Marc A. Scorca: Erie Mills. Hello, and thank you so much for being with us.
Erie Mills: Hello, Marc, and thank you for inviting me.
Marc A. Scorca: For our 50th anniversary, we wanna capture interviews with people who've really shaped opera in America over the last half century, and you are one of those people, so I'm really grateful to you for this time today. Thank you.
Erie Mills: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you.
Marc A. Scorca: Erie, I ask everyone the same question: who brought you to your first opera?
Erie Mills: Well, I don't know. I think we brought each other. It was my mother and myself, New York; The Metropolitan. We were there on a brief vacation to visit some friends that I had met at Interlochen, the national music camp, and we were staying downtown and we just went to The Met, and it was Simon Boccanegra and I think we slept through almost half of it, because we were just so tired from touring and all that, but we wanted to go. And I do remember that it was Cornell MacNeil and Paul Plishka, and the costumes were absolutely beautiful. And I really hadn't, at that point, thought about opera. I had been doing a lot of musical theater in community theater in junior high and high school, but opera wasn't really on my radar at that point, but it was very special. I mean, I remember it; these days remembering is a really good thing. So, yeah, that was it. Simon Boccanegra.
Marc A. Scorca: It's funny, Erie, that you say that, because given your incredible skill as a performer (and you know, I'm a great admirer) I was wondering if you had done musicals/musical theater when you were a kid in high school - getting that sense of the stage as a youngster.
Erie Mills: Well, I kind of credit that to why I usually feel very comfortable on the stage, because I did it from such an early age. I was taking voice lessons and dancing lessons and piano. My mother was a woman of the depression; my parents both were, and she just wanted for her only child, everything she had not had. That included piano lessons, playing an instrument, knowing how to set a table...everything, and being involved in all the arts. So, we would go over to St. Louis to the Bach Christmas show. At that point, there was no opera in St. Louis, but we went to the Symphony. I saw Leonard Slatkin, as an assistant conductor to Walter Susskind, and we ushered at the American theater and for plays, and it was for her a very important thing that her child have that opportunity. And I also laugh about it, because I said, "I don't think she realized the monster that she was creating," because I just took to it very easily. And I wasn't good at everything, but I did lots of things. And I think that that did help with my comfort zone, and also, I think it really helped with the singing, because I didn't do a lot of chest voice necessarily, but I had to project and was not really afraid of making an ugly sound, as long as I knew I could get out of it. At the opera, I sang Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof, because I was the littlest person that could fit on the guy's shoulders...And I was like the nasty nun in Sound of Music. And so, you did what you were asked to do...
Marc A. Scorca: Great training. You're from Illinois?
Erie Mills: Granite City, Illinois, which is right across the river from St. Louis, Missouri.
Marc A. Scorca: Okay. So when you were at The Met for that Simon Boccanegra, were you in high school at the time?
Erie Mills: I think I had just gotten into high school. Yeah.
Marc A. Scorca: Okay. So early on.
Erie Mills: Yeah. Sophomore year - something like that. I think it was over Thanksgiving. We wanted to go to New York, and I don't think I'd ever been, so we were trying to do all kinds of things. I had been. I lied. My Dad had driven us...I auditioned for Ted Mack.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow.
Erie Mills: I was a little kid. Of course I didn't make it, but I did audition, and Dad drove us to New York, and we went up in the Statue of Liberty and all that stuff.
Marc A. Scorca: Ted Mack and The Amateur Hour .
Erie Mills: Going back...
Marc A. Scorca: I haven't thought about that in a long time.
Erie Mills: People go: "What? Ted Mack? Who?" Yeah. I auditioned in New York and didn't make it, but we were there and we toured all over and it was a lot of fun.
Marc A. Scorca: A sort of an early version of Who's Got Talent? Ted Mack and The Amateur Hour.
Erie Mills: Exactly.
Marc A. Scorca: So, there you are - a person comfortable on stage with talent. When did you begin to discover that opera thing in you, both as a talent and as an ability that you had?
