Search This Blog

Loading...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Roberta Peters: The American Nightingale



When she retired from opera in 1985, the great American coloratura soprano Roberta Peters had been a leading principal female singer at the Metropolitan Opera longer than anyone in the company's long history. Peters was born in New York in 1930, and was discovered by her life-long mentor, patron and friend Jan Peerce when she was still a teen-ager. Rudolf Bing was convinced to listen to her when she was scarcely more than a girl, and made her sing "Der Hölle Rache" 7 times (!) from the stage of the Met, while he went from place to place in the house to make sure he could hear her from any location! Only Bing. He need not have worried. Her voice, like that of Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons, her artistic predecessors, sailed right over the top of the orchestra in true, traditional coloratura fashion.

Impressed, Bing gave her a contract to sing the Queen of the Night in Magic Flute, in early 1951. However, as sometimes happens in live theater, she was called upon to replace Nadine Conner as Zerlina in a Don Giovanni scheduled almost immediately. She was 20 years old and, I am quite certain, terrified, since she had never performed the role. Worse, the conductor was Fritz Reiner, before whom mere mortals trembled. I cannot image a more frightening prospect for a girl barely 20 years old. However, showing the stuff she was made of, and winning Reiner over, to the amazement of all, she did it. Her unscheduled debut as Zerlina in November of 1950 was a huge success, with Reiner carefully guiding her through the performance. That night, in storybook fashion, a star was born.

Roberta Peters went on to sing nearly 500 performances at the Met, in 24 roles, including Queen of the Night, Rosina, Gilda (her most often performed role), Despina, Sophie, Adele, Lucia and Norina. She knew her repertoire, and she mastered it. More importantly, she stayed within it. Like her friend Jan Peerce, she was extremely sensible and knew how to take care of her gift so that it would last and last.

I have to admit to being an unabashed admirer of Roberta Peters, and I always have been. I was privileged to meet her and work with her at one time (in a fund-raising capacity) and I was very, very much impressed with her dignity, grace, and willingness to promote the fine arts in America. She and Peerce shared this love of art and willingness to support and propagate it. She was a very busy concert singer, and—again like Peerce—made it a point to go out into the country in places that were far from major cultural centers. It was always possible to hear her, either on television, or in concert venue. This is one of the many reasons that she and Peerce were two of the most popular and beloved classical singers of all time in this country.

Here is the famous aria that Mr. Bing had her sing repeatedly at her audition, and which she went on to sing many times in her life, "Der Hölle Rache":



Now THAT is coloratura singing of an extraordinarily high order! The seeming ease with which she sings the F above high C is simply astonishing. This is a true coloratura in the grand tradition. The voice is clear as it can be, the notes are precisely articulated, squarely on pitch, with no scooping or unauthorized portamentos, up or down, and—perhaps most importantly—no sense whatsoever of strain or pushing in a piece that requires such very high singing. It is immaculately pure and natural vocalism.

One of the problems Peters had to confront during her career was the fact that Joan Sutherland, admittedly one of the great voices of all time, seemed dedicated to singing this repertoire with a voice that was markedly dramatic and heavy for such roles. Peters should never have been compared to Sutherland. It's apples and oranges—the voices are in no way similar, and, Sutherland admirer that I am, I nonetheless must say that tradition is on the side of Peters. She naturally follows Pons, who naturally followed Galli-Curci. There is an unbroken string of coloratura tradition in which Peters fits perfectly. The aberration is Sutherland, whose astonishing voice made it possible to forgive all that was out of place—her size, looks, singing technique that made it impossible to say what language she was singing in; all these things were forgiven, and seen as nothing. Opera at that period had become a purely vocal art. I do not criticize the Great Sutherland in the least, I just point out the obvious.

Here is Peters in the charming aria "Je veux vivre," from Romeo and Juliet


To the words "immaculate," "elegant," "musical," and "traditional," add "perky" and just plain "cute." She looks like a coloratura, which is nice, considering the roles written for such voices.

