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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Robert Merrill: The Rolls-Royce of Baritones!

The popular American baritone Robert Merrill (Moishe Miller) was born in 1919, or thereabouts, in Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants. Merrill was part of that wonderful Jewish artistic immigration to the United States, around the turn of the century, which gave us the likes of Beverly Sills, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, and Leonard Warren, among others. Along with the great vaudevillians from the same period—Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, George Burns, Sophie Tucker and many others, it constituted one of the greatest artist windfalls ever enjoyed by a relatively young country in the process of developing its own cultural traditions. In the classical arts of the 20th century, this means Jewish-American, and it was spectacular!

Like Beverly Sills, Jan Peerce, Helen Traubel, Lawrence Tibbett and so many others of the period, Merrill always had one foot in popular entertainment, especially Broadway, radio and TV. Today we think of opera singers as almost exclusively opera singers, but that was not really so at that time. Actually, I think the case could be made that opera and opera singing are at their healthiest and probably most popular—at least in this country—when they exist in the company of the popular arts. That cozy relationship was shattered for good, it seems, not by opera singers and opera enthusiasts, but by the extraordinary developments, post-Elvis, of a rock-driven American popular culture that simply has nothing at all in common with traditional arts like opera. It wasn't opera's fault. But that is another story, and another blog!

There is no good reason I can think of to waste your time or mine with a mini-biography of Robert Merrill. If you're reading a blog like this, it's safe to assume you already know a lot about opera singers. Merrill was so well-known that a simple glance at Wiki will tell you anything you may not already know about this popular American baritone. A trivia point—you may not know that he was a very accomplished semi-pro baseball player, and paid for his musical education at the beginning with money he made pitching in a semi-pro league! There is always something more to people: like the fact that Roberto Murolo, the grand master of Neapolitan song and song history, actually paid his way through college as a championship swimmer:-) You just never know.

It's all about Merrill's voice. His was one of the smoothest, most elegantly and easily produced of baritone voices. Here is an absolutely classic rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" that shows very well the perfection of his singing technique:

Now how is that for smooth! Absolutely perfect singing, as best I can judge. I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with Daniel Ferro, at Juilliard, one of the world's outstanding voice teachers. He compared Merrill's technique to the automatic gear-shifting of an expensive luxury automobile. He said you never notice the shift between registers; it is so smooth that it is like a perfect, steady progression. I don't think it can be said better.

Such smoothness and exemplary legato immediately suggest Valentin as a near ideal French role for Merrill, and indeed he was superb in such repertoire. Here is the much-loved aria "Avant de Quitter ceux lieux" in a live 1955 performance:

Again, the words that first come to mind are "smoothness," "legato," and "tonal consistency," all accompanied by a remarkably in-line transition to the upper register. It often comes as a surprise to realize that Merrill is sometimes singing Gs and even Abs as though they were part of the middle of his voice!

Finally, the one baritone aria that even those who know nothing of opera will know, Figaro's ultra-famous "Largo al factotum," staple fare of concerts, anthologies, singing textbooks and even cartoons!

Absolutely excellent! This cannot be faulted. I would call it a classic rendition—completely free of the extraordinary idiosyncrasies so frequently visited upon it by lesser talents. The Italian diction, which frequently gets muddled in the mouths of Americans, is pretty clean and clear here; as always, the register transitions are perfect, and the tonal consistency is absolute. That's the kind of singing that guarantees a very long career! And that indeed is what Merrill had—long, distinguished, profitable, and—not merely coincidentally—a lot of fun!


JD Hobbes said...

Merrill could sing a popular song and make it enjoyable. Others, like Pavarotti, simply over-did it when they tried to cross over. There is an interesting interview with Merrill on Youtube that one can easily find. He certainly was heavy on the final "r" in words that I noticed in "Some Enchanted Evening," wasn't he?

When it comes to "Largo" it is a close contest, but I still prefer Lawrence Tibbett.

G F-M said...

