Photo Flash: Remembering Roberta Peters
As BroadwayWorld sadly reported last week, Roberta Peters, one of the most prominent American singers to achieve lasting fame and success in opera, has passed away at the age of 86. Peters is noted for her 35-year association with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, among the longest such associations between a singer and a company in opera. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998.
Peters was born Roberta Peterman in The Bronx, New York City, the only child of Ruth (née Hersch), a milliner, and Solomon Peterman, a shoe salesman. Her family was Jewish. Encouraged by tenor Jan Peerce, she started her music studies at age 13 with William Herman, a voice teacher known for his exacting and thorough teaching method. Under Herman's training, Peters studied the French, German and Italian languages and practiced singing scales from a clarinet method. After six years of training, Herman introduced her to impresario Sol Hurok, who arranged for an audition with Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing asked her to sing the Queen of the Night's second aria from The Magic Flute (with its four Fs above high C), several times, listening from all parts of the hall to make sure she could fill the hall with sound. He scheduled her to sing the role in February 1951.
Peters however made her debut earlier than planned. On November 17, 1950, Bing phoned her asking if she could step in to replace Nadine Conner, who was ill, as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Peters who knew the role, but had not yet ever performed on stage, or even sung with a full orchestra, accepted. Fritz Reiner was the conductor that night. Despite a reputation for being distant and reserved, Reiner made a point of coming to Peters's dressing room to encourage her and guided her through the performance. Her performance was received with great enthusiasm, and her career was established.
Combining an attractive voice with sparkling coloratura agility and good looks, Peters became a favorite of American audiences and a great proponent of opera for the masses. She quickly established herself in the standard soubrette and coloratura repertoire. Her roles at the Met included Susanna in Nozze di Figaro; Despina in Così fan tutte; The Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute; Amore in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice; Marzeline in Beethoven's Fidelio; Rosina in IL Barbiere di Siviglia; Adina in L'elisir d'amore; Norina in Don Pasquale; Oscar in Un ballo in maschera; Nanetta in Falstaff; Olympia in Les contes d'Hoffmann; Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier; Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos; and Adele in Die Fledermaus. She later added lyric-coloratura roles such as Amina in La sonnambula, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and Gilda in Rigoletto, the last being her farewell role at the Met in 1985.
Peters was as popular on television as on the stage. She appeared regularly on such programs as The Voice of Firestone and The Tonight Show. On the Sunday night CBS variety program The Ed Sullivan Show, Peters was its most frequent guest, appearing a record 65 times. She also appeared in several television commercials, including a memorable entry in American Express' "Do You Know Me?" campaign, in which she hailed a taxi at the top of her voice.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride