Obituaries

Obituaries

Roberta Peters, who achieved overnight Met stardom, dies at 86; charismatic French conductor Georges Prêtre; sparkling French soprano Géori Boué dies at 98; Wagnerian bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski dies at 61. 

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Peters combined charm and glamour with discipline and intelligence
OPERA NEWS Archives
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Peters in rehearsal as Kitty in Menotti’s Last Savage at the Met, 1964
Vernon L. Smith/Opera News Archives

ROBERTA PETERS
NEW YORK, NY, MAY 4, 1930—RYE, NY, JANUARY 18, 2017  

ROBERTA PETERS'S overnight ascent to Met stardom at twenty combined with her uncommonly attractive face and form to suggest a sort of fairy-tale figure. But Peters’s early years were spent absorbed in arduous study, devoid of many of the diversions taken for granted by the average teenager. Although in later life the soprano spoke about tears shed under the pressure of trying to live up to the expectations of those who believed in her, she maintained that young people should be urged to fulfill their potential. It was, in fact, this seriousness of purpose and artistic integrity that carried Peters through a five-decade career in which she racked up 512 Met performances of twenty-four roles during thirty-four seasons.

Roberta Peterman was born in the Bronx on May 4, 1930, the only child of Sol, a shoe salesman, and Ruth, a milliner. Roberta’s exceptional voice and love of singing became evident early, as she imitated singers on the radio. Her mother was somewhat stagestruck, and Roberta was taken to kiddie shows and movies and eventually groomed for a children’s opera radio program that was canceled before making it to the airwaves. In preparation, however, she had learned arias and scenes, encompassing everything from Tosca to Gilda to Norma. 

In 1942, when Roberta was twelve, Jan Peerce entered the picture. While singing at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, where Roberta’s grandfather was maitre d’, Peerce was persuaded to hear the girl sing and was impressed. But she had never sung a scale or developed a technique, so he recommended her to William Herman, teacher of Patrice Munsel. Herman offered Roberta a scholarship, asking her parents to pay whatever they could afford and covering the rest himself. The rest included accompanists for coaching, ballet lessons, French, Italian and German lessons and movement—with Joseph Pilates. Herman took Roberta to museums, opera and concerts and offered unlimited access to his library of scores and recordings. She spent hours, fascinated, listening to her coloratura predecessors on old 78rpm discs. Herman also—and Peters herself was always amazed at this—managed to write a letter on his singing-studio stationery to the principal of her school, stating that her education would be taken care of, and had her pulled from school at thirteen. Although Peters accumulated a number of honorary degrees over the years, she never received a high-school diploma. By the time she was fourteen, Roberta was reading Dante in Italian, and at nineteen she knew twenty opera roles without having set foot on any stage. Rather than use the traditional Panofka vocalise for technical facility, Herman had his young protegée practice with Klosé clarinet exercises, and she immersed herself in the Garcia bel canto technique as well. Herman was exacting, to say the least, and there were some long, unhappy lessons and emotional moments. But all of this added up to a remarkable technique of astounding agility, supple legato and great vocal beauty. 

In November 1949, Peerce brought impresario Sol Hurok to Herman’s studio to hear Peters in excerpts from Lucia and I Puritani. Hearing her again at Town Hall, Hurok signed her. In January 1950, Met conductor Max Rudolf asked to hear excerpts from Rigoletto in the Ladies’ Parlor of the Old Met, and the following week Peters sang the Queen of the Night’s second aria for incumbent general manager Rudolf Bing—four times. She later discovered that Bing had had four different conductors come in to listen to her. Bing signed her on July 20, 1950 (by which time he was in power) as an “apprentice singer” for twenty weeks at $120 per week, targeting her for a debut in The Magic Flute on January 12, 1951.

But on November 17, 1950, Nadine Connor, scheduled to sing Zerlina in that evening’s Don Giovanni, became ill, and on six hours’ notice, never having appeared on an opera stage, Roberta Peters took the subway down to the Old Met and made a surprise debut. This was the sort of event the press lives for, but in this case the “unknown girl makes good overnight” angle was backed up by genuine quality, and Peters won the hearts of press and public alike, beginning a love affair with the Met that lasted until her final performance at the house, as Gilda, on April 12, 1985. (Her last company outing was one more Gilda on April 25 in Boston.) 

