Acclaimed by critics as "one of the great natural baritones of the century," Robert Merrill truly became a legend in his own time. From the grand stages of the world's great opera houses, to Broadway, television, and recordings, he set a high standard for musical excellence.
Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Mr. Merrill performed for visiting heads of state at the invitations of every U.S. president from Truman to Reagan; President Clinton bestowed the National Medal of the Arts on him in 1993. He was also the recipient of the Handel Medallion, New York's highest cultural award, as well as an Honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Gustavus Adolphus College. He held a place of honor in Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts Hall of Fame for Great American Opera Singers, and the Metropolitan Opera recognized his record-setting 787 performances for that company by hanging his portrait in the Met's own Hall of Fame.
Mr. Merrill made his Met debut in 1945 as the elder Germont in Verdi's La Traviata, and shortly thereafter Arturo Toscanini invited him to perform this role in his historic broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini also invited him to perform in his final opera broadcast, Un Ballo in Maschera, in 1954.
His annual coast-to-coast recital tours included performances at the Hollywood Bowl, Wolf Trap, and participation in a 1985 memorial concert for Jussi Björling at the Stockholm Opera.
He also sang Bloch's Sacred Service in Hebrew at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and performed at ceremonies marking the Statue of Liberty Centennial. In addition to opera, Mr. Merrill recorded music of the Broadway stage, including Porgy and Bess, Show Boat, Carousel, and Fiddler
on the Roof. He authored three books, Between Acts, Divas, and an autobiography written in collaboration with Sanford Dody.
His enthusiasm for baseball was well known, and for a period he pitched for a semi-pro team to help pay for singing lessons. His recording of "God Bless America" was regularly played at home games of the New York Yankees, and he sang the national anthem live at the Yankee's opening game for some thirty years. A special thrill for him was performing William Schuman's Casey at the Bat, with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
He retired from the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, returning once to sing at the Centennial Gala in 1983. He was married to the former Marion Machno, a concert pianist and Juilliard graduate who frequently accompanied him in recital. They had two children, David and Lizanne. Mr. Merrill died on October 23, 2004, at his home in suburban New York City.