isolde.  Think of Enrico Caruso, or of Giovanni Martinelli.  Martinelli was a very wise one because he started out with certain roles, and as he progressed along to these different levels of career, and to physical and emotional maturity, he learned to be able to gracefully give up roles, and drop them along the wayside.  Unless you have a particular voice-type, as time goes on it’s very hard for men to keep the same repertoire that you start out with.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to be a young lover for the rest of your life???

Merritt:   I could never be a young lover in the first place!  [Laughs]  With this stature it’s a little difficult, but at least with the more heroic roles I have a little more space to work in.  God knows, I need the space!  But the men’s roles are very difficult to juggle correctly at the beginning of a career.  Unless it is just an unbelievably phenomenal talent of nature that is able to start out with big Verdi roles like Otello or La Forza del Destino, or Wagner with Siegmund or Lohengrin, or perhaps Fidelio or Le Prophète or Aeneas in The Trojans, at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two he has to be really something quite prodigious...

BD:   ...or be willing to last two years and then be gone.

Merritt:   Exactly!  Most of us start out with the lyric tenor things, as did Martinelli.

BD:   Then eventually he went up all the way up and did one Tristan here in Chicago with Flagstad.

Merritt:   This is the only place that would allow him, because Edward Johnson [tenor, and later manager of the Met 1935-50], would not allow him to sing the Wagner things that he wanted to do.  He and Lauritz Melchior had wanted to trade off.  Lauritz had wanted to do Otello, and Giovanni had wanted to do Tristan, but Johnson would not allow it.   So, neither one of them was able to carry out that dream at the Met.

BD:   That’s too bad, because Edward Johnson had been a singer, and you would think that he would have been more imaginative.

Merritt:   Johnson was a tenor, and he was very strange with his tenors.  He was not a great friend of Martinelli, and he was not a wonderful friend to Melchior.  At any rate, Martinelli had to come here to do his one and only Tristan, but on his recitals, he always ended in the first half with the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger.  He had sung Lucia and Faust, and God knows how many William Tells, but as he progressed, those were dropped when he started taking on Pagliacci, and Forza, and Otello.  You have to be able to know when it’s time to give up something in order to allow yourself to develop mentally and emotionally, as well as physically.  If you don’t have the graciousness within you to realize these things, and keep trying to hold on, you probably could drive yourself crazy.

BD:   [Eagerly]  Is this to say now we can expect from you Alvaro, and Siegmund, and Lohengrin?

Merritt:   Who knows?

BD:   You’re leaving yourself open for them?

Merritt:   Oh sure, because I’m forty-one, and I’m singing my first Manrico.  The healthy thing is to keep oneself loose enough and open enough to these possibilities, and to try to keep the audience interested as well.

BD:   So, we come back to my original question.   As you move into these roles, how do you decide which ones you’ll accept, and which ones you’ll either delay, or say no?

Merritt:   It’s the mental maturity more than anything.  As a human being, you have to deal with the characters that you are playing, and you have to realize more and more as you progress, what characters are more suited to you as a person, and as a personality, and privately, and therefore are better and easier for you to give your all to.  It’s like trying to put on the wrong size clothes, if you will.  If you admire a role and think the music is beautiful, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you.  Or, you might admire the type of person that is in the role.  I admire Romeo very much, but I could never do a role like that because it’s just too one-sided.  It’s not the type of role that I identify with, and as maturity goes along, the type of person that you are playing has to be weighed very heavily along with the music you’re singing.

BD:   Is there any role that you either do or are looking to do, that might be a little too close to the real Chris Merritt?

Merritt:   [Thinks a moment, then laughs]  One I identify with very much is Nemorino from L’Elisir d’Amore.  He is somebody who, unfortunately, goes into life with an Achilles heel, wide open for everybody to prey on.

BD:   He’s a very naïve kind of guy?


Merritt:   Naïve, yes.  It’s not that I think I’m naïve, but I just identify very easily with that character because my own personal life has not gone well up to now.  It has never been as contrived or dramatic as Manrico in Il Trovatore, or as Arrigo in The Sicilian Vespers, or as Arnold as in William Tell, so I don
t identify with them in that sense as being close to me personally.  Probably the reason I enjoy doing those roles so much is because they are such an antithesis to what I am.  They are such the opposite end.  It’s just like the wonderful soprano who sings spectacularly, and who really would love to sink her teeth into Ortrud, because she’d really like to get on stage and be that character.
BD:   Then let me ask the balance question.  When you get on stage, how much is music and how much is drama?