Reading reviews of the soprano’s Met performances, one encounters consistent praise for both her singing and her performing instincts. Typical is a New York Times appraisal of her Rosina: “The soprano was delightful in every way. Looking as dainty as a Dresden figurine, she acted with grace, vivacity and skill. And she sang with fresh, sweet tones, negotiating the difficult coloratura passages with accuracy and real enjoyment…. Such was her pert assurance that she succeeded in stealing a few scenes.” This was an age in which soubrettes were supposed to be cute, and while Peters cashed in on her beauty and charm, she was far too intelligent and disciplined to coast. Blessed with a rather rich middle voice for a soprano of such silvery heights, she was able to provide adequate vocal and dramatic weight to manage a very convincing Gilda or Lucia, in contrast to her lighter assignments. And when coloratura fireworks were demanded, she supplied them aplenty, as Zerbinetta or the Queen of the Night. Adding roles to her Met repertoire with some rapidity, Peters then stayed with her core parts for the duration of her career, never endangering her instrument. And she continued studies with Herman until 1963, two years before his death. 

The Peters explosion coincided neatly with the television explosion, and her gorgeous voice and stunning looks guaranteed her a place on such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, on which she appeared sixty-five times, a record for any opera singer. I particularly remember her “Shadow Song,” from Dinorah, on the show; instead of a flute obbligato at the end, she was partnered by Al Hirt on trumpet. She was a regular guest on The Voice of Firestone and appeared as well on The Bell Telephone Hour. In 1975, she made a foray into television drama, playing a terminally ill opera star on Medical Center. Commercials beckoned as well: Peters was a Maxwell Housewife, sipping coffee—and who doesn’t recall her American Express ad, in which the trademark voice sang out, “Taxi!”? 

Consistency, of course, can mean being taken for granted, and Peters was not given all the opportunities she had hoped for; Bing kept her constantly in the same repertoire, and by the time her old friend James Levine came along (she had known him since he was ten), she was in the final decade of her Met career. What’s more, the very definition of “coloratura” had changed with the advent of Maria Callas, who brought her quite different Lucia to the Met in 1956. Five years later, Joan Sutherland’s sensational big-voiced Lucia appeared, further redefining the fach. But Peters outlasted Callas at the Met by two decades and sang more than twice as many performances at the Met as Sutherland.

Peters ventured outside the Met only occasionally, singing at Covent Garden, the Vienna Staatsoper, the Bolshoi and the Salzburg Festival. The Met was her home, and she was onstage for a number of significant nights—Marian Anderson’s historic debut in Un Ballo in Maschera; the closing-night gala of the old house; Rudolf Bing’s farewell gala; her own twenty-fifth-anniversary performance; and the Met’s Centennial Gala. She also created the role of Kitty in the U.S. premiere of Menotti’s Last Savage at the Met in 1964. Peters was kind and attentive to Bing as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, visiting him frequently. Regional appearances allowed her excursions into slightly heavier repertoire—Mimì and Violetta in particular—and she eventually branched out into musicals and operetta as well (Noël Coward’s Bittersweet, The King and I, The Sound of Music, The Merry Widow). She had an extensive concert and recital career, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of her debut with a recital at Alice Tully Hall on November 17, 2000.

Peters did a bit of teaching but decided it was not for her. She did, however, provide scholarships for young singers, and she was active in Jewish organizations. She sang with Richard Tucker in Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967; urged to leave, Peters and Tucker insisted on staying and singing. Her recorded legacy is extensive, representing many of her celebrated roles, and she appeared on forty-eight Saturday Met radio broadcasts, some of which have begun to surface on the Met’s Sony Classics series, reminding one of the excellence of her work.

Peters’s personal life was rich as well. After a brief marriage to Robert Merrill in 1952 (“I think I fell in love with his voice”), Peters married Bertram Fields in 1955. Their marriage lasted until his death in 2010. 

Throughout her performing career and afterward, Peters was an effective and generous arts advocate. She joined the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild in 1981 and remained an active board member until 2013, when she was appointed to the Guild’s artists’ council. President George H. W. Bush appointed Peters to the National Council on the Arts in 1991, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded the soprano the National Medal of Arts. Peters became a trustee of Carnegie Hall in 1980 and was named an honorary lifetime trustee in 1995.

I had the pleasure of knowing Peters a bit; we appeared in several galas together. I particularly recall the 2006 Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation Gala. 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.  —Ira Siff 

THOMAS HUBBARD 
SHARON, CT, NOVEMBER 20, 1924—DELRAY BEACH, FL, MARCH 20, 2017  

AN EXTRAORDINARILY GENEROUS and perceptive advocate for the arts, Hubbard was a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School and partner in the New York law firm of Decker, Hubbard, Welden and Sweeney. Hubbard joined the board of the Metropolitan Opera Guild in 1974 and after serving with distinction as vice president and treasurer (1978–85), he was named chairman of the board in 1986. He remained in that capacity for sixteen years, longer than any other chairman in the Guild’s history, until he was named honorary chairman of the Guild board, in 2002. In 2011, when he joined the Guild’s emeritus council, Hubbard was named chairman emeritus, a title he held until his death. Hubbard was also an advisory member of the board of the Metropolitan Opera for more than thirty-eight years, beginning in 1979.  Tom Hubbard was an ideal board member—intelligent, energetic, loyal and committed, he was a masterful negotiator and splendid committee member, capable of public advocacy and private discretion in equal measure. He was a true gentleman, respectful and kind to everyone, without exception.