Finally, the great test for all coloraturas, and a show-stopper if ever there was one, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLYbuquZ0A8


I have seldom heard it done better. Even more words of praise enter the discussion at this point, and I am inspired to say "dignity of conceptualization." This particular scene has inspired a considerable amount of carpet chewing among singers of less innate dignity and restraint than Peters. It is this quality, with which she imbues all her work, that elevates it above merely "good work." It is inspired work; art that looks inward and can embrace dramatic situations of the most heart-rending kind and make them something larger, something that moves in the direction of tragic rather than simply sad or heart-breaking. In a word, toward greatness in art.

She was an amazingly good singer, and remains a great lady of opera.

19 comments:

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, you are right. The "Mad Scene" is particularly good. The very highest notes are almost indistinguishable from a clarinet or some other instrument. Clear, on pitch, and focused. But I must tell a brief story. I heard her sing many years ago at a local, small university. It was a warm summer evening, and the doors and windows were open. During one aria a large German shepherd came strolling down the aisle, past her, and then on to the other side of the auditorium, where it lay down and went to sleep. Without missing a beat, she completed the aria, listened politely to the applause, and then dedidcated the next song to the German shepherd. It was a very pleasant and endearing moment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That was Roberta! A class act if ever there was one. That dignified charm, tempered even further by a wry sense of humor, made her irresistible. Thank you for a most interesting personal recollection. And thanks again for being such a loyal contributor to the discussions; I truly appreciate it.

corax said...

wonderful entry as usual, and a great anecdote from hobbes!

absolutely right -- the lineage here is galli-curci --> pons --> peters. correct, too, that the sutherland phenomenon was a spot of awkward timing for other coloraturas -- and that the comparison is apples & oranges.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my friend, nice to hear from you again. Yes, Sutherland was a very, very great soprano...no sane person could deny that, but she was a once in a century phenomenon, and the fact that she could drive that extraordinary voice to stratospheric heights really did create a problem for the more traditional coloraturas. Sort of the same way, I suppose, that Franco Corelli stole the spotlight from a lot of good tenors, because he just happened to have it all: beautiful color to the voice, extraordinary range, physical beauty....hard acts to follow, these guys:-) Thanks for the comment.

Nate said...

Thanks, Edmund, for the great and personal article about this famous coloratura soprano. I too have a recollection about a Roberta Peters' performance. It was the opera Rigoletto, and the title role was sung by the great baritone, Cornel MacNeil. Unfortunately, he had lost his place in the score and apparently the prompter had also lost his place. Peters came to the rescue. I was sitting close enough to see her mouthing the words of Rigoletto to MacNeill for several phrases until he recovered from his memory lapse, all the while singing her own part. On that occasion, she had literally saved the show.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Nate, for THAT great story. Such personal recollections all fit perfectly together. A wonderful lady, greatly endowed, a sharp mind, super musician, hard working, serious, dignified, and all-around great artist. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the article! I didn’t know about her , and she is a charming singer and definitely a charming person. Thanks to Hobbes and Nate for these two stories . I imagine that it’s not easy to tour such a huge country as the USA, and not many prima donnas can do it. She is a very generous artist.
The story of her auditioning for the Met is impressive. .
Her voice reminds of Galli-Curci, her timbre and style, I totally agree. All three recordings are outstanding; Lucia and ‘Der Hölle Rache’ are especially brilliant.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. I always appreciate your comments. And I agree with you about her voice reminding one of Galli-Curci. You are the first to notice that. There is a similarity in fact, with the single exception that I believe Peters' voice is higher than Galli Curci's. Peters had an extraordinary technique. Those top notes are extremely high, and she sings them with seeming ease. Thanks again for your comment.

Anonymous said...

'Those top notes are extremely high, and she sings them with seeming ease.'

Yes, I heard that "Der Hölle Rache" is a very difficult aria, and she could perform it 7 times in a row - this is very impressive. Galli-Curci's voice seems very high too, perhaps because of her timbre.


n.a.

