The Remarkable Roberta Peters

Eleanor Steber, Robert Peters, Blanche Thebom in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, 1953(Photo: Mark Hamann/Metropolitan Opera)
Eleanor Steber, Robert Peters, Blanche Thebom in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, 1953(Photo: Mark Hamann/Metropolitan Opera)

I interviewed soprano Roberta Peters for print a number of years ago, just after she celebrated the 50th anniversary of her Metropolitan Opera debut (November 17, 1950 as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

This performance was not only the 20-year-old’s Met debut, it was her first professional appearance on any stage. She went on as the understudy on a few hours notice, in a cast of seasoned professionals including Eleanor Steber, Ljuba Welitsch and Jerome Hines. Fritz Reiner conducted, no less. (“He told me, ‘Dunt vurry dollink. Ven I point, you zink!’”)

There followed a career that for all I know may be on going in 2010. Miss Peters sang over five hundred Met performances in thirty-five years.

Out of curiosity I looked her up recently on YouTube and I was floored at what I found: a 1994 performance of Casta diva from Vincenzo Bellini‘s opera Norma. I didn’t know this existed, and I’m still buzzed by the remarkable technique, the flawless line and the superb musicianship. Roberta Peters was sixty-four years old here. Watch,  listen and learn:

Roberta Peters had a Met-centric career. She sang in London, Moscow and Vienna but she was busiest at home. She was Ed Sullivan’s most popular TV guest. She was crossover, long before the term was widely used.

Grand opera, show tunes, musicals: You name it she sang it and people admired her for over forty years. But I was unprepared for the warm legato spin of her singing in this  Norma clip. To give you some contrast, to let you hear how little her voice deteriorated, here’s Roberta Peters in 1955:

Roberta Peters:
“I stress again and again. Singers must practice. They must keep their voices exercised. And you must know what suits you and stick to it. I almost never left my fach. The coloratura, soprano leggero roles. Later I did a few Bohemes and Traviatas away from the Met. I do regret not singing I puritani although I did record the arias. My one favorite role was Salome. I loved that. When she sings, Ach, ich habe deine Mund gekusst!,” I always get chills.”

Me, too. Maybe not from the unsung Salome, but that 1994 Norma excerpt has me verklept.

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