Wonderful! I have always consIdeted Merrill to be one of the very best of baritones. That special sonority of his sound is something is just so rare and reminds me of Tagliabue and Protti! And such perfect legato!! It really perfect, that is the only word. I admire also his equal ease singing il balen or if I were a rich man, in exactly the same way, with that same omnipresent sonority. Singing so successfully for so long at the Metropolitan, we can say without doubt Merrill was a cornerstone of the golden age of opera!! Also I met him in Italy once, in Rome. A mutual friend who often knew Americans coming to make registrations introduced us. He was charming, very kind and even willing to try Italian coffee. Veramente una bella persona!! Grazie mille Edmund

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend, and double thanks for recommending a piece on Merrill to begin with. He was a fine baritone, and the qualities you mention are exactly what I also find attractive about his singing. a lovely comment, much appreciated.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes, my most faithful correspondent:-) Yes, as I mentioned, he always had one foot in more popular music, and the enunciation was popular also, very colloquial. As for Tibbett, I think that comparion falls into the "embarrassment of riches" category. Hard to go wrong, either way you choose. And no doubt Tibbett's rendition was spectacular. An earlier era, a differnt timbre of voice, and a corresponding change in presentation, but yes, spectacular.

Darren Seacliffe said...

I totally agree with Mr Hobbes. It was Merrill's renditions of the highlights from the great American musicals that awakened my interest in the genre. His luxuriant warm sound makes the songs he's singing more meaningful and sentimental. Those were my favorites of the songs he sang.

Bob Merrill was truly the ''Rolls-Royce'' of baritones. There are few, if any, with such an opulent vocal emission.

As for the opera, I wished Merrill could have given a more dramatically sensitive or stylistic rendition but I suppose that with such a voice, it doesn't really matter whether each of the characters he plays on stage sound the same. I'm not surprised why he's been so well-beloved among opera fans, even now.

Personally, I have an ambivalent opinion of him. He sang beautifully, producing a warm and bright sound on each recording but as the opera progressed, his performances descend into blandness. Nice enough singing, but not much weight. I suppose that this suits someone who dislikes Gigli.

Imagine if you can combine Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill together, I think you'll get the perfect American baritone. For an idea how that would sound, try this:

Edmund St. Austell said...

An excellent comment, Darren, as usual. You make solid points, and express them well. The criticism you make of Merrill is indeed one that is sometimes made, and it may well have to do with temperament and interests as much as anything else. He sang lots of different kinds of music, and for all I know to the contrary, his instincts may have been as much Broadway as opera. And also, thanks for the link to the Estonian National Opera. Estonian singers are something I have recently begun to have an interest in. I was thinking about a blog on Georg Ots, and this baritone, whom I did not know, is excellent. There is something about Estonian singing that is naturally vibrant and attractive. It may have to do with the fact that singing is something like a national sport pastime in Estonia, as it is in Wales, Ireland and Italy. Thanks again for a fine comment.

Anonymous said...

wow!!! i had no idea about how impressive merrill's range is. is he a bass? or a tenor? or everything in between? THIS is the kind of opera voice i love.
thank you.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha! Thank you, my friend! Just a good old fashioned baritone, but a superbly endowed one, vocally speaking!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund. I liked your thought about the relationship of opera and pop-music - singing is the main thing in both genres, and it’s natural that people with excellent voices can perform everything. Merrill was a brilliant, impeccable singer with a beautiful voice. Maybe there were some faults in his performances, but he always sounds as an ‘ideal’ singer – such skills and a gorgeous timbre.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks so much, my friend. Yes, you are exactly right. It's all about the singing. A beautiful singing voice can be put to many uses, in many genres--that is just a matter of taste and custom, but it always starts with the voice. Elvis Presley had a beautiful singing voice too, which, had he been born 20 years earlier, could have been pressed into service as an excellent crooner, or even a folk singer, and so on. Yes, good point.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hmm..but I've heard rumors of Merrill's ambivalent attitude towards opera such as him needing the services of a prompter to repeat the lines of 'Di provenza il mar' to him just after singing it during a Traviata performance.

