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The following program was produced for national educational radio under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation by W. B U R Boston. Boston University radio presents Hall of song the story of the Metropolitan Opera from 1893 to 1966. You're working with war oil was where oil. War. The air. Hosts are miles Kasten Deek music critic of The New York world for you. And Milton Cross.
As we mentioned on last week's program the 1945 season of opera at the Metropolitan was one that was mocked by the impressive artistic development of a number of truly first rate American saying is who had come to Broadway and 31st. As a result of the scarcity of European talent available during the war years such names as honesty Richard Tucker Jan Peerce and Leonard Warren gained steadily increasing prominence on the Mets roster as they assumed one major role after another. Although two gala performances were presented and out of your NATO who are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the metropolitan the main emphasis for the season was on newer faces running which 20 years later would form the backbone of the company performing in what was to be the final chapter of the old opera houses grand history. One of the brand new faces to be seen at the Metropolitan during the 145 season was that of Robert Merrill a fine new ballad tellme who had been at auditions when
a man who made his debut as a general in La Traviata on December 15. It was obvious from the very beginning that Robert Merrill was fortunate enough to be the possessor of a
fine natural endowment. They used to put this great gift was demonstrated as the years progress and he worked constantly to polish and refine his interpretations. Today as the Metropolitan's leading baritone his performance is a highlight of almost every evening Mr. Merrill's first introduction to the Metropolitan came at a very early age and took place under rather bizarre and unusual circumstances. Let's hear about this now as he talks to our producer Richard Calhoun about the years he spent at the old Metropolitan. Well Mr. Merrill as a native New Yorker you lived around the mat for many many years even before you were a singer there and I believe in your middle or early teens you found yourself with a job in the garment district which is of course right the backyard of the mat. And as you were pushing a little cart along past the mat every day you found a number of opportunities to eavesdrop through the back doors. Yeah the guy.
Of course I had to quit school at an early age. Unfortunately I had a sick father and that we were in the Depression period so I had many many jobs. One of them was working for an uncle of mine who had a dress manufacturing place right near the Metropolitan Opera which is the government section right away of the world almost. And I used to deliver dresses form and roll these cots down the street which you probably have noticed if you turn around and of course every time I passed the opera you know it was like and it was like a dream world. And as you said one day I was go walking by the seventh. Stage Door I was not a stage was where they delivered the scenery is actually the back end of the stage it's the back end of the stage where the scenery goes in and out of the formants and they have one of these platforms that roll that leads up to the stage and I heard this music coming out and it was a rehearsal of course and I rolled my little caught up with these dresses sample dresses right up the ramp. I just pushed it I don't know what maybe do it I was a shy fella but I just something made me
do it and there I was standing there this racket listening to. I didn't know what La Traviata but I found out later was about it would Lily with Laurence Tippett And I think it would be to say I'm not I'm not sure it's in my book but I you know I think it was bore it was a brilliant piece of glory singing La rehearsing La Traviata and I was entranced and just stood there you know for about 10 minutes and then in another world I had just started to study seriously voice with Mr. Margolis with whom I've been by the way 32 years now until someone backstage realized that it WOULD THEY WERE NOT costumes that I was leading in with sample dresses made by my uncle. And of course they whisked me out of the place but it was it was an unbelievable 10 minutes for me I was in a daze for the rest of the day. How soon did you become interested in opera and you were always more or less interested in singing but when did the operatic. Well the operatic business started when I was about 17 18 years old Previous to that. My mother who was a dominating force behind me if you read the book you know
