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A Tribute to a Baritone Who Loved Baseball

NY Times
Published: December 16, 2004

There was Robert Merrill, Jewish boy from Brooklyn, singing "If I Were a Rich Man." There was Robert Merrill the Yankee fan singing the national anthem at a stadium in the Bronx. And of course there was Robert Merrill pouring out effortless, resonant tones in baritone arias from "La Traviata," "Carmen" and "La Forza del Destino."

The many faces of Merrill were memorialized at a tribute yesterday at the Juilliard School, 59 years to the day after his Metropolitan Opera debut. Merrill died on Oct. 23, at 87, and hundreds of friends, family members and opera fans came to honor him. They watched an array of television, film and audio clips of the singer on a giant screen over the stage.

After each performance showing Merrill's dancing eyebrows, gleaming eyes and flashing white smile, the audience applauded as though seeing the man live.

Colleagues and admirers spoke as well, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the orchestra leader Skitch Henderson and the soprano Leontyne Price. The young and up-and-coming tenor Matthew Polenzani was in the audience, as was the pianist Byron Janis.

A celebration of Merrill's career, the afternoon also evoked a time when an opera star could render meaningless the distinction between high and popular culture.

The clips showed him keeping pace with a mugging Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a 1979 television excerpt and dancing arm in arm with his friend Richard Tucker, the tenor, in a pops performance of "To Life" from "Fiddler on the Roof." There were comedic bits with Louis Armstrong and Anne Bancroft.

And the tribute celebrated the deep New York connections of Merrill, who was born Moishe Miller (his parents had changed their name from Millstein) in Brooklyn. One clip had Merrill singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The New York accent leaked through: "Crack-uh-jack" and "bawl-game."

Mr. Giuliani said he shared three passions with the singer: New York, opera and baseball. He said he often greeted Merrill at Yankee Stadium, where for decades fans heard the Merrill version of the national anthem, and he invited him four times to Gracie Mansion to celebrate Yankee World Series victories. "He was a hero of mine," Mr. Giuliani said.

Sherrill Milnes, another illustrious Met baritone, was master of ceremonies. He called Merrill "an icon of the 20th-century operatic world."

Mr. Milnes recalled meeting him for the first time near the stage door of the old Met opera house. "Welcome to the Met," he quoted Merrill as saying. "There's always room at the top." Later, Mr. Milnes recounted, Merrill was said to have told his wife: "I heard a new baritone. Better start saving our money." "Yeah, right," Mr. Milnes added with a verbal roll of the eye. Later on, the baritones would greet each other as "Sherrill-Merrill," Merrill's wife, Marion Merrill, said.

There were only a few live musical performances. Mr. Henderson played a dreamy rendition of "All the Things You Are." Van Cliburn, who was supposed to perform "Widmung," by Robert Schumann, was indisposed. Merrill's 11-year-old grandson, Jesse Merrill, substituted at the last minute with several variations on "Ah Vous Dirai-Je, Maman," by Mozart.

To operagoers, Merrill's greatest identification was with the Met, where he sang 787 performances. Regarded as one of the most prominent Verdi baritones of his time, he dominated the standard baritone batting order at the opera house until his retirement in 1976.

Ms. Price, who received the warmest welcome, often sang with Merrill. She described his voice as "sumptuous, virile, easily delivered and sensual, all in the same person's throat."

During an "Aida" matinee in San Francisco, Ms. Price recalled, she was singing the title roll, the slave, and he was singing Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. The extras playing Amonasro's soldiers were poorly made up and looked shabby. Merrill said: "Price! This is a truly motley crew. No wonder I lost the war. This is an army?"

Ms. Price added, "It took every bit of professionalism I had not to scream with laughter."

Turning serious, Ms. Price addressed Merrill directly.

"When the heavenly opera comes on and you are about to sing your aria," she said, "be kind to the angels. They have never heard anything so beautiful before."

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