The outstanding American soprano, Roberta Peters (real name: Petermann), was the daughter of a shoe salesman and a hat maker. She grew up in the Bronx, loving to sing and dreaming of becoming a star. Her parents made great financial sacrifices to prepare her for a career in music. Her grandfather, who was a headwaiter, knew the tenor Jan Peerce, who was a well-known cantor. Her grandfather convinced the famous cantor to listen to his grand-daughter. She was only 13, but Jan Peerce was very impressed and arranged for her to study with William Herman, who had coached many opera stars. Herman made sure she had French, German, and Italian lessons and made her sing scales from a clarinet method. He made sure she did not perform prematurely, but worked with her for six years, finally having her sing for Sol Hurok when she was 19. Hurok arranged for an audition with Rudolph Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing had her sing the Queen of the Night aria from W.A. Mozart's The Magic Flute, with its high Fs, seven times, listening from all parts of the hall to make sure she could fill the hall with sound. He scheduled her to sing the role in 1951.
However, on November 17, 1950, Roberta Peters received a phone call from Rudolph Bing, asking her if she could sing that night. Nadine Conner, cast as Zerlina in W.A. Mozart's Don Giovanni had a mild case of food poisoning and could not perform. She was hired a few weeks earlier on the basis of a single audition, but had never sung with a full orchestra, never performed in a full opera production, never even performed on stage, professionally or otherwise, except for her audition. She was not an official understudy, but she knew the role and accepted. The rest, as they say, is history. Her parents were planning to go to the opera that night in the standing section. When they got home from work, Roberta surprised them with the announcement that they would be watching her perform, from box seats. She and her mother took a cab, but ended up getting on the subway when the cab got stuck in traffic. Fritz Reiner, the conductor that night, was known for being hard to follow, but he made a point of coming to Roberta's dressing room to encourage her. Her performance was received with great enthusiasm, and her career took off.
Roberta Peters subsequently remained on its roster for 35 years, the longest tenure of any soprano in the history of the Met. Combining a wonderful voice with attractive good looks, she became the darling of America and a great proponent of opera for the masses. She gave more than 500 performances at the Met in 24 roles. She also sang at Covent Garden in London, at the Salzburg Festivals, and at the Vienna State Opera, and other opera companies.
Roberta Peters was on of the leading coloratura sopranos of her generation. She also appeared with success on television, films, and in a great number of Voice of Firestone radio broadcasts. In addition to opera, she appeared in operettas and musical comedies and performed her varied repertoire around the world. She twice represented the USA in the former Soviet Union, becoming the first American-born artist to receive the Bolshoi Medal. She also gave recitals and master-classes in the People's Republic of China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan and was once caught in the middle of the Six-Day War in Israel while performing for soldiers with her late colleague, Richard Tucker.
President John F. Kennedy first invited Roberta Peters to perform at the White House, where she performed for every president since. In addition to supporting social causes and performing frequently for charity, she took an active part in promoting government funding for the arts. President Bush appointed her to the National Council on the Arts in 1991, and in 1998, President Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She holds honorary doctorates from Elmira, Ithaca, Westminster, Colby and New Rochelle Colleges, Lehigh and St. John's Universities and the University of Rhode Island.
Roberta Peters was briefly married to Robert Merrill, With Louis Biancolli she wrote A Debut at the Met (1967). She still gave solo recitals at 70, 50 years after that first auspicious audition. She died of Parkinson's disease on January 18, 2017 at her home in Rye, New York, at age 86.