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Decades don't dull singer's shine

When Roberta Peters appears in public these days, she looks much the same as she did more than 48 years ago, when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut at 19.

She's tiny, vibrant, and ebullient, beautifully gowned, coiffed and bejeweled, and she strides toward the piano with an infectious energy that seems to say that she still _ after all these years _ simply cannot wait to sing for us.

When she sings at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall today, she'll present a hefty, generous and delightful bill of fare, including arias from some of her signature Met roles, selections from the operettas of Franz Lehar, songs by Irving Berlin and Italian songs. Which is to stay that she is still Roberta Peters, one of the most famous and beloved artists in the history of American music.

She is still the youngest singer ever to make a major Metropolitan Opera debut. That alone would have practically ensured her immortality. But the fact that she made her first stage appearance anywhere at the Metropolitan Opera itself on a moment's notice (her debut was originally scheduled weeks hence) and without a stage rehearsal immediately made her big news. Her remarkable talent by itself would have been enough to guarantee a modicum of success. But she was charming, vivacious and beautiful.

Within days of her Met debut, she was invited to sing on television on the Ed Sullivan Show. She was a hit, and she went on to sing for Sullivan more than 60 times (more than any other artist in the field) over the next 20 years.

Her popularity was so immense that she became a crossover artist before the word was invented, and she was America's operatic sweetheart. Now, she is an American archetype: "I've been lucky," she says quietly. "And I've enjoyed every minute of my career."

Of course, there's more to it than that. She has had the longest career of any major star who ever sang at the Met. And she has triumphed there in roles that bear her stamp to this day, including Don Giovanni, Rosina in The Barber of Seville and Oskar in Un ballo in Maschera.

Elsewhere, she has turned her talents to the performance of Viennese opera and American musical comedy, including The Merry Widow, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. In some ways, she's a throwback to the singing traditions of the 19th century, when a singer simply sang whatever beautiful literature suited her voice, and without worrying about distinctions of classical versus popular.

Her story reads like the script of a musical comedy of the movie of the week. "From time to time," she says, "there has been talk of making my life story into a movie." She laughs. "Well, we'll see."

The story begins, she says, with her father. "He was the maitre d' in a restaurant where Jan Peerce, the renowned Metropolitan Opera tenor, used to dine. My father managed to convince Mr. Peerce that he had a gifted daughter. Mr. Peerce, unbelievably, very generous, agreed to hear me sing." And instead of rolling his eyes, Peerce was impressed with the young girl's talent.

"He sent me to a good teacher and watched over my progress, supporting me in every way for years. When he felt I was ready to begin a professional career, he arranged an audition for me with Rudolf Bing at the Met and the great impresario Sol Hurok. That was the beginning of my career." No apprenticeship, no years abroad, no bit parts, no understudying: Peters started at the top and has stayed there for almost 50 years.

Indeed, fans of hers will want to keep an eye on the year 2000. She's already planning a concert and a possible national tour in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of her professional debut.

When pressed to attribute her vocal good health and longevity to something besides luck, she says, "You must take good care of your voice. Don't push it. Don't sing repertoire that's unsuitable for the quality of your voice, and always have yourself a teacher whom you trust always to tell the truth about what you're doing."