Opera star Roberta Peters has graced the world with her dazzling voice for more than half a century. During her 36-year career with the Metropolitan Opera, Peters gave more than 500 performances in 24 roles. She performed the world over and sang for every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.
|Peters in her 1950 Met debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni; program from her 1976 benefit concert at IC; with Marian Anderson in 1968, when both received honorary doctorates from IC.|
She is also an active philanthropist with a deep commitment to the arts, education, health, and Jewish culture. Ithaca College students — 38 to date — have benefited directly from her generosity.
Peters and her husband, Bertram Fields, have two sons, Bruce and Paul. Paul Fields ’79 majored in business administration at Ithaca College, and his mother has been engaged with the College since their first visit. “I was singing with a fine conductor,” Peters recalls, “who had given his archives to Ithaca College. I decided I might do the same eventually. Paul was ready to graduate from high school, so we went up to Ithaca. We agreed that it was a great place.”
In 1974 Peters was elected to the Ithaca College Board of Trustees and in 1989 was named an honorary trustee. In 1968, the College’s 75th anniversary year, she sang with the College orchestra and chorus, and the College awarded her an honorary doctorate. In 1976 she established the Roberta Peters Scholarship Fund at Ithaca College, to annually honor an outstanding vocal student in the School of Music.
As a child growing up in the Bronx, Peters was passionate about singing. “I would sing anywhere,” she says. “My mother didn’t know what to do with me.” Finally she went for a voice appraisal, courtesy of tenor Jan Peerce, which led to a recommendation that she begin formal vocal training.
At 13 she started studying with noted coach William Herman, also learning French, German, Italian, ballet, and dramatics. Herman worked with her for six years, refusing to let her perform prematurely. At 19 Peters was given an audition with Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. She sang the Queen of Night’s second aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (with its four Fs above high C), several times. Bing signed her to play the role.
But at 3:00 p.m. on November 17, 1950, weeks before her scheduled debut, Bing called Peters. It was an emergency: Nadine Conner, singing Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, was ill and could not perform that night. Would Peters go on?
She was only 20 years old and had never sung in public, performed in a production, or even been on stage except to audition. “I had studied the role of Zerlina,” Peters says, “but never dreamed that I’d do it before my debut.” Nevertheless, she accepted.
That evening she and her mother took a cab to the Met, but got stuck in traffic. Peters ran to the subway. She arrived just in time. “I had no costumes or shoes of my own — nothing,” she recalls. “Next thing I knew, I was being pushed onstage. I think I was numb.”
The audience never detected the tension leading up to the historical debut, and her career soared.
Peters often appeared on television; she holds the record for the most (65) guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. She performed throughout Asia and was the first American-born artist to receive the Bolshoi Medal from Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera. In 1967 she was caught in the Six-Day War while performing for soldiers in Israel.
At Hebrew University in Tel Aviv she established the Roberta Peters Scholarship Fund, and in 1997 she received the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She has given benefit performances for AIDS and cystic fibrosis research. President George H. W. Bush appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council of the Arts, and President Bill Clinton awarded her the 1998 National Medal of Arts.
Recently she was interviewed by Jennifer Hahn ’06, last year’s recipient of a Peters scholarship at Ithaca College, for a DVD to be given to future Peters scholars. Hahn asked the legendary singer what was the best piece of advice she’d ever received.
“To stick with it,” Peters replied, “that good things will happen. I had the voice, and only needed the desire — the fire in the belly. I really did want it from the beginning. Of course, I had setbacks. I think I have lasted because I did only roles that I felt were right for me. I stuck with my coloratura repertoire. And I had the right teachers.”
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