The enduring career of the American Jewish soprano Roberta Peters, who died on January 18 at age 86, shows that while not absolutely necessary, it helped if an opera singer’s grandfather was headwaiter at Grossinger’s in the Catskills. This Borscht Belt notability, father of Ruth Hirsch, a milliner, who had married Sol Peterman, a shoe salesman, was essential in the trajectory of their only child, who was raised near Jerome Avenue and 170th Street in the Bronx. Zayde Hirsch asked the American Jewish tenor and cantor Jan Peerce (born Jacob Pincus Perelmuth), who was otherwise engaged with High Holiday services at the resort, to hear little Roberta sing. Peerce liked what he heard from the then-13 year old, who may have already possessed a sharply focused, high-flying sound and referred her to his own voice teacher, the daunting martinet William Herman.
One fellow student later recalled that Herman was “tough, in the literal sense of the word. We who were waiting often heard the sound of him slapping Ms. Peters’s face when she missed the final high note of an aria.” Leaving traditional schooling long before earning a high school diploma, Peters — whose truncated name would be ordered by Herman for professional purposes — instead benefited from a group of older Jewish wartime refugees, then working as instructors in music, language, drama, dance, and allied arts. Among them were the accompanist Leo Roseneck and the contralto Ruth Kisch-Arndt (1898-1975) These instructors quickly brought young Peters close to the essence of musical tradition. Instead of occupying her solely with vocal exercises, Herman nurtured a more instrumental approach, having Peters sing practice routines originally written for clarinet. One hallmark of Peters’s artistry even into old age was her ability to spin out a lengthy musical line, as much like a wind player as a singer.
No-nonsense fitness would be another byword of Peters’s achievement. She studied the Pilates method of exercise with its inventor, the trainer Joseph Pilates himself. At 18, she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera’s Austrian Jewish General Manager Rudolf Bing, who required her to sing a stratospheric aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” fully four times in a row, so that a series of conductors could be called in to evaluate the results. Some inflated versions of this story allege that she sang the aria seven times consecutively, but Peters only claimed a tally of four, a crushing enough challenge for a teenager. Two Jewish maestros named Fritz, Hungary’s Fritz Reiner and Austria’s Fritz Stiedry, were particularly impressed. Even before her scheduled debut in “The Magic Flute,” in 1950 she filled in for an indisposed colleague in the role of Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” At age 19, a star was born and Peters posed for photos for Life Magazine in 1951 printed under the headline “Diva with Muscle: Stiff Training Keeps Met Soprano Roberta Peters Trim and Tuneful” and captioned “Coloratura Roberta Peters, Who Weighs 119, Balances 174-Pound Trainer Joseph Pilates On Her Operatic Breadbasket.” In the images, the venerable Pilates stood on the reclining diva’s midriff, where muscles essential for singing are located. “Life” went on to praise the then-21 year old as “one of the most muscular young sopranos around.”
No burly bruiser, the petite, slim singer always displayed koyekh. The opera maven Ira Siff, founder of La Gran Scena Opera Co. di New York recalled that Peters was performing in Israel in 1967 when the Six Day War broke out: “Urged to leave, Peters and [the tenor Richard] Tucker insisted on staying and singing.” A cantor like her early mentor Peerce, Tucker (born Rivn Ticker) also made a point of not performing with German or Austrian conductors who had been Nazi collaborators. Yet one of Peters’s most celebrated recordings, as the Queen of the Night, was conducted by Karl Böhm, who according to the Salzburg Festival was a “beneficiary of the Third Reich and used its system to advance his career. [Böhm’s] ascent was facilitated by the expulsion of Jewish and politically out-of-favor colleagues.” This admission only occurred in 2015, so it is almost certain that Peters was uninformed of the full extent of Böhm’s iniquity. Böhm must have been pleased with Peters’s skills, since when she recorded the role in Berlin, Peters later observed: “We did the second Queen of the Night aria in one take!”
Somewhat taken for granted by certain opera snobs, in part because of her accessibility as a constant presence on the Ed Sullivan show and other televised occasions, Peters nevertheless won lasting appreciation from discerning listeners. Part of this respect was because, although known for roles in romantic operas such as “Lucia di Lammermoor”;“Rigoletto”; and “The Barber of Seville,” she also sang and recorded new music. Among these outings was “Ariel, Visions of Isaiah,” for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra by the Austrian Jewish-born composer Robert Starer and “The K’dusha Symphony (Sanctification)” by Abraham Kaplan. The latter was a commission from Congregation B’nai Amoona in Missouri, in celebration of its centenary in 1982, on the theme: L’dor vador naggid gadlekha (From generation to generation we will declare [God’s] greatness.”
On such occasions, Peters inspired devotees to proclaim her own greatness. Ira Siff recalled one gala performance in 2006: “I was in my dressing room, getting into makeup and costume. Suddenly, over the monitor, came this silvery tone, floating the ‘Vilja-Lied’ from ‘The Merry Widow.’ I was astonished that one of the young competition winners had such a sense of the style — until I realized it was Peters, at seventy-six, shedding decades with every phrase.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.
This story "How the Granddaughter of a Borscht Belt Waiter Became Roberta Peters, Opera Star" was written by Benjamin Ivry.