Erie Mills: I think it came to me in college, because I went to the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio; studied with a fabulous teacher, Karl Trump. But he was a technician and we did mostly art song, choral music. I think I knew maybe three arias when I left undergraduate. But he just wanted it to be technically secure. I mean, in tune, breath support, everything; he was just a stickler for that kind of thing. And it was good, because he had students between 18 and 21, so that by the time you got to graduate school, you basically had a very good technique started. At first, I wanted to be the next Elly Ameling, because we did so much art song. But then finally, we went to The Met on tour in Cleveland. I had a car then, and I took a carload of people up with me, and I had worked with Roberta Peters at Muny Opera and I had a photo album for her, and she was singing Zerlina in the Don Giovanni. And so I wanted to go backstage, and I just said to everybody, "Just follow me, we'll get backstage somehow." I didn't know how. But I realized in seeing all that opera, that year - I think we went up four times that week - that this was what I was kind of meant to do, because I'd had good singing training; I'd had good acting training; I'd had dance, and I thought, because some of the people weren't very comfortable on the stage on that tour, and they were big barns and we watched everything with the binoculars and one guy got caught up going up the stairs, and it was his turn to sing, and so he had to do a turnaround thing - you know, like this (swiveling head). And I thought, "Oh dear, that can't be right," and I thought, "I think I could do this." So I went back to school the next week and I said to Mr. Trump, "You know, I think this opera thing might be good for me. What do you think?" And he just kind of smiled, because I think he knew all along that that was the direction I would probably be going. And so we talked about graduate schools and that led to University of Illinois, where it was just with David Lloyd and John Wustman, and my teacher, Grace Wilson. The doors opened, and everything was just great. And I thought then, when I did my first opera...I had done one of the witches in Dido and Aeneas at Wooster...but I did Musetta in Bohème. That was my first opera. And we did everything in English at that point. And I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I had a red wig and all purple costumes and the white boa, and I just walked out and I just thought, "Oh man, if this is what this is about, I'm in." I just loved it. And the only difference really between musical theater and opera is that you don't stop to talk - most of the time. Most of the time, you sing.
Marc A. Scorca: So Erie, you skipped over detail here, and I wanna go back. You said you had been with Roberta Peters at the Muny, and I don't know that many people know that's the St. Louis Muny, or that Roberta Peters is a major star at the time.
Erie Mills: Well, she came and did - I think it was her first book show; her first musical. She did Anna in The King and I. And beautiful costumes, and she came so prepared and she sounded so beautiful. And I was only gonna be a senior in high school at that point. I got into the Muny Opera because I had good high notes. And Anton Coppola was the music director at that point, and so I sang an audition. And he came up to me and he said, "Well, I'm gonna call you back for tomorrow for the finals." I said, "Great." And I sang, Adele's Laughing Song in English. And so they needed sopranos that year that had good high notes. And there were a couple of ladies that were in college, and of course they knew who Roberta... I mean, I knew who Roberta Peters was, but I didn't really know her. We were all so excited and she did such a beautiful job. You could tell she was a little bit nervous, because before 'Getting to Know You', when she pointed to the blackboard, teaching the children. And we were all there, all the wives, and her little hand was shaking so hard when she just (gestures writing)...well, once she started singing, she was home free. It was just gorgeous, you know. In my years there, she came back and did Bitter Sweet, and Robert Merrill was singing Fiddler on the Roof the first time. When I said I was Fruma Sarah, he was the Tevye. And boy, talk about a sound. We just weren't used to sound like that. Everybody was mic'd, because it's a 12,000 seat hall outside, but the voices were (gasp). It was full orchestra. So I got to hear that sound, and Roberta Peters and I became...After that, I reminded her when I saw her in college, and I gave her the booklet and she was so thrilled. And after that, we became - not good friends - but I mean friends, and she would always be generous with me and very kind.
Marc A. Scorca: That's very sweet. What a great story. And you also mentioned David Lloyd. And in all of the interviews that I've done, I don't know that anyone has mentioned David: a wonderful singer in his own right in, I think, the United States premiere of Billy Budd. And then he went on to lead for many years, Lake George Opera Festival when it was up in Queensbury High School auditorium. So you worked with him as a teacher at University of Illinois?
