The overnight success who became an opera legend
Roberta Peters’ sparkling career had a fairy-tale beginning. When she awoke on Nov. 17, 1950, the 20-year-old coloratura soprano was an “apprentice singer” with the Metropolitan Opera, still six weeks away from her scheduled debut. But that afternoon Peters received a frantic call from Met general manager Rudolf Bing: Hours before the 8 p.m. performance of Don Giovanni, soprano Nadine Conner had come down with food poisoning. “Can you sing tonight?” Bing asked Peters. Without hesitation, or rehearsal, she said yes and hopped on the subway. “It was the first time I’d ever sung professionally,” Peters said, “and there I was, pushed out on the stage to sing at the Met.” She won rave reviews in the role of the peasant girl Zerlina and would remain a star for the next half-century.
Born Roberta Peterman in the Bronx, Peters was the only child of a shoe salesman father and milliner mother. In the words of her family, she “had a real voice on her,” said The New York Times. When Peters was 13, her grandfather, who was maître d’ at Grossinger’s Catskills resort, set her career in motion by arranging an audition with tenor Jan Peerce. Impressed, Peerce sent her to study with noted teacher William Herman. “Leaving school permanently after she completed junior high,” Peters took voice, drama, and foreign-language lessons— plus conditioning with fitness guru Joseph Pilates, who would stand on her abdomen to help develop her abdominal muscles. “There were some long, unhappy lessons and emotional moments,” said OperaNews.com, “but all of this added up to a remarkable technique of astounding agility, supple legato, and great vocal beauty.” In 1950 Peters landed an audition at the Met— the beginning of a run that lasted 35 years.
Among Peters’ signature roles were Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, said The Washington Post. She was a regular guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s and wasn’t above doing an occasional ad—in a famous American Express spot, she hailed a cab by singing out “Tax-eee!” Peters kept performing into her 70s, dazzling audiences with her eternally youthful, silvery voice. “I’ll sing as long as I feel good,” she said in 2000, “and people want to come.”