Roberta Peters died a few weeks ago. The New York Times featured a moving and enlightening tribute to this opera pioneer the day after she passed. I read it with interest and sadness, but for perhaps a slightly different reason than her fans might have.
She was my brother-in-law’s mother; we have known her since he and my sister were courting and married, over 25 years ago. My boys and I knew her as “Grandma Roberta.”
It was an honor and a gift to see a more personal side of this world-renowned diva. One of the most significant and delightful memories that I have of her is of the day she took us for a private tour of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. My boys and I joined my sister, her husband, their girls, and our mother at the Met. THE MET: where Roberta met us and ushered us into the stage entrance. The staff greeted her with awe and deference, which she politely acknowledged, but continued to treat us – especially the kids – with warmth and affection.
A Met representative guided us through the bowels of the massive and impressive facility, revealing that there is far more behind the curtain and above and below the stage than the audience can even imagine.
We had passed a case in the lobby containing her costume from The Barber of Seville—with a waistband so impossibly small that I wondered how she could manage to sing in it, but sing she did, for an illustrious career that spanned decades.
We respectfully touched the myriad textures of museum-quality costumes in the vast storage area. We marveled at wigs. We watched sections of stage swivel and slide back and forth, up and down, and side to side with the ease of a child’s toy. We went up into the fly loft and gazed way down at the stage and crawled into the prompter’s box under the stage where the prompters face the performers to give them cues. We got to walk out with her on to the stage itself and take in that vast, breathtaking view of the Met from a perspective that few civilians will ever see, but that she saw for countless performances.
It happened to be a Sunday, and Mother’s Day, so we extended the incredible treat by heading over to the Four Seasons for a memorable, elegant tea. It seemed only fitting given the experience we’d just had.
I will certainly remember Roberta for her talent, having had the privilege and pleasure of seeing her perform several times, most notably for an anniversary performance at Carnegie Hall. But I will remember her most for being a very sweet, interested Grandmother-once-removed to my two boys and a loving, generous, caring grandmother to my two nieces. I extend my condolences to them as well as to my brother-in-law, sister, and her whole extended family. And I will be eternally grateful for the special day that she shared with us at “her house.”