Great Singers Remembered Moishe Milstein (Robert Merrill): Effortless Voiceby Philip Ehrensaft
/ May 14, 2005
y potente,” backed by “vigorosa interpretación,” was the succinct and accurate
description of Robert Merrill’s musical qualities by Spain’s national
newspaper, El Pais, in its obituary for the great Metropolitan Opera baritone,
who died at the age of 87 last October. Richard Tucker heard Merrill’s voice as
“the greatest natural voice that America created.” Merrill improved that great
natural talent every season, right up to his retirement in 1976.
beginnings were not so glorious. Moishe Milstein (Merrill’s real name) was the
son of an immigrant sewing machine operator in Brooklyn. As a teenager, he
dreamed of either playing professional baseball or becoming America’s next Bing
Crosby. This did not thrill his mother, a soprano trained in Poland. She was
nonetheless happy that her son took singing lessons, even if they were of the
Depression, Moishe helped his family pay the rent by pushing a dress cart in
Manhattan’s garment district. One fine day in 1935, Moishe decided to check out
the Metropolitan Opera next door. He sneaked backstage by pretending that
costumes were hanging on his dress cart.
was playing. The 16 year-old Moishe was thunderstruck, and immediately set his
sights on becoming the Met’s star baritone. This meant overcoming a stuttering
problem and taking real opera lessons. These were ambitious plans, considering
that in the early 20th century, Jews were not even allowed to buy seats in the
Met’s boxes, much less appear on stage. But Moishe was undeterred. He earned
money for opera lessons by pitching baseball and singing at Bar Mitzvahs and
Moishe entered the Met’s public auditions, flopped, and decided to work harder
yet. His agent thought it best for Moishe to take a “more American” name, and
so Moishe became “Robert Merrill.” In 1944, Robert Merrill made his
professional debut in New Jersey. He also re-entered the Met competition, and
The prize was
a Met debut singing the role of Germont in La Traviata under the baton
of Arturo Toscanini. The maestro, bewitched by Merrill, hired him for an
upcoming recording of Traviata, which became an instant classic. Now a star,
Merrill sang for 31 seasons before retiring. He shared the baritone spotlight
with Leonard Warren until the latter’s tragic onstage death in 1960. Merrill’s
voice was heard across the world on Saturday afternoons, whenever Italian or
French operas were broadcast from the Met.
remarkably, was one of Merrill’s strongest suites. Carolyn Cronk, a speech
therapist at the Université de Montréal, as well as an experienced choral
singer, explains that it is not unusual for children who stutter when talking
to stop doing so when singing. The reason behind this is sometimes explained
through neural mistiming, a gap measured in nanoseconds. In speech, we turn our
vocal chords on and off, while in singing, the vocal chords are constantly in
play, eliminating much of the neurological on/off work. Singing is therefore a
strategy often used to help people overcome stuttering. In interviews, Merrill
said that he trained himself to sing in his mind as he spoke.
usually does is slow down the rate of vocal chord activity, countering the
mistiming problem. Vowels in singing also tend to be longer than vowels in
speech. There are, of course, rapid-fire arias like Merrill’s brilliant
interpretation of Figaro’s Largo al factotum, where rhythm comes
to the fore. Finally, there’s psychology: when the singer perceives that the
constant play of vocal chords plus musical rhythm lowers the probability of
stuttering, he relaxes and consequently stutters less.
Smooth as silk
legato throughout his entire range was a hallmark of Merrill, whose previous
career as an athlete helped him develop the power to project his elegant
baritone into every corner of the Met’s vast hall. There was also an inherent
modesty in Merrill’s singing, as in his life in general: Merrill knew that he
could not comfortably handle the same upper range as his fellow baritone Warren
and focused therefore on being excellent in his own natural range.
technical base of Merrill’s smooth voice, conductor Samuel Cristler states:
“Though an instrumentalist only has to have cash to be able to change
instruments, singers have to live with the one that God gave them. Merrill’s
voice seemed to be astonishingly easy to ‘play’, making his technique
appear effortless. That may have been the result of hard work, but I believe
for him the hard work came instead in the form of languages and memorization.”
Selected recordings and videos
Robert Merrill, Arias; Decca
Classic Recitals – 475 396-2 – (recital, 1963)
Firestone : Robert Merrill;
Kultur VHS 2438
Firestone : Robert Merrill Vol. 2;
Kultur VHS 2439
Verdi, La Traviata.
Metropolitan Opera Broadcast, 1949, featuring Steber, Di Stefano, and Merrill.
Naxos Historical 8.110115-16.
Moments in Opera from the Ed Sullivan Show.
Kultur DVD D2528.
Merrill – Bell
Telephone Hour Telecasts, 1962-1965; VAI, VHS: cat. nº 69713.