Ithaca College Mourns the Loss of Roberta Peters Fields, Honorary Trustee and Legendary Opera Singer

By Chris Pollock, January 24, 2017

Ithaca College Mourns the Loss of Roberta Peters

Roberta Peters Fields, Parent '79, world-famous opera singer and an Ithaca College honorary trustee, died on Wednesday, January 18, 2017. She was 86 years old.

Known professionally as Roberta Peters, she worked in multiple mediums: opera, concert, television, musical comedy and as a recording artist. During her long career she was especially noted for coloratura roles — those requiring high, light agile singing in virtuosic arias. She developed an early love for singing, and at the age of 19, she made her star debut at the Metropolitan Opera, which opened the door to a lengthy and successful career.

As “The New York Times” noted in its obituary, her big break came at age 19. She had signed a contract with the Met and had been scheduled to make her debut in January 1951. But the previous November, the soprano scheduled to sing the part of Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” fell ill. Roberta was asked to fill in — with only five hours' notice and no opportunity to rehearse. She was a smash success and it marked the beginning of a lengthy, much-lauded career.

She performed in operas, operettas, and musical comedies throughout the world, twice representing the United States in the former Soviet Union and becoming the first American-born artist to receive the prestigious Bolshoi Medal from Moscow's Bolshoi Opera. She appeared over 500 times with the Metropolitan Opera and on 57 “Saturday Texaco” broadcasts. With 65 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” she was its most frequent guest. She also made 25 appearances on “The Voice of Firestone.”

Roberta was elected to the Ithaca College Board of Trustees in 1974 and was elected an honorary trustee in 1989. She made her first appearance with the Ithaca College orchestra and chorus at Commencement Eve ceremonies in May 1968. She also performed at the 1971 Commencement Eve concert, the 1989 dedication of Park Hall, and the comprehensive campaign kickoff celebration in 2006.

"Roberta Peters was a wonderful and loyal friend of Ithaca College for many decades," said Larry Alleva, a 1971 alumnus and former trustee who served as chair of the Making a World of Difference comprehensive campaign. "Despite her incredibly successful global career in entertainment, Roberta always found time for IC! True to form, she showed an immediate willingness to perform at our campaign gala — and also to support the campaign in other ways," Larry added.

In 1976 she established the Roberta Peters Scholarship Fund, awarded annually to outstanding vocal students in the School of Music. Her son, Paul Fields '79, also created a separate fund to support the Roberta Peters Visiting Artist Series, which brings an accomplished singer to campus to work with School of Music vocal students during a two-day master class. Since the series was established in 2010, it has featured opera performers such as Sharon Sweet, M.M. '77, and Johanna Meier.

Roberta had also been a prominent spokesperson for many Jewish causes, including the Hebrew University in Tel Aviv, Israel. She was the 1997 recipient of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.

She made special appearances to benefit research on AIDS and cystic fibrosis, and had been an active supporter of public funding of the arts. In 1991 President George H. W. Bush appointed her to a six-year term on the National Council of the Arts, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts at the White House. She served on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Carnegie Hall Corporation.

In a statement, the Metropolitan Opera remembered Roberta's professional accomplishments over the course of a 35-year career at the Met. In read, in part: "We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to her family and friends, and to the millions of opera lovers whose lives she touched with her performances." (Read the full statement)

In addition to the honorary degree she received by Ithaca College in 1968, she held honorary doctorates from Lehigh College, St. John's University, Rhode Island University, Colby College, College of New Rochelle, Elmira College and Westminister College.

Roberta is survived by Paul as well as his brother, Bruce Fields. Her husband, Bertram Fields, died in 2010. 

"While Roberta will be deeply missed, her lifelong, highly dedicated friendship with the college should serve as a shining example for years to come," said Larry Alleva.

Ithaca College sends its deepest sympathies to Paul and the entire Fields family on the loss of a remarkable individual.