wanted me to study classics and of course as a kid living in Brooklyn that's the phrase it's the furthest thing from I even if I liked it I basically did like it but I don't want to show it because it would be called a sissy in the road you know on the block in the slum section of Brooklyn. But when I was about 17 or 18 my mother found Mr. Margolis for me and I just sort of hit it off and I became very very excited about it. Not too long after you started your lessons you made a try at the auditions. Oh yeah. I tried twice by the way don't you remember. Second Don has more success second time definitely was successful and and rightly so. The first time I was a young fellow and knew no opera I knew three Arias. And I don't know what prompted me to go up and take a preliminary audition up at NBC and the programs were held and they chose me of course I didn't win that I was disappointed but a great man by the name of Wilford was then the conductor in conduct the programs and a wonderful human being write something in the voice and in my make up and said Of course knew that I was
disappointed and said Don't be disappointed it's probably a lucky break that you didn't win because you're not prepared. And he inspired me to study says come back in a few years he says but work work work work. Of course I did. I came back in 1985 which was four years later and when the auditions. You know well in between those two tries of the auditions you got a lot of your experience up in the Catskill resorts to know yes yes I had a lot of New York setting I guess. No not not many singers. Strangely enough. I think Regina resonate and Jan Peerce Tucker I think sang for a while. But it was a proving ground actually more for show people comedians dancers and people like that. I had I had some money and I got a job in the Catskill Mountains been on the staff of one of these resorts and sang danced emceed played straight man to people like Red Skelton Danny Kaye I mean it I really was broken in right in the business. But I kept studying opera all through and I
learned a few whoppers and of course in 1904 they an agent asked me if I would sing when I you know I think was the first I don't recall right now but. And I knew the opera luckily and I went out and sang. Saying it costs got the few a little few experience experiences behind me before I came to the Met I only had 4 of those performances under my belt before I was engaged at the Metropolitan which wasn't very much. It must've been hard to adapt to that well yes it was. We had a little trouble anyway after the initial excitement of winning the audit a few weeks later you saw some of the parts that you were supposed to make. Yes they threw some small pots at me minor rolls which which are very good by the way but I really was not interested in them because I felt that once you sing small roles in the match your can never seem to grow up. And I'd never learned them. I had six or seven as possible never mind a praying and hoping that they wouldn't. I wouldn't
have to sing them. As fate had it I didn't and it took about six months into the season. When they asked me that they would La Traviata which is of course very exciting and I was a very big part for new relatively inexperienced from the stage standpoint singer. What do you think the reason was for for giving you a genre. I think Mr. Johnson who was then manager at Mr. St. Leger who practically ran the house. Felt that this pot suited me and I agreed with them it's a wonderful role for debut and it's it doesn't demand too many dramatic moments. You just stand and sing beautiful music. And luckily it came off very very well. I was too excited to really know what the thing was although I didn't realize I sang I mean it was really just it was a fantastic evening it was the most difficult part of that evening was sitting in my dressing room during the first act.
You know when I don't sing but once I got on the stage and I felt that everyone was really with me and they try to help me and they really did that. It came off. You had two big moments and two coming in quick succession the do what I guess is a sort of accident and then the euro area. That's right. The big the wet with Robbie out that was happened which was leach out money as it was. Great Star and a great lady and of course after that big the web which is 24 minutes long I thought all right add to my already provender which is a very difficult aria by the way. I would but the frightening part was whether I had enough voice left to sing this aria. And I didn't think when I started the hour that I would get through. I mean I I had I was praying actually while I was singing I would hold back. Don't give too much because it's repeated twice it's two stanzas and luckily I think I just about made it I mean I didn't have much left when I finished the aria.
