Robert Merrill, 85; Naturally Gifted Star of Operatic World

From the Associated Press

Acclaimed singer Robert Merrill, the opera baritone who felt equally comfortable on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera House or opening day at Yankee Stadium, has died. He was 85.

Merrill died Saturday at his home in suburban New York City, family friend Barry Tucker said Monday.

Merrill performed around the country with Tucker’s father, tenor Richard Tucker, the younger man said. “My father felt that he had the greatest natural voice that America created,” he said.


Merrill, once described in Time magazine as “one of the Met’s best baritones,” became equally familiar to New York Yankees fans for his season-opening performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” -- a tradition that began in 1969.

In his 31 consecutive seasons with the Met, Merrill performed virtually every baritone role in the operatic repertoire.

He earned admiration for his interpretations of dozens of 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.”

Merrill was known for a velvet-smooth voice. Critics wrote that he “worked hard to polish his natural rich baritone” and that he “noticeably improved each season.”

Merrill 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.”

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

He also was a well-established radio and television soloist, beginning his TV career on NBC’s “Saturday Night Revue” in 1949.

Merrill’s lifelong enthusiasm for baseball led to his long tenure at Yankee Stadium, where he sang the national anthem on opening day for three decades.

Merrill, who often appeared in a pinstriped shirt and tattered Yankees necktie, performed the same duty for the Yankees during the World Series, the playoffs and at Old-Timers Day.

He 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.”

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

“Mr. Merrill displayed a rich, vigorous baritone, ample in volume, effortlessly and surely produced,” a critic wrote at the time.

Merrill was born June 4, 1919, 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 training.

Merrill was first inspired by music as a teenager when he saw a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore.” The young baritone paid for singing lessons with extra money he earned as a semipro pitcher.

Merrill is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and grandchildren, Tucker said.