Robert Merrill

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Robert Merrill
Merrill in the 1940s
Merrill in the 1940s
Background information
Birth nameMoishe Miller
Also known as
  • Robert Merrill
  • Morris Miller
Born(1917-06-04)June 4, 1917
Brooklyn, New York, USA
DiedOctober 23, 2004(2004-10-23) (aged 87)
New Rochelle, New York, USA
  • Singer
  • Actor
InstrumentsVocals (baritone)

Robert Merrill (June 4, 1917 – October 23, 2004) was an American operatic baritone and actor, who was also active in the musical theatre circuit. He received the National Medal of Arts in 1993.

Early life[edit]

Merrill was born Moishe Miller, later known as Morris Miller, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of tailor Abraham Miller, originally Milstein, and his wife, Lillian (née Balaban), Jewish immigrants from Pultusk, Poland, near Warsaw. His paternal grandparents were Berl Milstein and Chana (née Mlawski), both from Pultusk, Poland.

His mother claimed to have had an operatic and concert career in Poland (a fact denied by her son in his biographies) and encouraged her son to have early voice training: he had a stutter, which wasn't apparent when singing. Merrill was inspired to pursue professional singing lessons when he saw the baritone Richard Bonelli singing Count Di Luna in a performance of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, and paid for them with money earned as a semi-professional pitcher.[1]

Radio and recordings[edit]

External audio
audio icon You may hear Robert Merrill as Escamillo in Georges Bizet's opera Carmen with Fritz Reiner conducting the RCA Victor Orchestra and Jan Peerce, Risë Stevens and Licia Albanese in 1951 Here on

In his early radio appearances as a crooner he was sometimes billed as Merrill Miller. While singing at bar mitzvahs and weddings and Borscht Belt resorts, he met an agent, Moe Gale, who found him work at Radio City Music Hall and with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. With Toscanini conducting, he eventually sang in two of the maestro's NBC Symphony broadcasts of famous operas, La traviata (with Licia Albanese, in 1946), and Un ballo in maschera (with Herva Nelli, in 1954). Both of those operas were recorded and later released on both LP and CD by RCA Victor. His ranking as an important NBC performer is evidenced by his inclusion in NBC's 1947 promotional book, NBC Parade of Stars: As Heard Over Your Favorite NBC Station, displaying Sam Berman's caricatures of leading NBC personalities.

Merrill's 1944 operatic debut was in Verdi's Aida at Newark, New Jersey, with the famous tenor Giovanni Martinelli, then in the later stages of his long operatic career. Merrill, who had continued his vocal studies under Samuel Margolis made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1945, as Germont in La traviata. Also in 1945, Merrill recorded a 78 rpm album set with Jeanette MacDonald, featuring selections from the operetta Up in Central Park; MacDonald and Merrill sang two duets together on this album.

In 1951, Merrill recorded a series of operatic duets with the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling for RCA Victor, including a world-renowned recording of "Au fond du temple saint" from the opera Les pêcheurs de perles by Georges Bizet. That same year he participated in another celebrated RCA Victor recording, Bizet's Carmen with Risë Stevens and Jan Peerce, conducted by Fritz Reiner.

In 1952 Merrill, Björling, and Victoria de los Ángeles made a widely admired RCA Victor recording of Puccini's La bohème, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1953, Merrill, Björling, de los Angeles and Zinka Milanov recorded the complete Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana.

Metropolitan Opera[edit]

His role in the musical comedy film Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952) led to a conflict with Sir Rudolf Bing and a brief departure from the Met in 1951. Merrill sang many different baritone roles, and after the untimely on-stage death of the celebrated Leonard Warren in 1960, became the Met's principal baritone, sharing that position in a few years with Cornell MacNeil. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he appeared under the direction of Alfredo Antonini in performances of arias from the Italian operatic repertoire for the open air Italian Night concert series at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City.[2][3][4][5]

He was described by Time as "one of the Met's best baritones". Yet reviews were not consistently good: Opera magazine reported on a Metropolitan Opera performance of Barber of Seville in which Merrill delivered "by all odds the most insensitive impersonation of the season". He was accused by the reviewer of "loud, coarse sounds" and "no grace, no charm, as he butchered the text and galumphed around the stage".[6]

Later career[edit]

Merrill appeared on "Voice of Firestone" with Joanne Hill.