Since you hadn't had too much today DJ experience did you find the problem that a lot of singers have commented about throughout the years of the Metropolitan in the rehearsal time is really insufficient. Well I was fortunate in one respect I did the first performance of Traviata that season so I got a benefit of the benefit of to walk us through rehearsals and a few stage rehearsals. But of course after that the other operas I went into I never did have an orchestra rehearsal I went into performances. Without rehearsing at all I've been perhaps a little talk although my first performance of the Lama was with moans and you know of a man around I never met I never met her until after the fray stack when they wished me into her dressing room and introduced us. Never knowing where she'd stand or where I would be and so on it was a amazing experience but I think the background that I got in the in the Catskill Mountains in those resorts the few years that I sang helped me a great deal because I wasn't really thrown by by it you know if you're some sort of sure as it did you always I mean curves thrown at you up there knowing what was oh
yeah I'm going to walk on introduce people I would dance I would sing I mean things to you know just happened at the spur of the moment. I by the way I recommend it to many many young singers that who have a basic vocal training I like to see them have at least two or three years of voice training before they go into this and I recommend going out and singing in places like that. I think it gives them a certain confidence you know on the stage that is that you cannot buy. Well then after your first season you went on the spring tour with the company and in your book there are a number of really wild incidents of the company on the tour and it's pretty close to a circus I guess. Yes it was amazing. I went after six weeks. I don't do it now I don't sing on to it but I meet the company come back home you see but this and this this part of my career I did live on the train and lived in hotels and ate and drank and slept and worked with these people and it was actually a tremendous experience I found myself playing poker on a train with pins. That tell you I mean the you know back to lonely
eating in fabulous Italian restaurants with these guys. And of course singing with some of the great stuff that I didn't sing during the season in the YOG you see and it was also a fantastic one experience of what I would think a moment off was by the way retiring one of the great dramatic Sopranos of all time. I was singing and I eat at my first Aida was with her and in those days I was always hungry. I mean I just ate continually. And I came backstage at night because I don't go on until about 10 o'clock in the opera and I was quite hungry backstage we had a little man by the name of papa's sense was a great great makeup man of the Metropolitan for like 40 of 40 years he made up to go to his open shop and we became I became his adopted son you know and he always cooked backstage you had a little room and he was making spaghetti that night and I was hungry and I had a big bowl of it and then went on and when I made my entrance and approached that which was in that
moment I didn't realize that he had put a lot of garlic in there. And when I said when I said that idea don't betray me in that very close embrace she pushed me away you know and. And when the curtain came down she actually you know slapped me and this is it don't you do this again she thought I was playing a little trick on her because I looked into the wings there was Papa sounds hysterical in the stagehands who knew this. Oh little things like this happen you know on the tours. But it was a great great experience because the Metropolitan always was the scene of many many mishaps and one of the funniest I think that you mention in your book I'm actually relating to the same tenor who seemed to have an overwhelming passion for high seas one of the one of the events taking place in Samson and the other in the dory. Well you know when you deal with the human element and the Metropolitan stage and the opera I think there are more people involved in any part of show business. We have three four five hundred people sometimes on the stage and things
happen. We have a tenor and that is of course as you said high C crazy and I know crazy. We were doing a performance of Samson and Delilah Teresa Stephens and I in this heroic tent it was by the way great was a great tenor but loved to hold on the high notes and in the last act of Samson when he went where. When he stands between the two pillars and if course he's condemned to death and he's blinded. Previous to that he sings this high note on a second cue the stage hands would pull something in the whole palace with collapse you see. But they would wait for this clue and he did this thing he put his hands on the pillow which was obviously the clue before singing the high note and of course the place just came down I mean it just was a shambles you know and Rhys and I of course are hit with this and we are supposed to be dead and lying on the floor but he was before his high note. But he wouldn't give it out. And during all this fantastic commotion and destruction he belted out design note. And of course we all laughed and there I was supposed to been dead on the floor just
