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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 8

Great Singers Remembered Moishe Milstein (Robert Merrill): Effortless Voice

by Philip Ehrensaft / May 14, 2005

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Suave 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.

Merrill’s 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 wrong kind.

During 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.

La Traviata 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 weddings.

In 1941, 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 won handily.

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.

Diction, most 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.

What singing 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.

Explaining the 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)
  • Voice of Firestone : Robert Merrill; Kultur VHS 2438
  • Voice of 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.
  • Great Moments in Opera from the Ed Sullivan Show. Kultur DVD D2528.
  • Robert MerrillBell Telephone Hour Telecasts, 1962-1965; VAI, VHS: cat. nº 69713.

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