If only he brought the sensitivity and the emotion he gave his performances of Broadway songs to his opera performances, he could have surpassed Leonard Warren or even Lawrence Tibbett given his magnificent vocal resources.

Speaking about Tiit Kuusik, did you know he was Ots' teacher? Through Kuusik, you would be able to find most of the best Estonian opera singers since they were all under his tutelage. Kuusik wasn't only the greatest Estonian opera singer, he was said to be their pioneer. You might want to give him a special place in the blog.

I wonder why don't you set up a country music blog, given the sheer amount of experience you have with the genre.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you. Your idea about Kuusik is an interesting one, which I think I will investigate further. Estonian musical culture is interesting, and only fairly recently coming back into light, so to speak, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Thanks again!

Jing said...

Thanks, as always, Edmund for a good summary and selections of Merrill's singing. I think the Rolls-Royce analogy is an apt fit for his gifts and vocal production, including an automatic transmission in action. And, there is no doubt, he sang popular and Broadway music in ways only a great American singer could. However, I must side with Mr. Seacliff and share his reservations. Ultimately, I just don't find Merrill very interesting to listen to or watch. Many years ago I saw him in Carmen at the Met. His singing was fine, but his stage presence was zero. He seemed like a very bored Toreador. Perhaps a lackluster night, but the NYTime's music critic who reviewed the production said something to the effect that Mr. Merrill sang as beautifully as ever, but it is clear that at some point in the past, he had given up for good on making any effort in portraying a character on stage. Also, I had to chuckle reading the reference to him needing a prompter for "Di Provenza" - I saw him once on the Johnny Carson late night show (was it Jack Paar maybe?), in which he sang the same aria and forgot the words. So, while the appeal of a Rolls-Royce is undoubtable in all the excellent ways suggested, given the choice, I would go with a Porsche, even with some occasional gear-grinding. But who am I to say, since I drive an old Mazda.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my dear friend. Nice to hear from you again. Yes, I remember from conversations you and I have had in the past about your reservations regarding Merrill, and would say are legitimate, Remembering back to when you and I were college roomates lo these, what, 50-odd years ago, that you usually had the little portable record player cranked up and playing something by Lawrence Tibbett or Leonard Warren. Not Merrill, as I recall:-) Those are legitimate criticisms. Maybe his mind was on baseball:-) Thanks again.

Jing said...

Ah, yes. And our cranky landlady, Mrs. Slater, had forbidden "music boxes" in her rented rooms. She discovered mine, along with the fermenting apple cider. But you are right - no Merrill records.

Edmund St. Austell said...

No cooking either, but remember the hot dogs we cooked in a coffee pot:-) "Ah yes, I remember it well....." I recall those days with quite a bit of fondness, actually.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Another great post Edmund and the comments are really fascinating, too.
You have some very knowledgeable followers!

I came to the voice of Merrill, predictably via the incredible popularity of the Pearl Fishers duet. There was a period in the '80s when it seemed to be played all the time. At that time, our national broadcaster(ABC) had one radio presenter who suddenly discovered opera and played it all the time, as well as other opera "greatest hits" He had a strange idea of singers names - Bjoerling was Bjoring and Ingwar Wixell was Wixell Ingvar. I will never forget that one as long as I live.

Back to Merrill - I agree with the comments about a sameness to the voice. It's not completely a bad thing, of course, opera companies have, and always will, want singers who can consistently deliver night after night. Regarding his acting skills - not all singers can act well like Callas or Gobbi for instance.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate, for a fine comment. Yes, sameness is not always a problem if it means consistency at a high vocal level:-) Thank you for the comment on our other correspondents...I am actually very proud of the quality of my readership. I have striven, from the very moment I conceived of the blog, about 3 years ago, to shoot for a consistently high level of exchange, and I am delighted to see how well it has turned out. To a large extent it is a question of tone and politeness. Dignity of tone, on the web, is the surest guarantor of selectivity. That, in combination with the first rule of show business--never, EVER, play down to your audience!

racheleleeba said...

