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ROBERT MERRILL: BARITONE AND MAN OF LETTERS

BARITONE ROBERT Merrill must have been a hoot as well as a Metropolitan Opera stalwart from 1945 to 1976. Well, there was the time in 1951 when the Met’s high-toned impresario Sir Rudolf Bing got ticked off when Merrill played Bill Merridew in the musical comedy flick, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick. Merrill liked performing in nightclubs and at Yankee Stadium too. Baseball a first love, Merrill earned cash as a semi-pro pitcher for his singing lessons.

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Robert Merrill, 1917 – 2004, American operatic baritone, actor, author.

Merrill’s book Between Acts is a wonderful inside look at the Metropolitan Opera and its often outsized personalities. Here are several tidbits, leaving plenty of others for your pleasure, should you choose to get a copy.

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Between acts, an irreverent look at opera and other madness, by Robert Merrill with Robert Saffron, McGraw-Hill. 1976. Merrill also wrote another memoir, Once More from the Beginning, 1965, and a novel, The Divas, 1978.

Enrico Caruso was the finest operatic tenor of the fin de siècle. He was also a hypochondriac of high note. This was especially so with imagined infections of the throat (perhaps encouraged by his fifty to sixty potent Egyptian cigarettes each day). Caruso traveled with atomizers and syringes, salt water, powders and assorted pills.

On stage, Caruso carried two small bottles of salt water in his costume pockets. Notes Merrill, “He’d gargle onstage if necessary, and turn away from the audience to spit it out. “He had to spit before an aria in La Giocanda,” Merrill writes, “and chose the safest spot, a ship that was part of the set. Since then, tenors have been spitting on that ship before that aria—for good luck.”

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An entirely different Met: Merrill and his son David meet Casey Stengel, who said to David, “There’s no future in pitchin’ like yer father pitched.” This and the following image from Between Acts.

Like many baritones, Merrill directs a lot of humor toward tenors. He cites opera director Frank Corsaro’s observation, “If you want a tenor to look as if he’s thinking, have him walk down a flight of stairs.”

Merrill recalls performing a baritone/tenor duet in Forza del Destino, where the tenor, mortally wounded, is then carried off by stretcher-bearers. “They lugged him away while the applause continued. He leapt off, took a couple of bows, lay down again and gestured ‘Take me away.’ ”

Sopranos can be outsized as well. Merrill relates the (possibly apocryphal) tale of Nellie Melba, whom Merrill calls a prima donna assoluta. Her Desdemona in Otello was so theatrical that women in the audience wept after Otello strangled her.

“If she was sufficiently applauded,” Merrill writes, “Mme. Melba would rise from her deathbed and signal stagehands to wheel on a piano, at which she accompanied herself for an encore—Home Sweet Home. After this ovation, she stretched out dead again on the bed, and poor Otello had to stagger on with the final five minutes.”

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Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick, 1952, was a decidedly non-operatic entertainment for co-star Merrill, on the right with Adele Jergens and Dinah Shore.

Merrill had first-hand knowledge of an unnamed soprano renowned for her severe internal distresses. “She would vent a stupefying gas. You could see it coming in the midst of an aria—a wistful look in her eyes, a clenching of her hands. Her partner could shift downstage, but the chorus had to bear the brunt.”

A less miasmic tale: Famed Russian basso Feodor Chiliapin, a contemporary of tenor Caruso, was afflicted with stage fright, which he eased with vodka. Merrill shares a story from Papa Senz, Met makeup artist and wigmaker. “Chiliapin would sit dozing in his dressing room, while Senz would work his magic. Suddenly, he’d open his eyes and inspect himself in the mirror. ‘Vot is diss face you giff me?’ “

‘Mefistofele—’ ”

“ ‘Not Boris? Holy mother! Send for de Faust score! I must see de score!’ ” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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