hysterical. These things you know crazy. The other incident was when Grover toward everybody on the piano when he has his high C and he took. He took this high C and held it so long we kept holding it when the but the curtains closed on him and he put a sword between the curtains open the curtains and finished his note in front of the audience. What was the audience reaction to that. They loved it. Yes audiences really love it. It's corny but they love it. I don't. I don't think it should be done off and I mean I don't recommend that tennis do it but if you know the price and if you know the temperament of the person and know that he does it often that I think is exciting because another part of your career which must have been quite a highlight was the work you did with Toscanini. Yes I think if I did it didn't do anything else stick. But just those two performances and my socialization with the maestro would have been sufficient
almost in my in my life. In 1945 after my debut at the Met Traviata I was I had been singing on the National Broadcasting Company that way is when it arrives for SF a few years that previous to that and Tuscany heard me saying you never saw me heard me sing the aria from Traviata Di Provenza and they were casting the opera for the maestro to broadcast. And he asked someone of NBC to find me and they engage me without seeing me. And never forget my first rehearsal with the old man was never old as far as I was concerned. Only the last time I saw I was with him in the 55 I think what we did by the mosque going to there was one evening where we spent that is all that he would leave he looked old that was the only time ever seen him look old. He my first rehearsal which I thought was an ensemble rehearsal. It wasn't too bad I only took one aspirin you know
and I entered this little studio that he had on the eighth floor of NBC. And I walked in expecting to find a cast you know and there was a maestro sitting at a piano alone. And I was ushered into this room a small studio with the old man alone. And he looked at me and didn't say anything for three whole minutes. It was you know kept staring at me. And then of course I realized what happened he expected an older person and I was 25 years old what looked like a team. And he was bewildered. He thought he had made a big mistake in his young boy going to sing the part of a father you know. Well at any rate after 30 minutes he said well let's go over the pot he played the piano for me alone. And he was a good pianist you know couldn't see you know he. I don't think you have to study the piano but anyway he played and I sang the whole pot for him and after that he looked at me for another minute which is a hell of a heck of a long
time. I said well he says Are you a father. I said No mom I'm a maestro and I started to stutter over again by the way. You know you had a lot of through previous I studied I studied as a young man until I was about 19 or 20 years old and it came back I couldn't I you know I said yes and no he said I said on that if I'm money married and he looked at me for another few seconds and he said well I will try to make you a father. And I work with him and it was a fantastic experience. And of course all the rehearsals for Traviata were unbelievable. I mean he could erupt and become terribly angry and he said any second which he did many times during our rehearsal. But the experience when I when I finally went on the air and we were broadcasting and singing it when I did my aria he looked like a father he was. His face took on the expression of a 60 year old man trying to convince a son to come home and leave this violin
on the salon was a fantastic experience. And every time I sing the role which has been about 250 times now 300 times. I think of that performance all the time. I see his face practically every time I sing it. What was it that he gave to the music itself that was so your life reality notes were not just dotted 16th or eighth notes or half notes. They they they lived for him. And he wanted the people around him people making music with him to really feel it and live it with him. And of course if you didn't then he felt that you really didn't live it and understand that he would blow up. You know he tried to help you and then if it didn't become part of you and he didn't feel it then he would go crazy. And of course living through this during rehearsals and praying that it won't happen to me you know that he was being so young too it was and you know yes. So it was it was just a fantastic experience. And then of course I sang in his last operatic performance of his life which was Bollywood mascot. And
those were fantastic experiences if of course then he was much older he was I think 87. And an 87 year old man going through a thing like that and we rehearsed in his home. And they were wonderful experiences he was he was at the time of his life would he like to reminisce. And after rehearsal he would have save us coffee and we would sit and he would tell us fabulous stories of vetted the you know that's ready to him food chain me and the first performances that he conducted in Bhalo in Moscow. He couldn't he hadn't conducted in 45 years. And this was the opera that he collects. He conducted the least amount of times and he remembered there was a fire stopper he saw when he was 10 years old and Puccini. Verdi conducted it himself. And he never forgot that performance and he ran home and told his mother and so he was terribly excited seeing the maestro conducting also the Ascot which is a boy's papa played by a young young girl.