Erie Mills: Right. He was the head of the opera department. They had built the Krannert Center, and he had come to run the opera department. And I'll tell you that was probably the most wonderful thing I could have done, because he believed in an overall...we took make-up class; we took directing class. I directed a scene from Abduction from the Seraglio long before I sang it. We took a lighting class, and all the assistants had to have jobs. And my first job, my first year was publicity. So I worked with the Krannert Center head and wrote all the press releases, and had to get all the information in at a certain time to be in the local paper. And then the second year I was the scheduler. And after that, I have had a profound respect for people who schedule the opera rehearsals, and all that. That's just somebody you never...you just smile and keep going, because you never cross them, because they have such an incredible job to do, and I told my colleagues, if you touch this board...You come to me first, and if you need to change, we'll change it. But if you touch it yourself, you're a dead person. You know (crazy sounds)...but it taught you about the opera business.
Marc A. Scorca: What a great approach.
Erie Mills: The year after my first year, I stayed at school and did a class, and I was running the costumes for the Porgy and Bess that we did at U of I, and then it went up to Lake George, and I drove the van across the country with Craig Rutenberg and Becky Hayes (another friend) in the car to Lake George; got all the costumes out; had to wash and dry and iron them all. And (William) Bill Warfield was the Porgy.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow.
Erie Mills: Oh, you grow up with those people and you think, "Oh wow". And he was on the faculty - William Warfield - at that time and taught the oratorio class. And, oh my goodness, that was an experience. You just met all these great people. And John Wustman was the main coach. Eric Dalheim also was a coach there. And we started singing at about 8.30 in the morning and we didn't stop until 11 o'clock at night. And you just learned all kinds of different things and different repertoire, and that was in the year of Jerry Hadley and Eric Halverson. We just had a great group of people, just a great group. And it was really fantastic training, those two years. Criag Rutenberg was on the coaching staff. He had an assistantship that year. So, we just had really great people to work with. Even the students were great people, so it was really an interesting time, those two years.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow. So Erie, from U of I, to the Houston Opera Studio. Was that a direct path, right from one to the other?
Erie Mills: It was. A pamphlet appeared on the board, and we all looked at it, and they were gonna audition in Chicago. And so, I guess we called and made a reservation or something, and we drove up to Chicago and a bunch of us sang and, in those days, because that was gonna be the first year of the studio, 1977. And in those days, the people auditioning were Carlisle Floyd, David Lloyd and Jean Mallandaine. She was head of music staff at that point. So, I mean, we sat there; we're singing for Carlisle Floyd and David Lloyd. I think I started with Norina, and Carlisle said, "Do you sing Blondchen?" And I said, "Well, yes, I do, but I didn't bring it." And he said, "Oh, I'm sure we can find the music somewhere." And somebody went out in the hallway and said, "Does somebody have the...?" I don't know if it was in the 'Prima Donna' thing or the Schirmer whatever. And I looked at my pianist, 'cause I brought my pianist with me and I thought, "Oh dear, I hope I remember this." And so did that. And then they asked for Anne Trulove.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my word.
Erie Mills: Those were the days where you did 20 minute auditions, and David came up to me after the Anne Trulove and my C natural - my high C - was never the greatest note in the world, and I could ping it and crescendo, but I could never really hit that high C forte, and make it...
Marc A. Scorca: But of course you could sing above it. But that note...
Erie Mills: Above it was fine and below it was okay. Even that passaggio area was all right, but that C natural...so I always sang it (sings sotto voce) 'An ever-loving heart', and I would just ping it and then crescendo and David Gockley, after it was over, walked up to the little stage where I was standing, and he looked at me and he said, "Erie, may I ask you why you do the high C piano and crescendo?" And I just looked back at him and I said, "Because I can." And he just smiled. He got this little, you know, gas smile on his face and "Hmm." You know, like, "Oh." And I made the finals, so I guess they must have liked it. And then they flew us all down to Houston and we met (Elena) Nikolaidi then 'cause she was there and she was gonna be the teacher...
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness; how fabulous.
Erie Mills: Yeah, I was very fortunate.
Marc A. Scorca: You've worked so extensively with apprentice programs, resident artists programs. You were a member of the HGO studio. How important are those for a young singer?
