Roberta Peters, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera at age 20 on five hours’ notice and became a reigning soprano of her era, delighting audiences for decades with performances on stage, in commercials and on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” died Jan. 18 at an assisted living facility in upstate Rye. She was 86.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said her son Paul Fields.
Peters’s maiden entrance at the Met could scarcely have been more dramatic, even if it had been scripted by a librettist.
Groomed since childhood for a career on stage — although she had not yet sung on one — she was slated to appear at the Met as the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” in 1951.
But on Nov. 17, 1950, soprano Nadine Conner, who was to sing Zerlina in that evening’s performance of “Don Giovanni,” came down with food poisoning, according to the Daily News. (Peters and her family were already looking forward to attending the performance, in the standing-room section.)
Rudolf Bing, the Met’s newly installed general manager, had a crisis on his hands and called Peters to ask if she could relieve it.
“Can you sing tonight?” he inquired, in a 3 p.m. phone call. With confidence that she recognized years later as extraordinary, Peters assured him that she could.
“We took the subway. We couldn’t get a cab,” she told The Associated Press in 1985. “It was the first time I’d ever sung professionally anywhere, and there I was, pushed out on the stage to sing at the Met.”
With that, Peters, the daughter of a hat maker and a shoe salesman, was transformed into Zerlina, the peasant.
“She was wonderful,” the conductor, Fritz Reiner, later told the New York Herald Tribune. “A really gifted girl. Her fine preparation should be a lesson to other young American singers. When the chance came, she was qualified.”
That performance marked the first of more than 500 appearances by Peters at the Met over 35 years. She also sang at the Vienna State Opera, at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, before U.S. presidents and on TV programs including Sullivan’s show, “The Voice of Firestone” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
In one unforgettable commercial, she belted the Chock full o’Nuts coffee jingle in full operatic attire — and full-on operatic vocal power. In another, for American Express, she flagged a cab, calling out “Taxi!” in her inimitable soprano.
Her most noted roles at the Met, besides her first two Mozartean parts, included Rosina in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Although Peters preferred lighter soprano parts, she ventured into somewhat more dramatic music as the title character in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Peters’ care with her voice allowed her to sing well into her later years on the opera stage, as a recitalist and in musicals. In 1998, she received the National Medal of Arts.
Roberta Peterman — Peters was her stage name — was born in the Bronx on May 4, 1930. Her family quickly recognized her vocal talent.
“It was my mother who had the dream,” she told the AP, recalling her mother counseling that “one day if you work hard, you’ll make the Met.”
Peters owed her career at least in part to her availability, if not youthful derring-do, during a desperate moment at the Met. To the end, she stood ready to sing, whenever she was needed.