Merrill also continued to perform on radio and television, in nightclubs and recitals. In 1973, Merrill teamed up with Richard Tucker to present a concert at Carnegie Hall—a first for the two "vocal supermen" (as one critic dubbed them), and a first "for the demanding New York public and critics," Merrill recalled. The event marked a precedent that eventually led to the "Three Tenors" concerts many years later. Merrill retired from the Met in 1976. In 1977, he appeared on the TV special "Sinatra & Friends," soloing "If I Were A Rich Man" and performing "The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York" with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. For many years, he led services, often in Borscht Belt hotels, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

In honor of Merrill's vast influence on American vocal music, on February 16, 1981 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit.[7] In 1964, this award was "established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression."

In 1996, at a reception at Lincoln Center, Merrill was presented with The Lawrence Tibbett Award from the AGMA Relief Fund, honoring his fifty years of professional achievement and dedication to colleagues. The AGMA Relief Fund, award sponsor, provides financial assistance and support services to classical performing artists in need.

Sporting events[edit]

Relatively late in his singing career, Merrill also became known for singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium. He first sang the national anthem to open the 1969 baseball season, and it became a tradition for the Yankees to bring him back each year on Opening Day and special occasions. He sang at various Old Timer's Days (wearing his own pinstriped Yankee uniform with the number "112" on the back) and the emotional pre-game ceremony in memory of Thurman Munson at Yankee Stadium on August 3, 1979, the day after the catcher died in a plane crash. Merrill also sang at one World Series game in each year the Yankees played the Fall Classic at the stadium, starting in 1976. A recorded Merrill version is still sometimes used at Yankee Stadium, mainly at Old Timer's Day. In 2021, the Yankees replaced the live organ version of God Bless America that had played for almost two years with Merrill's cover.

Merrill preferred a traditional approach to the song, devoid of additional ornamentation, as he explained to Newsday in 2000, "When you sing the anthem, there's a legitimacy to it. I'm extremely bothered by these different interpretations of it." Merrill appeared opposite Adam Sandler in a scene singing the national anthem, in the 2003 film Anger Management. Merrill joked that an entire generation of people know him as "The 'Say-Can-You-See' guy!" (Agmazine, April 1996).

Personal life[edit]

While there has been dispute regarding his birth year (some claim he was born in 1919),[1] the Social Security Death Index,[8] his family, and his gravestone state that he was born in 1917.

Merrill was married briefly to soprano Roberta Peters in 1952. They parted amicably; he had two children, a son David and a daughter Lizanne, with his second wife, Marion (d. March 20, 2010), née Machno, a pianist. Merrill liked to play golf and was a member of the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, for many years.

He always maintained a warm sense of humor and once recalled the time a young contractor was working in his New Rochelle, New York, home. Surveying the photos, posters, plaques and other music memorabilia in the Merrill home, the young man asked Merrill, "You're a singer, aren't you?" "Yes," he responded. "You sing opera, don't you?" the worker asked. "A little," replied Merrill. (Agmazine, April 1996).

He wrote two books of memoirs, Once More from the Beginning (1965) and Between Acts (1976), and he co-authored a novel, The Divas (1978). Merrill toured all over the world with his arranger and conductor, Angelo DiPippo, who wrote most of his act and performed at concert halls throughout the world. He always donated his time on the Cerebral Palsy Telethon with Dennis James.


Merrill died at his home in New Rochelle, New York, at the age 87, while watching Game 1 of the 2004 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. He is interred at the Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, which is the Jewish division of Kensico Cemetery. His headstone features an opera curtain that has been drawn open.

His epitaph states:

Like a bursting celestial star, he showered his family and the world with love, joy, and beauty. Encore please.

