Operatic baritone Robert Merrill, whose musical artistry took him to the stages of the world's most prestigious opera houses, died Saturday at the age of 85. 

Robert Merrill first saw the Metropolitan Opera when he was 18.  The then-aspiring baseball player was in the audience with his mother for a performance of Verdi's "Il Trovatore."  That musical experience convinced the young athlete to switch from baseball to opera.  At that age, Merrill could not  anticipate his meteoric rise in the operatic world which would, 10 years later, find him back at the Metropolitan - this time on stage, as a fully developed baritone, singing that very opera.

Robert Merrill was born Moishe Miller in Brooklyn in 1919 to poor Jewish immigrant parents from Poland.  During his high school years, young Robert  not  only dreamed about baseball, he pitched on a semi-pro team with other boys who called themselves the Brooklyn Kings.   He tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It has been noted that if the Dodgers had signed him on, the Metropolitan would have been short one good baritone.

But Robert's mother, who was an operatic and concert singer before leaving Europe, introduced him to opera and arranged for him to take singing lessons from Samuel Margolies, with whom Robert Merrill studied for the remainder of the teacher's life.

Meanwhile, young Robert worked at several jobs to help pay for the lessons, including the shoe business with his father.  His rise began when he spent a summer singing in the resort area of the mountainous region known as the Catskills in New York State, where a talent scout heard him.  Soon he appeared at Radio City Music Hall.  He next won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, a radio program, which provided the young singer an opportunity to sing at the famous opera house the role of the Elder Germont in "La Traviata."  Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, choose him for the same role in a radio concert.

Live concerts followed, along with  more radio shows and the honor of being selected to sing at a joint service by both houses of Congress in memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Merrill returned to the stage of the Metropolitan to sing the role of Figaro in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."

Many other roles followed, including that of the toreador in Bizet's "Carmen," the high priest in "Samson and Delila," Rodrigo in Verdi's "Don Carlos," Amonasro in Verdi's "Aida," and the lead role in Verdi's "Rigolleto," among others.

One of Merrill's most moving roles was that of Tonio, a strolling player, who steps before the audience before the curtain rises to sing the prologue to Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci."

By 1973, the popular baritone had become the first American to sing 500 performances  at the Metropolitan.   Merrill did not confine his repertoire to classical music.  He enjoyed stage appearances, such as the role of Tevye, who sings the mocking-but-humorous  "If I Were a Rich Man" from the broadway hit, "Fiddler on the Roof."

Always patriotic, Merrill's recording of the hymn, "America the Beautiful," has been called the operatic star's testament to his love for his native country.  Baritone Robert Merrill, dead at age 85.