Hubbard was also an important figure in the history of the New York Botanical Garden.  Hubbard joined the board of the Botanical Garden in 1975 and was named to that organization’s executive committee in 1977. He began a nine-year tenure as chairman in 1991; during Hubbard’s chairmanship, the New York Botanical Garden enjoyed a spectacular renaissance, becoming one of the most important horticultural landscapes and research centers in the world. Under Hubbard’s leadership, the Garden restored the landmark Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, opened the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden, established the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics and built the International Plant Science Center. He was named Chairman Emeritus in 2000 but remained active in the affairs of the Garden until his death. Hubbard and his wife, Anne, who survives him, provided leadership and generous support for a number of other non-profit institutions, including the Preservation League of New York State and the Peconic Land Trust.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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Prêtre in the 1960s in New York
© Erika Davidson

GEORGES PRÊTRE
WAZIERS, FRANCE, AUGUST 14, 1924— NAVÈS, FRANCE, JANUARY 4, 2017    

A CHARISMATIC CONDUCTOR whose electrifying rapport with great singers and orchestras made him an international star, Prêtre studied at the Conservatoires in Douai and Paris before making his debut at Marseilles Opera at twenty-two, leading Samson et Dalila. In 1955, after several years in provincial French houses, Prêtre was appointed director at the Opéra Comique in Paris, where he established an important relationship with Francis Poulenc by conducting the 1959 world premiere of La Voix Humaine.

Prêtre made his debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1959, conducting Thaïs, and first appeared at San Francisco Opera in 1963, leading Samson et Dalila, the same opera that brought him to the Met the following year. Curiously, eighty-four of Prêtre’s 101 performances for the Met in New York and on tour took place in just two seasons. The company’s 1965–66 season, its last at the Old Met at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway, opened with Prêtre conducting a new staging of Faust and ended with Prêtre leading the final trio from Faust in the house’s farewell gala. During the Met’s first week at Lincoln Center, Prêtre conducted a lavish new staging of La Traviata, directed by Alfred Lunt and designed by Cecil Beaton. Other Met assignments for Prêtre included Arabella, Il Trovatore, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.

In the 1970s, after a relatively brief tenure as music director at the Paris Opéra, Prêtre concentrated his career outside of France, conducting an impressively varied repertoire but retaining his status as a nonpareil interpreter of French music. International opera houses that welcomed Prêtre included La Scala, La Fenice, Bavarian State Opera, Vienna State Opera and Teatro Colón. He also was a frequent guest with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. From 1986 through 1991, Prétre was principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and remained an honorary conductor there at the time of his death.

Prêtre was a favorite conductor of many legendary singers, including Régine Crespin, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Montserrat Caballé. He enjoyed an especially close working relationship with Maria Callas and collaborated with her on complete recordings of Carmen and Tosca, as well as several recital discs. In 1965, the maestro led Callas’s last staged performances as Norma, in Paris, and as Tosca, in London, the latter marking Prêtre’s Covent Garden debut.

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Classic French style: Boué in 1946
© Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images

GÉORI BOUÉ
TOULOUSE, FRANCE, OCTOBER,  16, 1918—PARIS, FRANCE, JANUARY  5, 2017   

AN ARTIST BELOVED in her native France for her personal chic as well as for her distinctive style in the French repertoire, Boué had a slim, tangy voice that enlivened a wide range of lyric-soprano roles in opera and operetta. Boué made her debut when she was still in her teens, as Urbain in Les Huguenots, at the Capitole de Toulouse. She moved on to important engagements in Luchon, Vichy and Toulon during the late 1930s and made her debut at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1939, as Mimì in La Bohème. After hearing Boué as Violetta in Toulon, composer Reynaldo Hahn recommended her for the title role in a production of Mireille at the Théâtre Antique d’Arles, which presented Henri Büsser’s reconstruction of Gounod’s 1864 score. Boué’s Mireille, which was broadcast on French radio in June 1941, brought her a significant amount of attention in France. The following year, the soprano sang Mireille at the Opéra Comique and made her debut at the Palais Garnier, as Marguerite in Faust. 

