Robert Merrill, one of the Mets best baritones, dies

new york | Robert Merrill, the Metropolitan Opera star who was known as much for singing the national anthem at Yankee Stadium as he was for such roles as Figaro in “The Barber of Seville,” was also a master of traditional Jewish song.

Merrill died Saturday, Oct. 23, at his home in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., while watching the World Series, family friend Barry Tucker said.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Yankees. He was very disappointed [at the team’s playoff loss]. At that time he was rooting hard,” said Tucker, whose father, tenor Richard Tucker, frequently performed with Merrill.

Along with Tucker, Roberta Peters and Jan Peerce, Merrill was one of the most prominent Jewish opera stars of their day at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Merrill, a baritone, also produced numerous recordings of traditional Jewish music and got his start working the Catskills’ Borscht Belt.

Beverly Sills, the Metropolitan’s chairwoman, recalled the rich quality of Merrill’s voice.

“It was one of the most gorgeous voices I ever heard: dark velvet. It cast a hush over the audience, the sheer beauty of it,” said Sills, who called Merrill an “old friend” she met at the age of 10.

“He was a warm, dear, affectionate man, with a fabulous sense of humor. I will miss him very much,” added Sills, a coloratura soprano who retired from her performance career.

In his 31 consecutive seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, Merrill, whose death was announced late Monday, Oct. 25, performed virtually every baritone role in the operatic repertoire. Reference books gave conflicting ages for Merrill: 87 or 85. His voter registration record listed his birthday as June 4, 1917.

Merrill once was described in Time magazine as “one of the Met’s best baritones.”

Merrill was probably one of the most recognizable names outside the lofty halls of the world’s opera houses because of his lifelong enthusiasm for baseball. Beginning in 1969, he followed a tradition that lasted three decades, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open the season at Yankee Stadium.

Merrill was a longtime “friend, Yankees fan and close associate of the Yankees, and we dearly miss him,” team spokesman Howard Rubenstein said. “He sang the national anthem at Yankee Stadium for many years and provided a true inspiration for us, the ballplayers and all of our fans.”

Merrill, who often appeared in a pinstriped shirt and tattered Yankees necktie, took the job seriously and once said he didn’t appreciate when singers tried to ad lib with “distortions.”

After being inspired by seeing a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore” when he was a teenager, he paid for singing lessons with money he earned as a semipro pitcher.

Merrill earned admiration for his interpretations of dozens of operatic roles, including Escamillo in “Carmen” and Figaro in “The Barber of Seville,” reportedly his favorite opera.

Merrill once said opera “is the toughest art of all.”

“It’s a human instrument,” he said. “Your voice, so many words, so much music. … There’s a lot of emotion.”

Throughout his career, Merrill also sang with popular stars ranging from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong, appeared worldwide at music festivals and made numerous recordings. He performed as a soloist with many of the world’s great conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, and made appearances for several presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

He retired from the Met in 1976 but returned to its stage in 1983, when the company marked its centennial.

“Few leading singers have graced the company with so many performances,” Opera News said in 1996. “None have served it with more honor.”

Merrill made his operatic debut in 1944, singing Amonasro in “Aida” on a Trenton, N.J., stage. He signed on with the Met in 1945 and debuted that year as the elder Germont in “La Traviata.”

Merrill was born Moishe (sometimes anglicized as Morris) Miller, the son of Polish immigrants. His father, Abraham, was a shoe salesman. His mother, the former Lillian Balaban, had an operatic and concert career in Poland before her marriage and guided her son through his early musical training.

Merrill is survived by his wife, Marion; a son; a daughter; and his grandchildren, Tucker said.