Performances with the Metropolitan Opera[edit]

Robert Merrill sang 769 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in the following 21 roles:[9]

Composer Opera Role First performance Last performance Total performances
Verdi La traviata Germont 1945-12-15 1976-03-15 132
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor Enrico 1945-12-29 1965-01-23 16
Bizet Carmen Escamillo 1946-01-07 1972-01-04 81
Mussorgsky Boris Godunov Shchelkalov 1946-11-21 1947-04-21 5
Gounod Faust Valentin 1946-12-23 1972-05-04 48
Verdi Aida Amonasro 1947-01-11 1973-06-01 72
Rossini Il Barbiere di Siviglia Figaro 1947-11-15 1966-06-04 46
Verdi Il trovatore Count di Luna 1947-12-11 1973-05-30 73
Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila High Priest 1949-11-26 1950-04-30 10
Verdi Don Carlo Rodrigo 1950-11-06 1972-06-21 51
Leoncavallo Pagliacci Silvio 1951-02-09 1951-02-09 1
Leoncavallo Pagliacci Tonio 1952-03-14 1964-04-02 22
Verdi Rigoletto Rigoletto 1952-11-15 1972-02-05 56
Puccini La bohème Marcello 1952-12-27 1954-02-01 10
Verdi Un ballo in maschera Renato 1955-02-26 1976-05-29 56
Donizetti Don Pasquale Malatesta 1956-04-09 1956-12-10 8
Ponchielli La Gioconda Barnaba 1958-12-11 1962-04-16 13
Verdi La forza del destino Don Carlo 1961-12-12 1972-06-09 33
Giordano Andrea Chénier Carlo Gérard 1962-10-15 1966-03-22 7
Verdi Otello Iago 1963-03-10 1965-05-07 18
Puccini Tosca Scarpia 1964-10-23 1974-12-09 11

Studio recordings[edit]

Robert Merrill made at least 25 studio recordings of complete operas, including two Toscanini radio broadcasts:[10]

Composer Opera Role Date
Bizet Carmen Escamillo 1951, 1963
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor Enrico 1961
Leoncavallo Pagliacci Silvio 1953
Leoncavallo Pagliacci Tonio 1967
Mascagni Cavalleria rusticana Alfio 1953
Ponchielli La Gioconda Barnaba 1967
Puccini La bohème Marcello 1956, 1961
Puccini Manon Lescaut Lescaut 1954
Puccini Il tabarro Michele 1962
Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia Figaro 1958
Straus Der tapfere Soldat Bumerli 1952
Verdi Aida Amonasro 1961
Verdi Un ballo in maschera Renato 1946, 1966
Verdi Falstaff Ford 1963
Verdi La forza del destino Don Carlo 1964
Verdi Rigoletto Rigoletto 1956, 1963
Verdi La traviata Germont 1946, 1960, 1962
Verdi Il trovatore Conte di Luna 1964

See also[edit]

Listen to[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Opera star Robert Merrill dies at 85". USA Today. October 26, 2004. Retrieved 2017-08-08.
  2. ^ "Stadium Concerts Announces Artists". The New York Times. May 14, 1959. p. 29. Retrieved 2017-08-08.
  3. ^ "Stadium to Offer Offenbach Opera". The New York Times. May 19, 1959. p. 28.
  4. ^ Schoenberg, Harold C. (July 10, 1959). "Music: Verdi Program at Stadium; Four Singers Heard in Opera Excerpts Mary Curtis-Verna Is Seen in Debut There". The New York Times. p. 28.
  5. ^ "Music Notes". The New York Times. July 21, 1960. p. 17.
  6. ^ Opera, June 1954, pp. 351-352.
  7. ^ "The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit Recipients". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2017-08-08.
  8. ^ Record of Robert Merrill, Social Security No. 081-07-2677, issued in the state of New York, in: Social Security Death Index database on-line. Provo, Utah, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2008.
  9. ^ Inc., Inmagic. "Metropolitan Opera Association". Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  10. ^ "ALSIMERR.HTM". Retrieved 25 February 2017.

External links[edit]