NEW YORK – Acclaimed singer Robert Merrill (search), the opera baritone who felt equally comfortable on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera House or opening day at Yankee Stadium, has died.
Merrill died Saturday at his home in suburban New York City, family friend Barry Tucker (search) said Monday. Reference books gave conflicting ages for Merrill, 87 or 85.
Merrill performed around the country with Tucker's father, tenor Richard Tucker, the younger man said. "My father felt that he had the greatest natural voice that America created," he said.
Merrill, once described in Time magazine as "one of the Met's best baritones," became as well-known to New York Yankees (search) fans for his season-opening rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" — a tradition that began in 1969.
In his 31 consecutive seasons with the Metropolitan Opera, Merrill performed virtually every baritone role in the operatic repertoire.
He earned admiration for his interpretations of dozens of roles, including Escamillo in "Carmen" and Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," reportedly his favorite opera.
Merrill once said opera "is the toughest art of all."
"It's a human instrument," he said. "Your voice, so many words, so much music. ... There's a lot of emotion."
Merrill was known for a velvet-smooth voice. Critics wrote that Merrill "worked hard to polish his natural rich baritone" and that he "noticeably improved each season."
Merrill retired from the Met in 1976 but returned to its stage in 1983, when the company marked its centennial.
"Few leading singers have graced the company with so many performances," Opera News said in 1996. "None have served it with more honor."
Throughout his career, Merrill sang with popular stars ranging from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong, appeared worldwide at music festivals and made numerous recordings. Merrill performed as a soloist with many of the world's great conductors, including Leonard Bernstein. He also appeared for several presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
He also was a well-established radio and television soloist, beginning his television career on NBC's "Saturday Night Revue" in 1949.
Merrill's lifelong enthusiasm for baseball led to his long tenure at Yankee Stadium, where he sang the national anthem on opening day for three decades.
Merrill, who often appeared in a pinstriped shirt and tattered Yankees necktie, performed the same duty for the Yankees during the World Series, the playoffs and at Old-timers Day.
He took the job seriously and once said he didn't appreciate when singers tried to ad lib with "distortions."
"When you do the anthem, there's a legitimacy to it," Merrill told Newsday in 2000. "I'm bothered by these different interpretations of it."
Yankees team spokesman Howard Rubenstein called Merrill "a true inspiration for us, the ballplayers and all of our fans. ... We dearly miss him."
Merrill made his operatic debut in 1944, singing Amonasro in "Aida" on a Trenton, N.J., stage. He signed on with the Metropolitan Opera in 1945 and debuted there that year as the elder Germont in "La Traviata."
"Mr. Merrill displayed a rich, vigorous baritone, ample in volume, effortlessly and surely produced," critic Robert A. Hague wrote at the time.
Merrill was briefly married to soprano Roberta Peters in the early 1950s; the two remained friendly and performed together after the marriage ended.
Merrill was born the son of shoe salesman Abraham Merrill and Lillian Balaban. His mother had an operatic and concert career in Poland before her marriage and guided her son through his early musical training.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Merrill was first inspired by music as a teenager when he saw a Metropolitan Opera performance of "Il Trovatore." The young baritone paid for singing lessons with extra money he earned as a semipro pitcher.
Merrill is survived by his wife, a son, a daughter and grandchildren, Tucker said.