Erie Mills: Well, I think in those days, and probably now too, they are important because they allow the young artists to be affiliated with a company, and no company wants to believe that they hired somebody who wasn't very good. So they want you to do well. They want you to be successful, so they can be - quite frankly - the people that say "We're the ones that started this person out, and will have them come back after the studio days." They really want you to be successful. I know that's hard for some young artists to take, because they're working very hard, but I think the companies really want their young artists to be successful. And so they give you an opportunity to live, first of all in one town for a while - one, two years, maybe six months, whatever the program is. And you get to know the family of that company. You can coach probably as much as they have time and you have time to do. You're doing your small parts, you're doing your covers. Hopefully you're doing bigger parts the next year and then the next year and the next year...So I think it allows you to...In America where everybody is going off...it's stagione...it's not in repertoire, really the operas (Except some of the summer festivals), but it allows you to become a family; not travel, except the 10 minutes, 15 minutes, it takes you to get to wherever you're going, and I think they're trying to be very positive. It means you have to listen to what they have to say, and filter that and see if that's really...between your teacher, your coach, the general director, the music director, the artistic director, you have to pay attention. And you may not like what they have to say, but you do have to listen and then filter, and that's what happens. And of course the voice grows, so a baby bass, or a baby dramatic soprano won't be in that spot for several years, where a soubrette is out of the gate: we're doing our things right away. So, people have to be patient (or not), but also you have to hone your craft. You have to sing in tune, whether you're a dramatic soprano or a coloratura soprano.
Marc A. Scorca: You do.
Erie Mills: That's it. And you have to support, and you have to study languages, and you have to learn about legato lines. So you can be doing things, even before your voice is really perhaps in the place where it's going to be. And I was very fortunate that I was a soubrette, a coloratura soprano, and I love comedy. As much as I would want to have sung Violetta or Tosca: ain't gonna happen - that's just not gonna happen. And that was fine with me. I sang a lot of really great repertoire.
Marc A. Scorca: Including Lucia and other juicy roles, but we'll come back to that in a second. This all lines up, of course, for your incredible debut at City Opera, which was just...I was there because I was working at City Opera at the time, and I remember it. We'll come to that in a moment. Were you an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera?
Erie Mills: I was not an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera ever, but in 1984, I went to sing for John Crosby in New York, and I got hired for the Carolina in Matrimonio Segreto; 1984 summer. So I was hired as an artist right away, but I had been an apprentice at Lake George, and done small parts (like) Frasquita in Carmen. And then I did the Don Pasquale for the student matinees and then came back and did Mikado a year later. And so, I did an apprenticeship, but it wasn't at Santa Fe.
Marc A. Scorca: So, let's get to the City Opera Candide and I remember those performances - the opening night Leonard Bernstein was in the theater sitting next to Beverly Sills. I was working at City Opera at the time. And I was in charge of the patron program. I had patrons calling on waiting lists to get into see that Candide. It was the hottest ticket in New York City. And night after night, you popped Cunegonde 'Glitter and Be Gay' out just perfectly. What was that experience like for you, Erie?
Erie Mills: Well, it was a great one, because indeed it was my New York City debut - opera debut. And it was a new production so we had a lot of rehearsal; lot of stage time; great cast; the orchestra; great conductor, John Mauceri and Hal Prince. It was his production. And that one aria, I had been singing since college. So again, I felt very comfortable. I had to go down to the theater where one of the Hal Prince shows was - I had to audition for him. I think George Darden played, and the piano was way underneath the stage and I was on the stage. And again, the aria went great. And then of course, they asked me to do some dialogue and (shifts speaking voice to be highly placed) my voice was so high from singing, and Hal came up to the stage, and he said, "Could we just try that again, and just really relax and calm down." And I said, "Okay, but when you've been singing Cunegonde, it's hard to get your voice back down." But I left the theater. I think it was the Phantom of the Opera theater, I think. And I walked back to my manager's office. It was ICM, and John Anderson at the time. And by the time I got to the office, they had already called and offered me the job. So he knew before I knew. And it was just such a wonderful experience. The people at City Opera were so lovely and it was a real family, but everybody was excited to be working with Hal Prince. The music is wonderful. It was a fun, fun show. If you couldn't have fun doing Candide, you couldn't have fun, I don't think.
Marc A. Scorca: It was a wonderful time at City Opera. You had June Anderson there and Gianna Rolandi and Diana Soviero was still there, and it was just an amazing high quality repertory house with American singers.