My favorite quotation about Robert Merrill is by Paul Jackson, from his book "Start-Up at the New Met," in reference to his 1970 Don Carlo performance: "One often wearies of the death-throe agonies that some artists lay upon their final stage moments, but this baritone patently refuses to even so much as acknowledge Rodrigo's mortal wound. He goes hale and hearty to his maker, who, abiding, by a code of forgiveness, would undoubtedly cherish the baritone for his vocal generosity and (fortunately for us) longevity."

DanPloy said...

I will always have a fondness for Robert Merrill because he, and Jussi, and their wonderful LP of arias, including the Pearl Fishers of course, helped introduce me to Otello and to the world of wonderful singing. And that also includes Carousel as well as Luisa Miller.

If Merrill was the Rolls Royce then Tibbett was perhaps the Bentley which sacrificed a little of the smoothness for extra 'grunt'.

But my favourite car is the Jaguar, Giuseppe de Luca.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Edmund your last comment reminded me of a quote from the wonderfully erudite and sadly missed Peter Ustinov - surely one of the most gifted actors, writers and raconteurs. I could go on!
In a sketch in one of his one man shows he says about a particular character (and I may have misquoted but you'll get the idea anyway) "He sets himself exceedingly low standards which he fails to live up to". This line is often quoted in my family.
And I completely agree with you about the civility and politeness of the exchanges on the blog. I've been quite surprised with the level
of vitriol in some of the comments
on Youtube videos. We don't have to always agree - life would be very boring without any debate.
Anyway keep up the great work and I look forward to listening to whoever is profiled next!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Oh, my word! There's a 1-2-3 run of great comments, all in a row! I think here I'll have to settle for saying, Kate...I love the Ustinov quote! I reminds me of Churchill, who once said of someone, "he is a very modest man: and not without reason." Dan, we're together on the Jaguar...I used to own one--a Mark II. I rebuilt the engine on it myself. Still have the tools around:-) And I also adore de Luca! Roberta...great quote on Merrill, that sums it up beautifully!! Thank you very much for a really potent review!

Anonymous said...

Another comment Edmund: how true you have said: "It often comes as a surprise to realize that Merrill is sometimes singing Gs and even Abs as though they were part of the middle of his voice!" Merrill is certainly, the Rolls-Royce, with the perfectly balanced V12 engine, endless torque in reserve for the big moments!

There is the matter of acting, also. As my father always said, hundreds of times he told me: "what good is being an 'artist' if you cannot sing?".

Those were such different times, in the `40s and `50s, in the opera. I remember singers whose were too good musicians or too pitch-perfect were always suspicious! In those times, you were only a good musician if the voice was of poor quality, it was a way to compensate. The superior voices often just concentrated on technical mastery! How times and culture can change! Thank you again for such a good article Edmund. To the world of opera you donate a very fine gift!

G Fiurezi Maragioglio

Edmund St. Austell said...

My dear friend, what a lovely comment! I am really gratified. I agree with all you say about Merrill. You are, as always, spot-on! Again, thank you so much!

Gerhard Santos said...

Great Article, interesting! Thank you Sir Edmund for sharing this with us! Wish a beautiful and nice good morning to your blog and *GOD BLESS*

Anonymous said...

Any Moffo has said the most Beautiful Baritone voice of them all! Maybe not the most emotionally involved but the most beautiful and with the powerful Warren two of then greatest ever.

Anonymous said...

Yes, just beautiful!n Also a fine personality besides. RIP ---Moishe Miller (Robert Merrill)

Anonymous said...

The original family Name was Millstein, his Dad was Abe Millstein and his Mother was Lotza Balaban but they shortened Millstein to Miller.

Anonymous said...

I tried to like Merrill but was simply bored when listening to him sing Rigoletto and di Luna. With the complaints about Merrill's lack of style or emotional involvement, perhaps one might call him the Lexus of baritones? Smooth as butter and beautiful to listen to but infamous for being boring?