January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

Though she has long since earned the right, soprano Roberta Peters does not play the prima donna. Keeping her temper in check is as important as her waistline. “The trick is to play your greatest scenes onstage,” she says, “not behind closed doors.” She leads a happy family life in the suburbs of New York. And at 50, when she might contentedly lapse into semiretirement, as some great divas have done, Peters is working harder than ever. Last September, at the invitation of the Chinese Ministry of Culture, she became the first American singer to perform in the People’s Republic, staging four recitals and three master classes in 12 days. “Western opera is a new frontier for the Chinese,” observes Peters. “I felt like a pioneer.” This month she breaks more new ground. Her Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera will mark her 30th anniversary at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the longest consecutive reign of any diva in its history. “What else am I supposed to do?” she asks on the verge of her 515th Met performance. “All I know how to do is sing.”

Her 1950 Met debut in Don Giovanni is legend already. Then 20, Peters was tapped by general manager Rudolf Bing when a lead fell ill five hours before a performance. “I knew the part,” recalls Peters, who was hastily coached and clad in borrowed costumes, “but I had never sung onstage with an orchestra.” At the finale the bravas and four curtain calls proclaimed that a star was born. Says Bing: “That’s the Cinderella story. Roberta could sing. She was also very attractive. That didn’t hurt.”

Seven years of study preceded the overnight success. She had been born Roberta Peterman and raised in a sixth-floor Bronx walkup, the only child of a shoe salesman and a milliner. A schoolmate, delighted by Roberta’s voice, invited her to sit in on a singing lesson. Then Roberta’s grandfather, the maître d’ at a Catskills resort, arranged a meeting with tenor Jan Peerce. He took her to teacher William Herman, who suggested she shorten her name. An audition with impresario Sol Hurok led in turn to Bing.

Peters, the newly minted star, and Met baritone Robert Merrill became a duet in The Barber of Seville, fell in love, married before 1,000 guests, then split two months after the wedding. (Friends now, they usually perform together at least once a year.) That discord behind her, Peters went on to a career remarkable for both popular and critical acclaim: 36 albums, five White House command performances and a record-breaking 66 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

During a 1953 guest performance with the Cincinnati Opera, she caught the fancy of Bertram Fields, then a hotel executive. “I was a bachelor around town, and, one of my favorite pursuits was meeting pretty girls,” he confesses. After two false starts at striking up an acquaintance, Fields threw a reception in Roberta’s honor at a Brooklyn hotel, but his overtures were frustrated by the crowd. Later he plighted his courtship in a letter, to which Peters replied she had no time for social life. But she included her telephone number in the note.

Their silver anniversary was last April. “Bert is a star in his own right, and he’s never resented my career,” says Peters, who will perform 52 concerts in 40 states this year, along with her opera engagements in New York and elsewhere. “I take two or three weeks off in the summer, but then I start longing to sing again,” she says. Peters and her husband live in a Tudor home in Scarsdale and use their tennis court as often as possible. Son Paul, 23, is in graduate school at American University, and Bruce, 20, is in Leningrad for his Colby College junior year.

Being raised by an opera singer was a mixed blessing. “She was away a lot,” Paul says, “and we always had to pick up where we left off. But when we get together now we’re really close.” A turning point perhaps was the time she sang at Scarsdale High while both Paul and Bruce were there. They worried that she might not suit the taste of their rock-oriented classmates. “Bruce and I cowered for weeks beforehand,” Paul remembers. “Then she sang. We were a wreck. But everybody loved her.” He concludes with an accolade any mother would envy: “The older I get, the more in awe of her I become.”

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