Merritt:   For me, it’s always the Chinese Yin-Yang.  There’s no way to really balance it exactly fifty-fifty continuously, because sometimes it is ninety-nine point nine percent musical, and that other little decimal fraction is the character, and then other times it can go just the opposite direction.  As far as my own personal performance, there are moments when music has to totally take over what’s going on, and there are moments when music is written to take the back seat to what the character is actually doing on stage.  Think of the playout after the aria in Pagliacci.  The orchestra plays with the cello solo, and all of that is written for Canio to finish what he’s doing before he goes out to perform in public.  This is a complete acting job.  The music is written for people to view what is going on.  It’s not for them to sit there and take harmonic dictation and delve into.

BD:   It
s the view of what’s happening in Canio’s heart?

Merritt:   In his heart, and in his mind, and in his twisted emotional state.  In any good performance, there are moments where it should have that flexibility to move from one side to the other, without it being concretely at the mid-point.  I find a performance boring if, after forty-five minutes, all the way down the line you get lowered into a stupor because there’s nothing new and exciting happening.  Then there’s no quicksilver [rapid or unpredictable movement or change] to the performance.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of opera?

Merritt:   What’s the purpose of anything that is aesthetic?  The purpose of opera goes along with anything elsewith film, with theater, with literature, with anything.  It is a diversion, and it is, first and foremost, theater that is translated into classical music, or is combined with classical music, if you will.  Anytime people go into a theater to sit and listen to something, a vast majority of that audience is there to enjoy a voyage into a world that is not their own, that is not part of their everyday workaday nine-to-five world.

BD:   But how much is art, and how much is this diversion?

Merritt:   Art is our diversion.  The diversion is the art of being able to transport people to a different world, and to be able to take them with you.  We who have gifts of any kind in the artistic world
be it painting, or sculpture, or whateverif we decide to pursue that artist gift, we are then bound to that path of trying to find the best way and the most interesting way to help those audience members to come with you down that road to a different world, to a different feeling, to a different expression.  It is to empty out whatever negative feelings or positive feelings that they have had from the real world, and help find something else that may be deep inside of them.  There may be somebody who has deep emotional problems, and our artistry may help them through a catharsis of some sort, to work out these problems.  Whatever it may be, somebody’s singing or playing can be something to touch humanity in a way that is not the everyday world.  For those of us who are entrusted with those things, it’s our place to try to be of service.  We are like the Vestal Virgins... it’s our place to keep the Temple alive, and keep it there and ready for people to come in, sit down, leave their baggage behind, and go with us into a completely different world than the one that they’re used to.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

Merritt:   I am optimistic.  I don’t think it will ever disappear because a lot of the young generation is interested in it on our side of the footlights, and on the public side of the footlights as well.  I’m very involved with the Opera Company of my home city in Baltimore, and they have just gone through a rough turbulent time of changing their guard... not the administration, but the people who are behind the administration.  Those are usually the ones that press the buttons to get the money.  A lot of the old staid guard has been politely shown the door in a mutually agreed upon situation.  They saw they were up against a brick wall, and it wasn’t going any further.  So, they elected to withdraw themselves because it wasn’t going to go the way they had always had it going.  It wasn’t the same old predictable way that they had expected it to go.  Luckily enough there is new life being breathed into it, and I’ve seen a great influx of new, young money.  Both corporate and private donors came into it with a new healthy, almost naïve type of enthusiasm that I hope plays it smarter.  I hope they’re careful with what they’re doing.  On the other hand, you can’t help but feeling relieved and joyous and bubbly about it, because at least in the new generation there is an interest.  The one thing that is difficult is that now opera has to work double time to keep up, because mainstream entertainment has really gotten into mega production
mega concerts, mega deals with recording companies and video companies, and MTV and VH1.  Opera needs to keep going at least at the pace that it’s going now, if not more because there’s no turning back.  We’re not going to be able to go back to the late 1800s, and live the lives the way those people did.

BD:   Is the opera that you’re doing, and that we all like, for everyone?

Merritt:   No, of course it’s not for everyone!  It’s impossible to say that.  It is elitist.  There’s no way to get around it. Shakespeare is elitist.  Plato is elitist.  Joan Miró, from Catalonia, is elitist.  Everything like that is elitist.

BD:   Is MTV elitist?

