Robert Merrill (1917-2004) was one of the 20th centuries greatest baritones. His career at the Metropolitan Opera overlapped those of all the other great American baritones. When he debuted at the Met in 1945 Lawrence Tibbett was still singing at the New York house while Leonard Warren was beginning his tenure as the world’s greatest Verdi baritone. When Merrill was in mid career Cornell MacNeil made his New York debut. Towards the end of Merrill’s years at the Met Sherrill Milnes debuted. Between 1945 and 1976 Merrill appeared in 788 Met performances. A passionate baseball fan, he had a second career singing the National Anthem before many important games at Yankee Stadium. He appeared in a Yankee uniform with number 1 1/2 on its back
The web is full of examples of Merrill’s artistry. I’ll present some recordings that are not readily available elsewhere. They were made given to me by tenor Richard Troxell who was a good friend of the late baritone. Troxell was recently an outstanding Don José in the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Bizet’s Carmen.
First, here is the 19 year old singer’s appearance on Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1936. At that time he was going by the name Merrill Miller. He started life in Brooklyn as Moishe Miller. Even as a teenager you can hear that young Miller has something special. Torna a surriento. Notice the Brooklyn accent that diminished with the years, but which never disappeared.
Nine years later, now Robert Merrill, he auditioned for the Met as part of its annual radio competition – Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. He won and made his Met debut before the year was out. He debuted as the elder Germont in La Traviata, a role he sang an astounding 132 times at the Met. When you listen to his competition performance of Figaro’s famous aria from Rossini’s Barber it’s easy to understand why he won. This is a finished artist. How would you like to have to compete against this? Largo al factotum
Finally here’s the song that made Merrill more famous in New York than did his nearly 800 shows at the Met. National Anthem. Merrill had one of the greatest voices of his century and luckily he had the sunniest of dispositions to go with his great gift.