Interview with Honorary Board Member Chris Merritt.
Chris Merritt, who is legendary among Rossini fans, graciously agreed to answer some questions for us!
He just completed a run of Candide in Florence and he has a busy teaching career. We are delighted that he is on the Honorary Board of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival. So we’ll start by saying, “Thank you!”
Q. Becoming a professional singer must start somewhere. When did you start singing?
CMI began singing when I was in the 8th grade, in junior high school. I was studying piano, art and dance during that time and the new director of my school’s vocal department, a young tenor just out of college, had heard of me because I played piano. He called me and asked me if I wouldn’t be the pianist for the boys glee-club beginning my 8th grade year…and I happily agreed. When the school year began, I was ready to take my position…and discovered there was a girl at the piano. He told me that he had found a girl to play and would appreciate if I would sing in the glee-club, instead, since finding boys to sing at that age was not easy. The rest is now…history.
Q. What made you realize that you might want to pursue singing as a career, and were there specific people who helped guide you in that direction?
CMWhen I began singing in the boys glee-club in the 8th grade, it quickly became the focus of my young life. The next year, in my 9th grade year, our young and energetic director came up with the idea of doing something in addition to just performing concerts in formal choral settings…and the idea of doing a musical was born. He decided for us to do THE WIZARD OF OZ…a great choice for young people and audiences, alike. All main parts were double cast and I was one of the two boys doing The Tinman. We did everything ourselves…made the sets with help of the art teacher, made our own costumes with help from our moms, did our own and each other’s make-up with help of the drama teacher. Our director conducted and involved students in our school’s instrumental department to play, augmented by hired players from Oklahoma City area.
This was my first time to sing, on a stage, by myself, before an audience….and I was mercilessly hooked…for the rest of my life!!! I would have to say, that young director, Stan Smith, was the first person to have such profound and focused vocal-performance-influence on me.
Q. Not all singers can sing Rossini. How did you discover that this was a good fit for your voice?
CMMy teacher, Inez Lunsford Silberg, was one of the nation’s top voice teachers. She herself decended from the historic belcanto teacher, Mathilde Marchesi through a line of fine singer/teachers. From the beginning, I was gently groomed in this belcanto singing world and it was very natural that the main composers of that era, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, were always present during my studies. As I began to do competitions and auditions, it became clear to me that the Rossini arias, especially, gave a quick and direct display of a singer’s provisions…high, low, loud, soft, fast, slow. My teacher and I chose the aria of Ramiro from Rossini’s LA CENERENTOLA as my best and most interesting competion-audition aria; it showed what I could do and it was not the typical BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA aria which all other young tenors seemed to be doing.
In working on this aria it became clear to me that this music..this BELCANTO music…was something very special to me! About this same time, I was discovering the world of recordings and was gently herded towards the recordings of Sutherland and Horne by a dear friend and fellow tenor-singing-student, Don McDonald. He already knew of my fascination with the belcanto music and thought these legendary artists’ recordings would interest me. BOY!!! Was he ever on-the-money! As I began to soak up all of this wonderful world of Belcanto….I began to focus more and more on the works of Rossini…and it felt like a match made in heaven.
Q. You have sung Rossini many places in the world. However your performances with the Rossini Opera Festival are among those much treasured by your fans. What brought you to the Festival?
CMAdmittedly, I knew nothing of the Rossini Opera Festival in my younger days as professional singer. I was already singing in the german Fest system, engaged as lyric tenor within the performing ensemble of first Landestheater Salzburg and then Staedtische Buehne Augsburg (the two Mozart cities, interestingly). During these years, I DID sing some Rossini, L’ITALIANA IN ALGIERI was my debut in Salzburg and LA CENERENTOLA was my last production in Augsburg. However, I sang everything else for the lyric tenor; LA BOHEME, GIANNI SCHICCHI, FAUST, ZAUBERFLOETE, IDOMENEO, FIERABRAS, LOUISE, FLIEGENDER HOLLAENDER, etc. At this time, I had already been discovered by the great management company, CAMI of New York City. My manager at the time, Elisabeth Crittenden, arranged for me to come to the US and do a conductor-audition blitz in about one week. I sang for Muti, Abbado, Sinopoli, Eve Queller and…..Alberto Zedda!!! I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know of maestro Zedda at the time. However, he knew of me…and after that audition, I was offered my debut in Italy with the Rossini Opera Festival! This began the happiest and most important era of my whole career.
Q. Which of the roles you sang there were the most “interesting” ( or, your favorite)?
CM Of the ROF roles, I would say OTELLO was for me the most interesting. As far as favorites go…all of the Rossini roles I have sung are my favorite…they are like my children. I could never decide.
Q. We associate you with Rossini’s serious operas, but you were wonderful in “Il Viaggio a Reims” which must present special challenges since it is both comedic and quite an ensemble piece. Did you enjoy singing in this opera?
CM IL VIAGGIO A REIMS was my La Scala debut. In addition, I sang it at the Vienna State Opera and again at ROF for the bicenntenial. The experience of this incredible opera and the production were towering momuments in my mind; my first time with Abbado, with Ronconi, with Gae Aulenti, first time at La Scala, singing with my great heros…Ricciarelli, Cuberli, Gasdia, Valentani-Terrani, Ramey, Raimondi, Dara, Lopardo…and later Caballe, Chausson, Matteuzzi, Furlanetto, Studer. If I really concentrate on the immensity of it all…it almost can make me light-headed.
Q. Many Rossini singers have commented that Rossini is very hard to sing because “there is no place to hide”. What is your take on this?
CM I feel this is one of the most important aspects of Rossini which appeals to me. I must admit that I am a very exhibitionist performer…and this aspect of *no place to hide*…is almost like a drug for me.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
CM Only one thing….forever….VIVA ROSSINI!!!!!
Q. We understand that you have a website. We would love to post the link. Is there something we should know about this?
CM My website is for my teaching. However, I would be happy for you to post the link.
Chris Merritt is on Facebook.
The link to his teaching site is