After a month visiting with his mother in Lake George, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Perkins moved to New York City. In 1911, he was among the soloists in the first production of Quo Vadis? at the Metropolitan Opera. While working in the grand opera scene, he also studied with Sergei Klibansky, one of the world’s leading voice coaches. Perkins was among his many students who performed at the Carnegie Chamber Music Hall.
While performing nonstop for several years, Robert also studied under Bertha Frigau, a renowned language and singing instructor. American productions of foreign operas sometimes suffered through interpretation, falling short of the gold standard performed at leading venues in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe. Many American opera singers improved their work after studying under Frigau. Like some, Robert Perkins sought the most challenging venue for his new language skills: the stages of Europe. In January 1913, he and his wife sailed the Atlantic.
Having focused on German texts and diction under Bertha, Robert won a prominent position in the Court Theater of Darmstadt, where he played to rave reviews. The future appeared set when he signed a five-year contract to perform in the Royal Opera, after which he would return to the United States.
Entering the lion’s den, so to speak, Perkins managed to win over a tough crowd, singing the world’s most difficult pieces, and in their native language. The trying works of Richard Wagner became his forte, sung by Perkins to widespread praise.
For four years he was at the top of his game, even using the “off-season” to learn new languages and new roles. His solos were much sought after by European heads of state, and from 1913 to 1917, he sang important roles in 32 operas.
During this time, World War I was ravaging Europe. At the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister, the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Saxe–Meiningen, otherwise known as Princess Charlotte of Prussia, he sang Parsifal for the German Red Cross. Entertainment for war victims was highly valued, and Robert’s effort earned him the Cross of Honor from the Princess “for services in war by a nonbelligerent.”
It was just one of several noteworthy achievements. Before German General von Bissing, he gave the first German performance in Belgium, including Wagner’s difficult Flying Dutchman opera, for which he received great praise. At Wiesbaden, he sang for war-disabled officers from Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey. A concert in Switzerland for Swiss war victims earned him a wreath and a letter of thanks from the secretary of state of the Helvetian Republic.
Several crown heads of Europe marveled at his abilities, as did media critics. Wrote one in spring 1917 after a Perkins performance, the part rendered was “seldom so compelling.”
However, trouble was in the air—great trouble indeed. The controversy over U-Boats attacking American ships was a source of tension between the US and Germany. Associated difficulties spilled over into all walks of life, including the arts. Critics questioned the featuring of an American in Darmstadt’s grand opera. Reviews of Robert’s singing went from positive to neutral and then negative.
His oft-praised rendition of Flying Dutchman was suddenly assessed as a weak performance “by an American not at all up to the situation,” said the critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung. Perkins confronted the critic (who once praised Robert’s work) on the street, expressing dismay that political disagreements were affecting the arts. But it was to no avail. Once celebrated as among the foremost baritones, he was suddenly “not singing well,” and assessed as a failure.
The situation escalated dramatically in early 1917 when Germany announced a return to the policy of unlimited submarine warfare. America was expected to disagree with the action, but to offer no substantive response. Two days later, however, on February 3, 1917, President Wilson announced a break in relations with Germany. It was the first step that eventually led to joining the war.
In Germany, Americans were suddenly persona non grata. A day later, on February 4, German officials announced the severing of relations with America. That night, as Perkins prepared to take the stage in a production of Carmen, the stage manager said to him, “We are enemies.” Robert refused to cow, stepping forward and performing as usual. But trouble was obviously brewing.
He continued traveling with the opera troupe, which was, according to the New York Times, “maintained by Ernest Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, a grandson of Queen Victoria, and brother of the deposed Czarina, as well as brother-in-law of Prince Louis of Battenburg, Grand Duke Sergius of Russia, and Prince Henry of Prussia.”
Despite those connections, Robert soon found himself in dire straits. In late March 1917, after a performance in Berne, Switzerland, he was turned away from the German border. Margaret, who had remained in Berlin, was a virtual prisoner there. Further complicating matters: a week later, the US declared war on Germany.
Amid the tension of being separated from Margaret, Robert made plans for them to flee Europe. At Berne, he applied for an emergency passport covering both him and Margaret. To the original 1915 document, he added the following addendum: “Robert Henry Perkins, Glens Falls, NY, Opera Singer: I solemnly swear that it is necessary for me to pass through Switzerland, France, and Spain, not now included on my passport, for the purpose of returning to the USA.”
Uncertainty and fear surrounded Margaret’s fate for a month. Finally, after frustrating delays and behind-the-scenes efforts, she was allowed to join her husband in Switzerland.
Next week, the conclusion: Danger abounds, and mystery remains.
Photos: Opera House at Darmstadt, German Cross of Honor, Margaret Perkins