Tuesday 21 November 2017

Obituary: Roberta Peters

Soprano who made a famous debut as a last-minute stand-in at the Met was at the forefront of US cultural diplomacy

SINGING SENSATION: Roberta Peters starred in 1953 musical ‘Tonight We Sing’. Photo: Everett Collection/Alamy
SINGING SENSATION: Roberta Peters starred in 1953 musical ‘Tonight We Sing’. Photo: Everett Collection/Alamy

Roberta Peters, who has died aged 86, was an American coloratura soprano who, in 1950, made a famous debut as a last-minute stand-in with the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Then at the Royal Opera in London, she was the first post-war singer to give an encore mid-performance, delivered while singing Arlene in Balfe's The Bohemian Girl conducted by Thomas Beecham in 1951.

She had impressed Rudolf Bing, manager of the Met, when she auditioned for him in January, 1950 and he had booked her to appear in Mozart's The Magic Flute the following year. But one afternoon in November, he called as she and her parents were preparing to join the audience at a performance of Don Giovanni. "He said, 'come down, it's an emergency'," she told The New York Times in 2000. Nadine Conner, who was to sing Zerlina, was ill.

Although Roberta Peters had not previously appeared on stage, she knew the role and agreed to step in. "Take a taxi," Bing told her, "and tell the driver he has precious cargo".

Unable to find a cab, she arrived by subway.

The performance, conducted by Fritz Reiner, was a triumph and the critics were enthusiastic.

"The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician," wrote one. "She will bear watching - and listening."

She was born Roberta Peterman on May 4, 1930 and grew up in the Bronx, the only child of Sol, a shoe salesman, and his wife Ruth, a milliner. She was 12 when the tenor Jan Peerce heard her sing and arranged for her to have lessons with William Herman, his own coach.

She dropped out of school and thereafter her only formal education was from an elderly French tutor who had known Enrico Caruso and had been at the opening of the original Metropolitan Opera House in 1883. She studied movement with Joseph Pilates, inventor of the physical fitness method, who stood on her abdomen.

At her audition, Bing made her sing the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute four times.

"I found out afterwards that he had brought a different conductor for each time around," she said.

She appeared at the Met every season for 35 years, usually in staples of the repertoire such as Don Giovanni, Lucia di Lammermoor and Der Rosenkavalier, making her final performance in 1985 as Gilda in Rigoletto.

After her London debut, Opera Magazine described her as being, "blessed with a musical intelligence and taste which one rarely encounters in so young an artist"; she returned to Covent Garden in 1961 for Rigoletto. Roberta Peters was at the forefront of American cultural diplomacy, appearing in Moscow in 1960 with the pianist Van Cliburn and in China in 1980, the first American singer to perform there since diplomatic relations were resumed.

She sang in other stage works, including Noel Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet, recalling how during one performance a tenor turned to embrace her and "the wig went whish, and there I was left with a stocking on my head".

Late in life she was still playing strenuous games of tennis at a club in Westchester, near the home where she enjoyed "my private life, my peaceful life and, in a sense, my real life".

In 1952 she married the baritone Robert Merrill, but within 10 weeks they had separated; in 1955 she married Bertram Fields, a property investor, who died in 2010. Roberta Peters, who died on January 18, is survived by their two sons. (© Telegraph)


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