Erie Mills: That's right. And I did many things after that, and it was a wonderful place to be. I was fortunate that most of the things I did were new productions. So there was a lot of rehearsal time. I appreciated that, because that's how it was in the region - you'd be in a place two weeks or three weeks or whatever. But it was a good place. And I remember that those tickets for Candide, because I banked at the Chemical Bank on 86th street and Peter Greenough, Beverly's husband...The car pulled up, and he got out and he banked at that bank. The line went as a snake and one of my neighbors from my building was opposite me. And she said, "Oh, Erie, it's wonderful about the Candide. Can you get any tickets?" And I said, "Oh, I don't know. I used my two comps," and Peter cracked up...he was on the other side of the (line) and he piped up, and he said, "I'm married to the boss, and even I can't get tickets." And everybody laughed. I mean, there's nothing greater than walking to the stage entrance and seeing the line outside to get in.
Marc A. Scorca: I don't think I've ever experienced anything like it since where, what was going on in the opera house was the buzz of the town, and was just so sold out. It was a remarkable moment for you, for City Opera, really quite something.
Erie Mills: Yes. It was a great experience. And then we brought it back in two years later for the telecast, and the recording, and it won a Grammy. And it just kind of built on itself, and it was really a lovely experience. So, it was great fun and great experience.
Marc A. Scorca: And you were fantastic.
Erie Mills: Thank you.
Marc A. Scorca: So then The Met, a few years later and European houses, but I also know that you were then doing Lucia in smaller companies in the center of the United States, in the Heartland. And, here you were - a leading lady in smaller companies; a singer with an international resume in companies all over the world. What was that dialogue like between a small American city in a role like Lucia versus going to Europe and singing Zerbinetta in a great house? What was that like?
Erie Mills: Well, Marc, I think it's really important for people to understand that you do your job. You have to be prepared for whatever. In Vienna, I had six hours of rehearsal, because it was an old production, and part of that six hours was watching the television with (Edita) Gruberová that had aired, but you never saw where she came in and out of; you just saw her on the stage. And I thought, "Well, this is not really very helpful." I mean, I love Gruberová, but I couldn't see where the entrances and exits were going. So, it's a totally different thing. But if you know what you're doing, if you're prepared, you do it, and the director would tell you where you had to be, at what points, and then kind of during the hour, he just left you alone, but it was nerve-wracking; but I felt prepared. It's exciting too. But the regional operas...I always tell people, you can't have a career on debuts alone; you have to be rehired. And I was very fortunate that most of the places I sang, I was rehired. So again, I felt comfortable. I knew the people, I knew what to expect after the first time. So you build your little communities and in those days too, we did home hospitality. So we met the patrons and they became dear friends. I mean, my friends in Cleveland, the Freedheims, I sang for two out of the three daughter's weddings. We're still connected. You just become a little family within the big family, and sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't, but you just do your (best). Look, I'm one of those people, that's very pragmatic. That's how I was raised. Do a good job. They'll like you; they'll hire you. It's not personal. If somebody doesn't hire you, they just don't like you, and that's okay. That's what opera's about. I go to the opera, and I like certain things, and I don't like other things, but hopefully the people that like you - there are more of those than don't like you. We just go on from there, but I think the preparation is really important, and knowing what you sing - where your forte in repertoire is. I remember early on, in Chicago, seeing Alfredo Kraus. It was the 25th anniversary of the Chicago Lyric, and he was there doing Faust. And I remember people talking about that if Chicago wanted to do Rigoletto and Alfredo Kraus was not available, they didn't do it. That year being the 25th anniversary, he was in the Faust - the opening of the season, and they were filming it for the first time. And the second show was the Rigoletto. And you know who did the tenor? Luciano Pavarotti. 1979. So really, they could do it because Luciano Pavarotti was there. And (Judith) Judy Blegen...it was a wonderful cast. I covered, that's why (I know). And (Riccardo) Chailly conducted. Those were the days. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but those were really...and people say that 20 years before, that those were the days too.
Marc A. Scorca: But what you say about Alfredo Kraus is so true; that he knew the repertoire that suited him, and that's what he's sang: magnificently, and he played to his strengths for a remarkably long career.
Erie Mills: That's exactly right. I got to do a Hoffmann with him in Dallas in the early '90's. Maybe it was '90. And he was coming from Chicago where he was doing Lucia with June Anderson (in) a crazy production by Andrei Șerban. And (Kraus) he said, "He wanted me to be up on these pieces that floated and all that." And he said, "I stay on the floor." And so he just stayed on the floor but people were saying, "He might not jump on the bar scene in Hoffmann. He may not feel like jumping around." Boy, he got to Dallas, he was jumping around like a...and it was great. And the sound was so magnificent.
