Roberta Peters Passes At 86

Published on January 19, 2017, 10:10 am
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Roberta Peters, the Bronx-born coloratura soprano who at 20 was catapulted to stardom by a phone call, a subway ride and a Metropolitan Opera debut — her first public performance anywhere — all in the space of five hours, died on Wednesday at her home in Rye, NY. She was 86.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, her son Bruce Fields said.

Ms. Peters, who would sing with the Met 515 times over 35 vigorous years, was internationally renowned for her high, silvery voice (in private, she could hit a high A, two and a half octaves above middle C); her clarion diction in a flurry of languages; her attractive stage presence; and, by virtue of the fact that she and television came to prominence at about the same time, her wide popular appeal.

“As a coloratura,” Cue magazine wrote of Ms. Peters in 1960, “she has no peer.”

In addition to the Met, with which she appeared regularly from 1950 to 1985 — one of the longest associations of any singer with a major opera company — Ms. Peters was heard at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Cincinnati Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden and elsewhere.

Her best-known roles include the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Rosina in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Oscar (a pageboy played by a soprano) in his “Un Ballo in Maschera.” But her most significant role was undoubtedly Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

She had dramatic roles in several movies, including “Tonight We Sing” (1953), based on Mr. Hurok’s life, and on TV shows including “Medical Center,” on which, in 1975, she played a dying singer.

The closest thing to drama in Ms. Peters’s personal life was her very brief marriage to the great baritone Robert Merrill, whom she wed on March 30, 1952, and from whom she was divorced on June 26, 1952. (Ms. Peters later said that she had fallen in love with the voice rather than the man.) But they remained friends, and sometime duo-recital partners, ever after.

Ms. Peters’s second husband, Bertram Fields, a hotelier and real-estate investor whom she married in 1955, died in 2010. In addition to her son Bruce, she is survived by another son, Paul, and four grandchildren.

Her many recordings include works by Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Cole Porter and Gilbert and Sullivan.

For all the acclaim that cloaked Ms. Peters, and for all the laurels heaped upon her — including a National Medal of Arts in 1998 — perhaps nothing could match the electricity of that long-ago November night, when a 20-year-old from the Bronx stepped onto the Met stage an unknown and came back as Roberta Peters.

An ovation followed, and flowers along with it. Afterward, Ms. Peters took a taxi all the way home.


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