One of America’s best-loved sopranos, who enjoyed a 35-year association with the Met, has died at the age of 86. Born in The Bronx, New York City, Peters (or, to use her father’s name, Peterman) started singing at an early age and was encouraged by the tenor Jan Peerce to study music; she worked with William Herman who, after six years, introduced her to the impresario Sol Hurok who, in turn, organised an audition with the Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, Rudolf Bing. She sang the Queen of the Night’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – with its fearsome high notes – and clearly made such an impression that the Met engaged her for the role in February 1951. Her Met debut, though, came three months earlier than planned when Bing asked her to step in for an ailing Nadine Conner as Zerlina in Don Giovanni - Fritz Reiner conducted and Peters had a triumph.
With a light, agile voice, Peters made a speciality of the soubrette and coloratura repertoire, singing roles like Mozart’s Susanna, Despina, Zerlina and Queen of the Night, Rossini’s Rosina, Richard Strauss’s Sophie and Zerbinetta, Verdi’s Nanetta and Oscar, Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Norina in Don Pasquale. She would later sing slightly heavier roles including Mimì, Juliette, Manon and Violetta. Writing in Gramophone in 1957, Philip Hope-Wallace wrote: ‘She is a most appealing singer; not another Tetrazzini perhaps, but with something of the astonishing alt of Mado Robin, minus that lady's thinness of tone at the top, and something of Hilde Gueden's way of managing to suggest that even if the coloratura and gruppetti are not always absolutely perfect, that the intention is to please and not stupify!’
She sang at Covent Garden in 1951 – in Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl under Beecham – and later in Italy, Vienna, Salzburg and in Moscow.
She was, famously, married to the baritone Robert Merrill for three months in 1952, later admitting that she’d fallen in love with the voice rather than the man. They did, however, remain friends and continued to perform together. She would marry again in 1955 and had two sons.
Her recordings included Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (all under Leinsdorf for RCA), Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (under Monteux; RCA), Mozart’s Così fan tutte (in English under Stiedry for CBS) and Mozart’s The Magic Flute (under Böhm for DG). She can also be heard on a number of Sony Classical’s live Metrpolitan opera broadcast releases: L’elisir d’amore, Le nozze di Figaro, Les contes d’Hoffmann, Un ballo in maschera and Rigoletto. She also made a handful of solo recitals.
Front page photo: Peters as Zerlina (Photo: The Met / Sedge LeBlang)