Marc A. Scorca: And the musicianship.
Erie Mills: Oh man. You think, "Gosh, if I could do five, six roles and do 'em really great and be the one that they want when they do that opera." They pick you. I thought, "Oh, that would be fantastic. Wouldn't that be fantastic?" Now everybody tries to do everything.
Marc A. Scorca: Once.
Erie Mills: I understand why, and we're getting into more new music too, so that's good. And people don't know the pieces. You might be creating a role. You can't create a Donizetti or a Bellini; it's already been created.
Marc A. Scorca: We'll talk about that too in a minute. But I wanted to note here that in the middle of all of this, you married into an incredible opera family. And it was like marrying into the house of Kennedy in politics. You married into the Rescigno family. Was that nervewracking to have all of these incredible musicians around you? Or was it really supportive or probably both? How was it marrying into the Rescigno family?
Erie Mills: Well, actually, it was great, 'cause I love my husband very much. We met at City Opera. I was doing Daughter of the Regiment with his brother. Their mother passed away. And so Tom came from California to New York, and that's how I met him. I was going then to San Francisco to sing Oscar in the fall, and so we started dating then. And then I did another Daughter of the Regiment with Joe in Washington, and that's when we got engaged. But the first Rescigno I ever knew was Nicola, because he conducted in Houston. I did the Shepherd Boy in Tosca when he conducted the Tosca.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my word.
Erie Mills: Yeah: it's great. If you really wanna know the truth, the funny thing about it wasn't that I was a singer, but that I wasn't Catholic. And Tom's grandmother, Mamette, who was very active in opera, and she went around to all the opera companies. One of her friends asked her. She said, the man said, "But she's not Catholic." And Mamette said, "She's a good girl." It was okay then. It was all right. It worked out just fine. And we had a good time but, oh my goodness - so different from my family. I mean, Sundays, big dinners, festas, 20 people would be there, and Tom grew up with people from The Met and sat on Maria Callas's lap. He went to his first opera at five, and it happened to be Wagner. I think it was Parsifal of all things. But he and his brother just went to the opera all the time. But he knew better than to go into music.
Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. Those family dinners talking about music must be fabulous,
Erie Mills: You start at breakfast talking about what you're gonna have for dinner.
Marc A. Scorca: I believe you are Italian by association.
Erie Mills: That's right. I like to think so.
Marc A. Scorca: So repertoire. Here, we've been talking about whether it is Zerbinetta in Ariadne, or Candide. Lucia we've talked about, but you also did a lot of new work. And I'm wondering whether you approached it any differently. Performing a role that was well known and well documented by recordings versus creating a role that is a first time experience for the audience and for you. Different approaches? Same approach? Different outcome?
Erie Mills: Look, you start with the text. You start with the music. You start with the rhythms. You have to learn it. And you do your research. Miss Havisham's Fire - I read Great Expectations. So you prepare, I think, the same way. You don't say yes, unless the role fits you. You have to have all the notes to sing on the page. But that was, for me, that was a real experience, because the role itself was so long and stamina became an issue. And also just that she was older.
Marc A. Scorca: You're talking about Miss Havisham's Fire.
Erie Mills:...and it was so emotional. It took a little bit of its toll. I mean, I would come home after rehearsals and study and just become like her - just kind of go into my own thing. And I thought when it was over, "Oh God, I'm glad in a way this is over." 'Cause I didn't get to socialize, 'cause I was really working on it. But I've done actually more new music in diction working, than I sang.
Marc A. Scorca: Interesting. Yeah.
Erie Mills: I mean, I sang a lot of 20th century art song, but not that many operas. But then when I started doing diction work in St. Louis and Santa Fe, where they do new work, that's where I really got to know the new works and that's very interesting also, because I loved it and I love understanding it. Charles MacKay said to me when I first started working in diction at St. Louis, because I didn't think I could do it. I had just learned an international phonetic alphabet to teach it at San Jose State, and I thought, "Charles, I don't think I can do this." And he said, "Yes, you can. You have really great diction. And I want you to consider yourself to be the audience advocate." And I thought about it and I said, "Well, I can do that, because I love opera, and I want everybody to get it." And that was pre supertitles in St. Louis too; we didn't have 'em. So that's where I really got to learn a lot more about a lot of new work.