Actor/director Sacha Guitry, charmed by the soprano’s Paris performances, cast her in the title role of his film La Malibran (1944), the story of the nineteenth-century diva Maria Malibran. Mario Podesta played Malibran’s father, Manuel Garcia, and Jacques Jansen, one of the most admired singers in France, was cast as Charles de Bériot, Malibran’s second husband. Boué brought glamour, charm and conviction to performances of several Malibran specialties, from “Una voce poco fà” to “Casta diva,” and played her own harp in a rendition of the willow song from Rossini’s Otello.

During the 1940s and ’50s, Boué’s roles with the Opéra Comique at the Salle Favart included Massenet’s Manon, Louise, Micaela in Carmen, Mélisande, Cio-Cio-San, Susanna in LeNozze di Figaro, Violetta, Nedda and the title role in Hahn’s Ciboulette. At the Palais Garnier, Boué was hailed as Verdi’s Desdemona, Rozenn in Le Roi d’Ys, Salomé in Hérodiade, Princess Saamcheddine in Mârouf, Zima in Les IndesGalantes, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Le Duc de Reichstadt in L’Aiglon, among other roles.

Boué’s international opera appearances included Barcelona, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Bologna, Florence and Berlin. With her husband, the distinguished French baritone Roger Bourdin (1900–73), as her costar, Boué sang Mélisande at La Scala (1949) and Tatiana in Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi (1956). Boué’s pairings with Bourdin on recordings included Antonia and Miraclein Les Contes d’Hoffmann, conducted by André Cluytens (1948), and Marguerite and Valentinin Faust, conducted by Thomas Beecham (1947–48). In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the soprano starred in a Paris run of Hahn’s Mozart, as well as hit productions of Offenbach’s Belle Hélène and Lehár’s Veuve Joyeuse at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. Boué’s striking looks and lissome figure made her a natural for appearances in variety and on television, which included La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein on French TV (1960) and a 1964 charity performance of La Belle Hélène at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, which featured Boué in an acrobatic routine.

Geori Boué was a founder of the Centre Lyrique Populaire de France (1966) and was a professor of Lyric Art at the Conservatoire de Boulogne Billancourt (1969–75). She retired from the opera stage in 1970 and stopped singing recitals a few years later in order to devote herself fully to teaching.

Obituaries Gerd Grochowski hdl 417
Grochowski as Kurwenal at the Met, 2008
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

GERD GROCHOWSKI
KREFELD, GERMANY, FEBRUARY 28, 1956—MAINZ, GERMANY, JANUARY 16, 2017  

A MUCH-ADMIRED Wagnerian in Europe, the bass-baritone died of a heart attack the day after singing Wotan in the premiere of a new staging of Die Walküre in Wiesbaden. At the time of his death, Grochowski was scheduled to sing Wotan and the Wanderer in Wiesbaden’s spring Ring cycles and was slated to return to Bayreuth this coming season as Klingsor in a revival of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2016 staging of Parsifal.

Grochowski had achieved significant international recognition in the last decade of his career. In 2007, he sang the role of Shishkov in the premiere of Patrice Chéreau’s acclaimed staging of From the House of the Dead at Vienna Festwochen; Grochowski reprised his Shishkov in the production’s debuts at Aix-en-Provence and the Holland Festival. Later that year, the bass-baritone was Kurwenal in Chéreau’s season-opening La Scala staging of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Daniel Barenboim; Barenboim also paced Grochowski’s Met debut, as Kurwenal, in November 2008. Grochowski made his Covent Garden debut in 2009, as Telramund in Lohengrin, and first sang at San Francisco Opera in 2010, as Baron Jaroslav Prus in The Makropulos Case. Later the same season, Grochowski was featured in the SFO premiere of Francesca Zambello’s Ring production, singing Donner in Das Rheingold and Gunther in Götterdämmerung. He returned to San Francisco in 2012, as Telramund.

Grochowski studied at the Musikhochschule in Cologne before joining the roster at the Cologne Opera House in 1986. He worked as a concert, lieder and opera singer throughout Germany and Austria during the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Bonn Opera, where he was an ensemble member for fifteen years. Grochowski sang a diverse repertoire in Europe, including Kurwenal, the Herald and Telramund in Lohengrin, the Dutchman, Kaspar in Der Freischütz, Scarpia, Pizarro, Dr. Schön in Lulu, Balstrode in Peter Grimes, Orest in Elektra, Duke Bluebeard and Busoni’s Doctor Faustus.

Grochowski’s credits in Europe included appearances at La Scala, Frankfurt Opera, Berlin State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Stuttgart Opera, Hamburg State Opera, Teatro Real in Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Landestheater Linz, Theater an der Wien and the Salzburg Easter Festival. spacer 



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