He remembered her beautiful legs. So these were the two pressures that he got out of Milo in Moscow only was 10 years old and he told us these fabulous stories of finding Kozo and. What a lovely man he wasn't a lyric tenor when of course when he came to America 15 years later and conducted photos he said he became a baritone and he became swell headed and he was in the same price and he offers just just an experience that is unbelievable like living with a past. Well I guess at the end of about your third or fourth season Mr. Johnson announced his retirement. And Rudolph being then came on to be the new general manager. How did you feel during the transition. Because of course Mr. Johnson had done an awful lot for your career. And were you a little uncertain about what the future might hold with a new reason to think we were on strike and but Mr. Bing Of course now tonight is probably one of the greater sorrows of our day. Of course we were uncertain and we didn't know the man. But he engaged me you know asked me to sing in his opening night which was done kata which was a
great evening you see baling and we had a great cast yet he made his debut in. But unfortunately after that I took a screen test in Hollywood and was engaged to sing it to perform in a movie. We stayed at the tents turned out to be a big fiasco. But I was fine I didn't have any good timing there. Yes I had. Unfortunately I was morally wrong as far as the map was concerned but contractually right you see. So the movie had started at the same time when I was supposed have sung in the spring too. I couldn't do both so I stayed in Hollywood missed being fired me and it was front page news and so on it was a horrible little episode. But fortunately just the being said he would I would never work again at the Metropolitan. And it almost happened but he ended at season after haunting this to being for many many many months sitting in Sherry's in back of him and
seeing almost every performance. Finally we finally got together and realized that it was a stupid era. And we sort of apologized I apologized. We wrote each other notes letters which was printed by the way the New York Times and the editorial so much and it was an experience that I guess I had to go through to make me realize. What is really important in one's life. The thing I wondered about. Why didn't you think of going to another opera company at that time. To a European one say Well America is my home I live here I metropolitan this part of my life and this is what I wanted I didn't want to run away from it. You see I knew what I wanted and I knew what was important. You see it's really been an awfully strong attachment that an artist must develop for the place. Oh yes. It became practically my home you know. But plenty at 21 seasons now and it's something I wanted desperately. And I think if I had left the country and went to sing a broad I think I would have been it would have been wrong.
You know. This is what I wanted. Well if I didn't if it didn't work out I obviously would have gone to you know leave the continent. But I'm glad it didn't. How did you feel coming back and making what was in effect your second. You know it was also a Web I think more exciting and to me than my debut because I really had to make a comeback. And it was introvert. Of course my friends and colleagues were happy and I was happy to be back and it worked out very well for everybody. Of course since then your repertoires just kept expanding and expanding and your reputation as well. Where do you see yourself going from here. I feel if the 20 seasons 20 years at the Metropolitan I'm just beginning. I really do it. I know it sounds awfully corny. But I actually feel that way I think it takes many many years to really become an artist. The fact is that I did Scott AP for the first time only two years ago.
I was just going to say you've built your repertoire gradually and I know that's right and I recommend it. I think it's the only way to do it I don't think you can as a young artist do these roles. Before your time. I mean I took ten years before I sang Rigoletto 15 years before Scott APF 18 years rather. Jagow I waited 16 years so I could have some of them believe me earlier. But I really felt that it wouldn't be fed in my throat. To my mind to the audiences and my career and I waited. So. I feel that I'm really just starting and the day that I don't enjoy it anymore. It becomes a burden because that's the day I quit. But I don't feel that way right now. That one is Robert's merong about a tone that made his metropolitan debut during the 1045 season and has since become one of the best known names in opera all over the world. Next week we'll move on to the year one thousand
forty eight the season in which Jean Madonna made her first appearance at the old Met. And we'll have the pleasure of hearing all about Madame madame his career and we'll also learn about playing a very important announcement that was made at the end of that season. For now all of this is Milton Cross on behalf of miles Kasten Deek hoping that you will plan to be with us again. Then. Boston University Radio has presented Hong Kong the story of the Metropolitan Opera from 1883 to 1966 the series is created and produced by Richard Calhoun a grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made possible the production of these
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Hall of song: The 'Met,' 1883-1966
Producing Organization
WBUR (Radio station : Boston, Mass.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
1945. Robert Merrill describes his career.
Series Description
Documentary series on history of the Metropolitan Opera Company ("The Met") in its original home at Broadway and 39th Street in New York. "The Met" closed its old location on April 16, 1966. Series includes interviews and rare recordings of noted performers.
Broadcast Date
Performing Arts
Media type
Host: Cross, Milton, 1897-1975
Host: Kastendieck, Miles
Interviewee: Merrill, Robert, 1917-2004
Producer: Calhoun, Richard
Producing Organization: WBUR (Radio station : Boston, Mass.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-41-31 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:35
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Chicago: “Hall of song: The 'Met,' 1883-1966; 1945,” 1967-04-06, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 25, 2023,
MLA: “Hall of song: The 'Met,' 1883-1966; 1945.” 1967-04-06. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 25, 2023. <>.
APA: Hall of song: The 'Met,' 1883-1966; 1945. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from