The New Year had hardly begun when news arrived of the death of Roberta Peters, an opera singer who I had grown up listening to on so many Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts. She had begun studying singing at the age of 13 with William Herman, known to be an exacting and thorough voice teacher. Herman included the study of French, German and Italian as well as fencing, ballet and gym exercises in his teaching methods. And he also taught Peters many of the roles she was to sing on stage in North America and Europe.
One of those roles was Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This was to prove serendipitous when at three o’clock on the afternoon of November 17, 1950 Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of the Met, called her to replace an ailing Nadine Connor that evening, a full two months before her scheduled debut. She had never sung a full opera before, had never been on a stage nor had so much as a piano rehearsal but she delivered a performance that set the tone for the next 35 years. The critic for the World Telegraph said, “The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician. And the girl – she is all of five feet-two – turned in a very smooth job of acting, too. She will bear watching – and listening.” And watch and listen we did as she sang over 520 performances at the Met until her retirement in 1985.
Peters had just turned 20 when she made that unscheduled debut and here she is two years later in an early TV broadcast singing Zerlina’s first aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto”.
Though she sang many, what are considered, soubrette roles – Despina, Adele, Adina, Sophie, Rosina, Zerbinetta – she was also sang the more dramatic Gilda, The Queen of the Night, Lucia, Amina and Susanna.
Her “Deh vieni, non tardar” in Marriage of Figaro had that combination of gentle teasing and a expression of true desire that drove so many Figaros mad with jealousy over the years.
As well as being a well-loved member of the Met she was well-known to TV audiences of the 1950s-1970s. She held the record for number of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show – 65 in all. And she was a frequent guest on TV talk and variety shows trading quips and appearing in skits with Jack Benny, Captain Kangaroo, Johnny Carson and Jack Parr. She was so well known to TV audiences that American Express had not problem featuring her in their “Do You Know Me?” commercials.
It is perhaps of measure of the lady that she never forgot Rudolf Bing and the way he mentor her and so many other young singers. When Bing developed Alzheimer’s and became the subject of tabloid fodder with a gold digging young wife who went through his money leaving him in financial distress, she and Teresa Stratas took care of his well-being and visited him until his death in 1997.