Imagine this: a warm summer's day in 2003. A young boy, who by all accounts should be biking or pillaging the neighborhood, is strolling down the aisle of a music shop. His eyes meander through the vastly expensive and glamorous opera collection. His eyes rest on a brilliant blue color with the abstract painting of a birdman on the cover of a recording of Mozart's The Magic Flute:
Setting his shekels on the counter and running off with his newest conquest, his newly-attuned ear hearing the first classic recording of an opera that he knows and loves.
That was the first time I ever heard the voice of Roberta Peters, who died last Wednesday, January 18th, 2017, at the age of 86.
Born into a Jewish family in The Bronx, Jan Peerce, star of The Metropolitan Opera, convinced her to train her voice at age 13 and, a few years later, her audition of The Queen of the Night's aria from Magic Flute won her the opportunity to perform the role on stage at The Met in 1951.
Yet, fate would write a different story, as an indisposed singer dropped out of a 1950 production of another Mozart opera, Don Giovanni. According to The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia, "On November 17, 1950, [she was] phoned, asking if she could step in as Zerlina. Peters, who knew the role." Though she hadn't performed on stage or with an orchestra, she threw her hat into the ring and accepted. Her performance was met with great enthusiasm, and her career surged forward from that auspicious start.
Performing everything from Rossini to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Peters career spanned more than seven decades, as she never officially retired and continued to sing occasionally even in her last years.
I decided to honor Roberta Peters on my blog today by sharing my five favorite operatic performances of hers, and letting her artistry speak for itself!
1. "Ah non giunge!" from Bellini's La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)
This aria, filled with pure happiness, is the last piece of music heard in a very strange opera involving a sleepwalker. Peters' voice chirps the ad-libbed high notes with ease and never fails to imbue each phrase with ecstatic joy.
2. "Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille" from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman)
Portraying a "Frankenstein"-like doll, who requires winding to function, Peters' makes this inanimate object's song about a charming bird seem charming, making the audience forget that what they are basically seeing is something more akin to a horror movie!
3. "Großmächtige Prinzessin" from R. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos)
This remarkably "modern"-sounding opera involves the mythical Ariadne in exile on an island, where she is eventually serenaded by the clownish Zerbinetta, telling Ariadne to stop moping around and love freely and often! This is as dramatic a sound as Peters was able to produce and the result is, frankly, thrilling.
4. "Canzonetta Sull'Aria" from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)
This heartwrenching duet, which was featured in a pivotal scene in The Shawshank Redemption, has always been a source of beauty beyond explanation to millions. Peters is here joined by Lisa Della Casa, another performer who can spin a line like no other. The result is breathtaking, to understate the obvious.
5. "O Zittre Nicht" and "Der Holle Rache" from Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)
The Queen of the Night is one of the most recognizable characters in opera, and her arias have found their way into pop culture history. The first is one entire lie, where The Queen is lying to Prince Tamino about the capture of her daughter Pamina by a "villain" named Sarastro. The second is The Queen's scream of fury after Sarastro explains that her mother is an evil creature who wants Pamina because, without her, her powers will be gone. This is Peters' most famous role and, suffice it to say, it is the perfect farewell to a consummate and brilliant artist.
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