Marc A. Scorca: And just because this is part of the record, I just wanna say that your performance as Miss Havisham stands out as one of the great performances of my career. I just thought you were astonishing. I thought the work was wonderful, and your portrayal was haunting and moving. It was really extraordinary, and I could have taken dictation from your performance. I could have written down every single word. And of course you now are doing English diction coaching in various companies all over, because you are so well known for it. But Erie, what's the key to it? Why can I understand every word that you sing and with other singers, I can't. What are they missing? What is so hard about it?
Erie Mills: I think again - because I came from a musical theater background, the words are really important. So I never thought about, "Oh, my vocal technique won't allow me to do this vowel on this note." You just did it. And I do wanna encourage young singers to try it. Now, some composers set text better than others, and it's not always easy, and also I think the way we learn music is that we learn it dah, dah, dah (regimented sound), and we don't think necessarily about the text enough. And so I wanna encourage people to learn the text almost...Evelyn Lear said this to us at a masterclass a long time ago: learn the text first; memorize the text. And then you get the prosody, because it's not about every word. It's almost...not insulting... I'm glad you enjoyed the Miss Havisham's Fire, but when people come up to me and say, "Oh, I understood every word," now as addiction coach I think, "Ooh, that's not so good, because the conjunctions, the prepositions, they just aren't important. Nouns and verbs. Once in a while, adjectives, adverbs. That's it. That's what they want. But the line... it's the prosody; it's the poetry and many librettists write in poetry now, just like the old timers. So you have to get where's the rhyme; where's the end of the sentence; what's the important word or words of this line, this page? And everybody wants to sing it all the same, and I think once they get to a point where they know it well enough, and they can actually sing the text, then it's much more understandable. Well, some people just don't wanna do it either, to be quite honest. They think the vocal technique is that they have to modify everything. And I say, "Give it a chance, try it. I don't want you to pull...I never want it to be strained, but just try what's on the page." We should be doing that in Mozart. We should be doing that in Verdi. We should be doing that in dead guys. So, let's try it with these guys too. And if it's really bad, we'll change it, and the goodness is sometimes because they're live composers, you can get the composers (to) change the music, or change the text within the music. So, some people just don't want to, but boy, if they would invest in that and the prosody is a big...I've come to this. I learned music exactly that way, 'cause I was a clarinetist and a pianist and I learned everything...da da da...rhythm and all that. And that's not really what's important. I mean the sound is important of course, but your sound is your sound. Stop worrying about your sound. Just sing. If you're supporting the sound, it'll come out; don't worry. But what you do with the gift you've been given is the important part, and that's what makes people kind of sit up and go, "Oh, I really understood that." They may not have understood every word, but they got it, and that's the important part. So some people wanna do it, some people don't wanna do it...meh, but I make my post-its, no matter what, and when I get a singer that says, "On that note, I really can't do it." I said, "Try it, just try it." And you have to understand that my job is the diction coach, so you're probably gonna get this post-it several times if you're not doing it, so if you don't wanna another post-it, do it. Just do it, like Nike. Just do it. And nine times outta 10, the 'e' vowel is not gonna (change). I mean, why does Puccini write (sings) 'Gianni Schicchi?" I mean the 'e' vowel...so many tenors - and then I'll work with tenors, and they'll say, "Oh my God, the 'e' vowel's the best vowel." Okay, then put the 'e' vowel in the lower notes too. See what that feels like. If your 'e' vowel is really good, practice on the 'e' vowel, and then just take, (mimics reaction)..."Oh, you know... Hmm...". They get all...
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness, this is a mini masterclass. It's wonderful to hear you describe this.
Erie Mills: Funny what people have in their minds, and that comes from teachers; that comes from coaches. I was a teacher. I know all about that, but the voice you are given is the voice you have. A good teacher can help that voice, and I was very fortunate in that department too, but it's what you do with the voice you have. That's your business; that's where you shine.
Marc A. Scorca: So Erie, how about recital work and concert work as a part of your career. An enriching addition to your life as an artist?
