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:
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.
at 5:17 PM