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Robert Merrill was born Moishe Miller (later known as Morris Miller) to Abraham and Lillian Miller, Orthodox Jewish immigrants to the USA from Warsaw. His mother was a concert singer who encouraged him to sing as a means of banishing his stutter. Although Merrill was for a while active as a semi-professional baseball player, after hearing Richard Bonelli sing di Luna / Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York he decided to take professional singing lessons, paying for these from his baseball earnings.

Merrill studied in New York with Renato Bellini, Armando Agnini and Samuel Margolis; but his first audition for the Met, in 1941, was not successful. While singing at weddings and other religious ceremonies however, he met an agent, Moe Gale, who found him radio work with NBC that included both popular material and leading roles in Toscanini’s historic broadcasts of La traviata (1946) and later of Un ballo in maschera (1954). Having made his operatic debut in 1944 as Amonasro / Aida opposite Giovanni Martinelli at Newark, New Jersey, Merrill was encouraged by the conductor Wilfred Pelletier to audition for the Met once again. In 1945 he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air and immediately made his Met debut as Germont père / La traviata, the company becoming his artistic base for the rest of his operatic career.

Initially Merrill proceeded with caution, singing such roles as Renato / Un ballo in maschera, Rodrigo / Don Carlo, Valentin / Faust and Marcello / La Bohème. Realising that he had made a serious mistake in briefly leaving the Met in 1951 to make an appearance in the (unsuccessful) 1952 Hollywood film Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick, he begged the Met’s manager, Rudolf Bing, to let him return; and gradually took on larger roles such as Count di Luna / Il trovatore, Barnaba / La Gioconda, Amonasro / Aida and Iago / Otello. Other parts in Merrill’s repertoire included the title role in Rigoletto, Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia, Tonio / Pagliacci and Escamillo / Carmen; and after the unexpected death of Leonard Warren in 1960 he became the company’s principal baritone for the Italian repertoire.

Early in his career Merrill had shown great skill as a recording singer, taking the part of Marcello in Sir Thomas Beecham’s landmark recording in 1956 of La Bohème. When the advent of stereo in the late 1950s led to many new complete opera recordings he was well-placed, and made a large number of fine recordings for the RCA-Victor and Decca labels with Karajan, Leinsdorf and Solti, amongst others, conducting.

As well as at the Met, Merrill sang at San Francisco (debut 1957 as Germont père) and Chicago (debut 1960 as Amonasro) and made his European debut in 1961 as Germont père at La Fenice, Venice. He sang the same role for his debut at the Royal Opera, House, London, in 1967 and appeared at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, in 1968. Between 1970 and 1974 he appeared on Broadway in more than 500 performances of the musical Fiddler on the Roof as Tevje; and in 1976 retired from the Met, having participated in thirty-two seasons, singing twenty-one parts in 788 performances.

Merrill continued to perform, on radio and television, in nightclubs and in recitals, often with the tenor Richard Tucker. From 1969 onwards he became famous for his singing of The Star Spangled Banner at the annual opening of the New York Yankees’ baseball season and died while watching the World Series on television.

A modest and much-loved man, Merrill said of his career: ‘I keep feeling that I’m just beginning, that I’m just a beginner. I’ve never taken the Met for granted. At the old house, whenever I walked in, I had that marvellous feeling—what am I doing here, a kid from Brooklyn?’ While dramatically he did what was necessary, if little more, his great strengths were the smoothness of his singing and the rich quality of his tone. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1993.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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