Merritt:   MTV is majority-elitist, if you will, because it mainly focuses on a particular age group, and therefore it is popular because of the type of music that they play.  That it is being reverse-elitist.  It goes elitist towards that mass audience that is out there, which is thirteen through twenty-year olds.

BD:   It leaves us out?

merritt Merritt:   If we choose to be left out.  It’s gearing itself towards those younger people.  If we, who are outside of that age group, decide to come along, so much the better.  I go along with it as many people do.  The people who are outside of that age group, are divided.  There are some people who enjoy it, and other people who don’t.  I grew up on Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, and Sonny & Cher.  I can’t completely shove it aside because it was part of my life as well.  I can’t discredit it and be a hypocrite and say that type of music has never appealed to me.  That would be foolish, because when we were all ten years old, we turned on the radio, and had our favorite tunes.  There was no way round it.  It was just part of our culture as well.  I don’t see how I could have avoided it... not that I wanted to avoid it, because I listened to everything.  I also adore Country & Western music.  Then you have different degrees of elitists.  You have different degrees of people who are willing to accept things.

BD:   I didn’t start going to classical concerts because I thought they were better, I went to them because I really enjoyed them.  For me, they were fun, and they still are.

Merritt:   Of course.  That’s the whole point about the artistic world in general.  It is there in all types of execution.  Those varieties are all part of the aesthetic world, and be it Madonna, or Renata Tebaldi, or Michelangelo, it’s up to us to help keep all of this stuff alive, to help keep it going.

BD:   For those of us who are in the concert music world, how can weor should we?try to get more of the people from the MTV world into our concert halls and opera houses?

Merritt:   That’s something that is being done, but very slowly.  Look at Nigel Kennedy.  From a visual aspect, he is typical MTV material.

BD:   Playing a violin concerto with spiky hair!

Merritt:   There you go, and an earring, and Boy George outfits.  It gets the job done, and there’s no turning back.  We can’t go back to the late 1800s.  Therefore, we have to live in this world of high mass-media and high personage, telecommunications, availability on film, and video, and television.  Last night, David Letterman had Luciano Pavarotti.  Thank God, finally at last, because the more that we have of that, the more we acquaint the American public.  [I remember that program...  Pavarotti was in Verdi
s I Lombardi at the Met, and Letterman continually tried to make a joke about Vince Lombardi, the Head Football Coach of the Green Bay Packers, who led the team to five NFL championships in seven years, and won the first two Super Bowls.  Including the post-season, his record was 105-35-6.  The Super Bowl Trophy is now named in his honor.]  In Europe it’s a different thing, but for the American public, the more they see of that, the less odd it is, and I’m all for it.  I’m not at all for selling it down the river, or cheapening it, but in order to keep up, recordings must be at least semi-lucrative.  We’re going to have to have documentation of these things, and you can’t estrange yourself from the audience.  You can’t make yourself so cut-off and elitist that you start looking snobbish, or too high-brow, because then you’ve cut off your own nose to spite your face.

BD:   On the other hand, you’ve got to be sure that you don’t sacrifice art for product.

Merritt:   Yes, it’s a very delicate balance that has to be kept, but I do believe that the classical music world, in order to keep going into the new century, has to at least try to keep the same pace that they have now with the media, because there’s nowhere else to go.  Media is what it’s all about for all art venues.  Now we can sit in our living rooms, with popcorn, and watch it all on our television, and click the remote control.  Even though we don’t realize it, all of this touches our lives, and in order for it to keep going, classical music is going to have to go along the same way.

BD:   Do you like knowing that some of your videos are being clicked on and off at this very moment?

Merritt:   Sure.  Oh yes.  I don’t necessarily see this as an evil.  It’s just the way we are going.  I’m sure that Lewis & Clark would not see landing on the moon as an evil.  That’s all part of the same thing.  They were an expedition, and so was landing on the moon.  I’m sure they’d be delighted to see how far we have come from where they had started out, with machetes and hatchets.  They had to discover and do their thing.  Today it is now in a completely different context with technology, and I don’t mind seeing what I did on stage in an operatic form, in a classical music form, being on television and clicked on and off, and rewound, and scrutinized.  [Much laughter]  Whatever they want to do is fine, just as long as they’re interested enough to buy it, and sit down, and listen to it, and devote some time to it.

BD:   Make it part of their lives?

Merritt:   Make it part of their lives!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you at the place in your career where you want to be now?

