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Opera Star Robert Merrill Dies at 85

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Robert Merrill, the Metropolitan Opera star who was known as much for singing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium as he was for roles such as Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," was remembered Tuesday for his velvety baritone and devotion to baseball.

Merrill died Saturday at his home in suburban New Rochelle while watching the World Series, family friend Barry Tucker said Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't the Yankees. He was very disappointed (at the team's playoff loss). At that time he was rooting hard," said Tucker, whose father, tenor Richard Tucker, frequently performed with Merrill.

Beverly Sills, the Met's chairwoman, recalled the rich quality of Merrill's voice.

"It was one of the most gorgeous voices I ever heard: dark velvet. It cast a hush over the audience, the sheer beauty of it," said Sills, who called Merrill an "old friend" she met at the age of 10.

"He was a warm, dear, affectionate man, with a fabulous sense of humor. I will miss him very much," added Sills, who retired as a New York City Opera star soprano.

In his 31 consecutive seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, Merrill, whose death was announced late Monday, performed virtually every baritone role in the operatic repertoire. Reference books gave conflicting ages for Merrill: 87 or 85. His voter registration record listed his birthday as June 4, 1917.

Merrill once was described in Time magazine as "one of the Met's best baritones."

"My father felt that he had the greatest natural voice that America created," Tucker said. "He was the best baritone of the day."

Merrill was probably one of the most recognizable names outside the lofty halls of the world's opera houses because of his lifelong enthusiasm for baseball. Beginning in 1969, he followed a tradition that lasted three decades, singing the season-opener rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Yankee Stadium.

Merrill was a longtime "friend, Yankees fan and close associate of the Yankees, and we dearly miss him," team spokesman Howard Rubenstein said. "He sang the national anthem at Yankee Stadium for many years and provided a true inspiration for us, the ballplayers and all of our fans."

Merrill, who often appeared in a pinstriped shirt and tattered Yankees necktie, took the job seriously and once said he didn't appreciate when singers tried to ad lib with "distortions."

"When you do the anthem, there's a legitimacy to it," Merrill told Newsday in 2000. "I'm bothered by these different interpretations of it."

After being inspired by seeing a Metropolitan Opera performance of "Il Trovatore" when he was a teenager, he paid for singing lessons with money he earned as a semipro pitcher.

Merrill earned admiration for his interpretations of dozens of operatic roles, including Escamillo in "Carmen" and Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," reportedly his favorite opera.

Merrill once said opera "is the toughest art of all."

"It's a human instrument," he said. "Your voice, so many words, so much music. ... There's a lot of emotion."

Throughout his career, Merrill also sang with popular stars ranging from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong, appeared worldwide at music festivals and made numerous recordings. He performed as a soloist with many of the world's great conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, and made appearances for several presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

He retired from the Met in 1976 but returned to its stage in 1983, when the company marked its centennial.

"Few leading singers have graced the company with so many performances," Opera News said in 1996. "None have served it with more honor."

Merrill made his operatic debut in 1944, singing Amonasro in "Aida" on a Trenton, N.J., stage. He signed on with the Metropolitan Opera in 1945 and debuted there that year as the elder Germont in "La Traviata."

"Mr. Merrill displayed a rich, vigorous baritone, ample in volume, effortlessly and surely produced," critic Robert A. Hague wrote at the time.

Merrill was briefly married to soprano Roberta Peters in the early 1950s.

"We realized after three weeks that two careers don't make a viable marriage and we parted company," Peters said Tuesday. "But we remained friends for all these years. We sang innumerable times together, and he was not only a great baritone but also a great human being."

Merrill was born the son of shoe salesman Abraham Merrill and Lillian Balaban. His mother had an operatic and concert career in Poland before her marriage and guided her son through his early musical training.

He is survived by his wife, Marion; a son; a daughter; and his grandchildren, Tucker said.

Tucker said Merrill was buried Monday in a family plot in Westchester. He said the family is very private and there are no plans for a memorial service.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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