Merritt hits high notes in voice, career

November 20, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Rossini has been both a blessing and a curse for Chris Merritt. Without the incredible vocal demands of the composer's music, Merritt, 41, probably would not have achieved fame as one of the world's most important tenors quite so early. He now enjoys the kind of celebrity that made it possible for the Baltimore Opera Company -- for which the tenor gives a benefit recital tomorrow at 3 p.m. in Shriver Hall -- to sell almost all its tickets within days of announcing their availability.

Merritt's voice is such that he can hit high notes with the sort of power and grace that must have characterized the singing of Andrea Nozzari, the legendary 19th-century, Italian tenor for whom Rossini wrote some of his great parts. But because he sings these difficult roles so well, he worries about being trapped in them. His situation is a little like that of the Hollywood matinee idol who wants to play Hamlet or Macbeth.

"Many of the people who actually run opera houses will say 'We have the perfect role for him' and that role always tends to be in Rossini operas," says Merritt, who lives in a Baltimore suburb with his Baltimore-born wife, Joan, and their two teen-age children. "This is something I have difficulty escaping. Opera house directors often think that tenors must be carbon-copy molds of the important tenors who preceded them -- and they're a little afraid of someone who doesn't sound like everyone else."

It's not exactly true to say that Merritt doesn't sound like everyone else -- but he does have more to offer than the garden-variety lyric tenor. And it's not just his high notes. The tenor has lovely lower and middle registers that are as expressive as the upper extension that has permitted him to make a specialty of such high-lying bel canto roles as Rossini's Otello.

His voice -- as his recent Washington concert performances with soprano Carol Vaness of Verdi's "The Sicilian Vespers" indicated -- also has a dramatic thrust that shows potential for an entirely different kind of Otello. That vocal quality makes Merritt, with his powerful physique and handsome face with its sensitive eyes, seem like everyone's idea of what Verdi's Otello -- the most heroic tenor role in the Italian repertory -- should look and sound like.

That also happens to be the opinion of no less than Riccardo Muti, the music director of Milan's La Scala and one of the most prominent conductors of Verdi's music.

"When we did our first [Rossini's] 'William Tell' together, he said to me: 'I want to tell you that the odds are 100-1 that you will someday do [Verdi's] Otello,' " Merritt says.

And if Otello is near, can some of Wagner's more lyric heroic roles be far behind? As it turns out, Merritt will be singing Wagner before he takes on Verdi's Moor -- next season in Minneapolis in a concert version of Act II of "Tannhauser" that will commemorate Edo de Waart's final season as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

De Waart is only one of the many powerful conductors -- some of the others are Muti, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Chailly -- who have taken an interest in Merritt's career. In fact, you could say that this Oklahoman-born singer has led a charmed life. Because he went to a high school in Oklahoma with a noted singing program he was given more opportunities to sing than he might have had.

He was lucky that the college he attended -- the University of Oklahoma City, where he het his future wife, the former Joan Coplan -- had a superb vocal program. He was fortunate that early stints as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera brought him powerful contacts that helped him get his first engagements. And he was luckiest of all that those engagements, which took place in the last years of the 1970s and the first years of the '80s, coincided with the beginning of the Rossini revival.

"It sometimes seemed that Rossini was lurking around every corner," Merritt says. "I was lucky."

Not only did he win conductorial champions such as Muti, Chailly and Abbado, but he also made friends such as Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne (whom Merritt calls the greatest of all Rossini singers) and younger singers such as the now-famous June Anderson, Cheryl Studer and Carol Vaness. Tenors are not supposed to like sopranos. Franco Corelli once bit, and drew blood from, the ear of Brigit Nilsson when she held a note longer than he did, making the great soprano fear she had contracted rabies from the crazed tenor.

But Merritt is also an exceptional tenor in that he has formed lasting friendships with most of the women he has sung with, particularly Vaness.

"I love working with her," he says. "We have the same kind of musicality and we sometimes even start and finish sentences together."

He's also taken some solace from the career of Vaness -- who's almost exactly his age. Vaness sings Mozart so superbly that for years she was the prisoner of her own gift.

"Though she sang superb Strauss and Verdi -- you name it -- people didn't want to let her out of the Mozart closet," Merritt says. Now Vaness sings just about anything she wants just about everywhere. And that seems to be Merritt's future, too.

He's going to sing in Verdi's "Trovatore" at the Chicago Lyric next year; "Aida," "Otello" and even Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" are just a little further down the road.

"Rossini was wonderful, but it was getting out of hand," Merritt says. "All singers -- if they're to keep growing -- have to choose repertory that is deeply and personally meaningful to them."

CHRIS MERRITT

bTC What: Tenor Chris Merritt sings benefit for Baltimore Opera Company

Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, Homewood campus, Charles and 34th streets

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Sold out. Returned tickets for $15 may be available and there may be a few stage seats left at $50

Call: Baltimore Opera office at (410) 625-1600

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