Merritt:   [Thinks a moment]  Pretty much.

BD:   Is singing still fun?

Merritt:   Oh, yeah.  Singing is fun, but my favorite thing is the preparation
learning, discovering, researching, all of that is fun.  Then putting it together in production, working with the stage director and with the conductor, all of the things that go into arriving to an opening night of a production are fun.  The things that happen up to that first night, those are the things that matter to me the most.  Those are what I really love.  Performance is fun, executing is fun, applause is fun.  That’s all fine, and we all enjoy that, but my personal favorite is from the time I start, when I pick up the score and start studying a role, up to the opening night.  Those are my favorite days, and I sing just about all of the rehearsals that I do.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  You don’t
mark at all???

Merritt:   Very little, because it goes back to that Yin-Yang thing about how much of it is personal character and how much of it is music, or how much of it is the character of the role.  I cannot divide the two.  I cannot divide the vocal sound, the vocal quality, if you will, from the character and what is going on at the moment, and psychological and emotional things, because those are what the composer meant to be heard in the voice at that given time.  It’s impossible to sound pristinely perfect at the time that someone is holding the love of their lives in their arms, who is dying.  There’s no way to sound like a perfectly perched bird.  It’s just impossible, and therefore I find it more helpful to be able to sing out in rehearsals.  If it repeats over and over, of course I’ll mark.  But in order to find the right atmosphere, to find the right feeling, to portray the correct musical character at the given moment, it has to well out of what it is that’s going on inside, the reason for that to be composed.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been composed.  Therefore, I have to sing out at rehearsal because I don’t want to be in the position of trying to discover all of those things on an opening night, when I finally would sing out.  I want to have been able to find the different possibilities during the rehearsal time.

BD:   I’m glad you’ve been singing out here in Chicago for the last several years.  Thank you for talking with me again today.

Merritt:   Thank you.


See my interviews with David Pittman-Jennings, and Pierre Boulez


See my interviews with Roger Norrington, Kathleen Kuhlmann, Thomas Hampson, and Philip Gossett


Chris Merritt (born September 27, 1952 in Oklahoma City) is an American operatic tenor.

Merritt began piano studies at 8 years of age with Viola Knight. During this time, he also studied art at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. At 9 years of age he began dance studies under Jewel Grigsby. He credits Al Ossenkopp, one of the music teachers at his Oklahoma City high school, with inspiring him to take up a singing career.

Finally, Merritt began singing lessons in the preparatory department of Oklahoma City University at 15 years of age. His teacher was Florence Gillam Birdwell. By this time, he had already changed piano studies to Oklahoma City University (OCU) preparatory department with Dr. Robert Laughlin. It was also at OCU where he made his first operatic appearance in Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, at the age of 17, in a university production and singing alongside university-school-mate Leona Mitchell. At 18 and 19 years of age he performed and studied at Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony, Arkansas, under direction of Dr. Isaac van Grove. At age 20 he was accepted at the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia as fellowship artist where he studied and coached with John Moriarti, Benton Hess and Rhoda Levine. At age 21 he was accepted into the summer season "Apprentice Program for Singers" at The Santa Fe Opera. During his college career at Oklahoma City University from 1970 to 1978, Merritt's voice teachers were Inez Lunsford Silberg and Florence Gillam Birdwell. Later, he also received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from that institution.

Merritt made his professional debut at The Santa Fe Opera in 1975, as Dr. Caius in Verdi's Falstaff, singing with Thomas Stewart in the title role in a production by Colin Graham and conducted by Edo de Waart. However, he also appeared in the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Regional Auditions National Finals Concert on March 28, 1976.

In 1977, Merritt attended the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria as a scholarship recipient. After hearing him at a presentation-concert, an agent sent him out on an audition tour through Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Merritt returned to the AIMS program in 1978 where he made his European debut in a concert broadcast live from Graz' Schloss Eggenberg on ORF Austrian National Radio, singing Janáček's song-cycle The Diary of One who Vanished and collaborating with pianist Norman Shettler.

Merritt began a three-year engagement as ensemble member of the Landestheater Salzburg in the fall of 1978, while from 1981 to 1984 he sang as an ensemble member at the Staedtische Buehnen Augsburg in Germany.