Sarah said...

nice blog, she is really an amazing singer, can't get enough of her voice :)

Judith said...

I just discovered your wonderful blog, but have known and admired Roberta for over 50 years. This is a near-perfect summary of a truly GREAT American artist who has been all but ignored since her departure from the Met. Her career and accomplishments were no less than spectacular!! I have to wonder: why has Roberta continually been shut out of the running for recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors?? I know it's a very political (perhaps more than "artistic") process. But this "honor" is only given to living artists...And I can think of no living operatic legend more deserving!!! Can anything be done to wake them up?
Thank you again for featuring our "American Nightingale!"

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a lovely comment. I totally agree with you! She is a great artist, whom I have admired since the day I first heard her, over half a century ago. All I can think of for the inexcusable lack of honors is the OVERemphasis on Callas and Sutherland. I have nothing against either: they are both great artists, but enough alrady with the endless coverage and obsession. There are other great singers out there, and one of them is Roberta Peters! Thanks again for a great comment.

Anonymous said...

Mr. St. Austell, I am posting this in lieu of an email to you, since I can't find any email address for you! For any of your readers who might be on Facebook, I wonder if you might share this link to my new page entitled "Roberta Peters should be a Kennedy Center Honoree." If you can't I understand, but if you can, we would appreciate the support:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Roberta-Peters-should-be-a-Kennedy-Center-Honoree/243510455717819

Many thanks! Judith

Edmund St. Austell said...

I certainly applaud your enthusiasm, and wish you the best of luck. She was one of the greatest singers America ever produced, and she deserves to be honored. I urge readers to read the message and address above this message!

Gerhard Santos said...

Roberta has one of the most beautiful voice in the history of voices. Thanks for sharing Interesting post. Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I appreciate with this and I like learning about this subject. Thanks and *GOD BLESS*

Ron said...

I just found your site...thanks to Google. It is a wonderful article and tribute to one of the most wonderful singers that America has produced: Roberta Peters. I knew who Ms Peters was by watching the Ed Sullivan show..but I finally got to hear her live when she came to my home town of Tampa FL for a recital. That was 1967..and we have remained close friends to this day. She was my first "love" in the world of opera...and I was very lucky to have seen her in most of her great roles.
I became a high school teacher and when Roberta came down to sing Mimi in the local opera co, I aksed her if I could bring some students...and if possible, would she speak briefly to them. She did so between breaks...told them to stay in school and get a good education. Needless to say, they were duly impressed. It was so kind of her to take time to encourage young students.
Singers come..singers go...but Roberta will ALWAYS be number one in my book. Many thanks to you for this wonderful site.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Ron! A lovely comment, and welcome to Great Opera Singers. Good to have you. and please drop by any time, and comment if you like. You are always welcome.

You are right about what a lovely lady she was. I know her, slightly, as she helped me with a major fund-raising campaign when I was artistic director of a small opera company. What a grand lady! She's one of my all time favorite singers, and her attitude toward the arts, toward her audience, toward her colleagues, is just exemplary! I was also a great fan of her dear friend Jan Peerce. These were the two dominant opera voices in AMerica when I was young, and I revere them to this day as artistic demi-gods. Thanks for a wonderful, personal comment. First hand experiences and recollections of great artists are SO valuable!

Anonymous said...

We all have our first-time opera experiences. Mine was hearing Peters singing Rosina in a "Barber" at some outdoor theatre on Long Island in 1964. It made me an opera lover. Peters had it all: the dramatic sense, the elegance, and the beauty of range. And she had a lot of class. No house was too small for her. She was a great outreach for opera when it needed it.

Anonymous said...

Agreed! One of the best coloratura's this country ever produced and she could compete with any in her voice class. Her voice could be heard even with Tenors like Corelli (Lucia) in the opera house, with Bell like clear top notes, she could do anything with it. Diminuendo, trill and on one breath diminuendo and bring it back to Forte smoothly. She Lasted well giving long concerts and singing many numbers with no sign of vocal fatigue.