From 1978 to 1984, Merritt performed as guest artist in Kiel, Karlsruhe and Linz, as well as two seasons performing with "Fest In Hellbrunn" in Salzburg. Here he was heard singing in such operas as Gluck's La Danza (also in a studio recording for ORF Austrian National Recording), Haydn's Philemon und Baucis, Telemann's Der Geduldige Sokrates, Offenbach's Les Deux Aveugle and Richard Strauss' Des Esels Schatten, in a world premier of the posthumously-completed full-orchestration, which was recorded and televised for Austrian National Television. The performances with Fest in Hellbrunn were all conducted by Ernst Maerzendorfer.

Performances of concert work during this period included Haydn's Der Schoepfung and Bach's St Matthew Passion (Evangelist and arias) in Denmark, Augsburg and with the Wiener Symphoniker in Vienna's Musikverein, Bruckner's Te Deum at Vienna's Konzerthaus, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Hamburg Symphoniker, and Verdi's Messe da Requiem in Kiel. In Salzburg he was heard in Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Mozart's Requiem, and Handel's Messiah. Additionally in Salzburg he was heard singing in Leopold Mozart's Lauretanische Litenei, Adlgasse's Te Deum and Michael Haydn's Requiem, all of which were recorded for the Schwann-Koch Label.

Also during this time in Salzburg, Merritt sang in concert performances of the world premiere of Franz Richter Herf's Odysseus, together with Barbara Bonney. This was also recorded.

Auditioning for Beverly Sills during her tour of Germany searching for US talent to bring back home won him the role of Arturo in I Puritani for his debut with the New York City Opera in 1981. That same year, Merritt met Marcel Prawy of the Vienna State Opera in Salzburg who arranged a house audition at the Viennese opera company. Merritt was offered the role of Leopold in Halevy's La Juive for his debut in concert performances alongside of José Carreras and Cesare Siepi. In 1983, Merritt made his debut at New York City's Carnegie Hall, singing Argirio in Rossini's Tancredi with Marilyn Horne and later in 1983, he made his Paris debut singing the role of Amenophis under Georges Prêtre at the Palais Garnier in Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon, the composer's Mose in Egitto rewritten in French. The production was directed by Luca Ronconi. Also that same year, Merritt made his UK debut in London with the London Philharmonic Orchestra singing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt.

Merritt had five important debuts in 1985: he was heard at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Giacomo/Uberto in Rossini's La donna del lago, then at the Hamburg State Opera as Idreno in Rossini's Semiramide. His Italian debut was at Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival, singing the role of Paolo Erisso in the composer's Maometto II in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Shortly after, he performed the role of Conte Libenskof in Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims in a production at Milan's La Scala directed by Luca Roconi and conducted by Claudio Abbado. Finally, Merritt made his debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Percy in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, singing with Joan Sutherland in a production directed by Lotfi Mansouri with Richard Bonynge conducting.

His Metropolitan Opera debut took place on November 30, 1990, when he sang again with Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey the role of Idreno in Rossini's Semiramide. That same season he sang there in the role of Arturo in I puritani along with Edita Gruberova and Paul Plishka, conducted by Richard Bonynge. Other principal roles in which he was featured at the Met included those in Rusalka, with Renée Fleming and Dolora Zajick in 1997, and in Káťa Kabanová with Karita Mattila and Magdelena Kozena in 2005, his last appearance in that house.

Elsewhere, he sang again at Covent Garden as Idreno in Semiramide, Arnold in Guillaume Tell (in 1990 and in 1992), in Henze's Boulevard Solitude and in Katja Kabanova. At the San Francisco Opera he sang in Maometto II (debut in 1988), and also in the role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell in 1992 and 1997/98 season, in Rossini's Otello, in I vespri siciliani, and in St. Francis d'Assise and Doktor Faust. On August 6, 1993, he sang the title role in Sigurd at the sole performance of that rarely performed opera at the Festival Montpellier. In 1988 and in 1989 he appeared in the opening productions of La Scala's opera season, in Guillaume Tell and I Vespri Siciliani. Both were conducted by Riccardo Muti. He then returned as Rodrigo in La donna del lago, also conducted by Muti. At the Opéra de Paris, he returned to sing the title role of Benvenuto Cellini, appeared in two different seasons as Herod in Salome, as Le Lepreux in Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, and as Eleazar in La Juive.

In 2006, Merritt appeared in the American premiere production of Thomas Adès' The Tempest, marking his return to The Santa Fe Opera.

© 1985 & 1993 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on November 9, 1985 and December 17, 1993.  Portions of each were broadcast on WNIB in 1988 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.