Erie Mills: Oh, yes. I think so. Because art songs are mini operas, mini scenes. And I just grew up in college with a lot of art songs, and I loved singing in English, so I went in that direction too. I always did an English set - an American set, usually. I think it's important for people to sing in their native language and the idea of a recital is it's just you. You can hide behind a lot of things in the opera: the character, the costume, the lighting, the set, the staging, the orchestra plays too loud. That's not your fault. But in an art song recital, it's you and only you - with the pianist and you've rehearsed in the course. And it's the hardest work I think I've ever done, singing-wise, but it's also the most rewarding, because you get to the end and you think, "Gosh, that went well," or, "That didn't go well, and next time we'll fix that," or, "Maybe I should drop that song. That's not really good." And there's such a wealth of repertoire. Oh my goodness. So I think it's important to do it. I'm sorry that the recital scene is not as good as it once was. The audiences don't wanna sit there, reading a translation all night long, and I get that, but I think it's really good for the young students to continue to do art song. I think it's important, because it's how you develop the voice, and singing big arias as an undergraduate, or even 18, 19 - I don't think it's the way to go necessarily.
Marc A. Scorca: Did you have a role model, as a singer? Were there a couple of role models, whether they knew it or not? Were there people you thought about as 'I want to do that, that way; I wanna be like that artist'.
Erie Mills: Well, when I finally did start singing opera, Gruberová was my go-to person. I just knew that if she had sung it, then I could probably sing it. That's what I thought, because I listened to a lot of recordings, and when I was asked to do Die Schweigsame Frau in Santa Fe - who'd heard of Die Schweigsame Frau, back then, '87? But she had a recording. So I said, "Let me listen", and I thought, "Well - I can do that." And I just love the way she did things. But there are so many. I had role models for my repertoire, but I also had role models for just beautiful singing, and it didn't have to be a soprano, really. There were so many people. (Carlo) Bergonzi. When you sing with Bergonzi, it's just...you're standing there as Oscar thinking, "Oh, this is heaven; it's just heaven." And it's consistent. There is a level below which he never fell, and you think "I wanna be like that." So it doesn't have to be the voice type. And just wonderful people. Frederica (von Stade) is such a wonderful person. She's just so positive, and she sang so beautifully, and I got to sing with her a couple of times and the way she sang, and how she moved people. And then she was so nice.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, people would always say to me, Frederica von Stade is the nicest person on earth. And then I met her, and she was the nicest person on earth.
Erie Mills: It's just like, "Oh, really?" I'm kind of in touch with her periodically in California and she's just so consistently beautiful.
Marc A. Scorca: It's so true. It's so true. Okay. So: university. You were part of the Academy for 10 years teaching, and how did you enjoy that?
Erie Mills: Well, I did enjoy it. It was again hard work, 'cause I really hadn't taught individuals. I'd done a lot of masterclasses by that point. But, the reason I went into academia was because I saw a very bad production - dress rehearsal - so you have to consider that of Le Nozze di Figaro, which happens to be my favorite opera. And I thought these people - all of them - had great voices and most of them weren't singing well. And I thought "This wouldn't fly with my teacher." I mean, it just wouldn't fly with anybody I knew. So I was on the BART, and I called Tom. I said, "I'm on the BART coming home." And I said, "I've gotta get a teaching job. I've just gotta get a teaching job." And he said, "You always said you never wanted to teach." I said, "I know, but I've got a lot of information from really great people and I wanna get that out. So I gotta look." And my career was...you know, when you're a 45 year old soubrette...there's always some 23 year old, (like I was) who could take your (place), as hard as that was to take. I mean, I knew it was gonna happen, but I thought this would be my time to try to pass on some of the information. And it just so happened that at San Jose State, which is 20 miles down the road for me, there was a position open. So I took it and it was hard. It was hard, because not all the singers were very good, but they were all willing, and they were forced to think about things that they hadn't thought of before. And a wrong note in a Mozart song...I remember the first time I said to a student, "This is not about you.” And she looked (surprised), and I said, "But it's not about me either. It's about Mr. Mozart, and he's gonna be around a heck of a lot longer than either of us. So do what he wrote on the page. You wanna sing other notes, go write your own song. Fine. Go write a song. Great. But don't think that you're singing this song, because this song's already taken." So, once they kinda get that, then..."Oh, well, gosh...I gotta figure out how to sing the right notes. Ugh." (scared). And it's still kind of happening, but once you get people thinking about that...learn it right the first time. Don't hurry and try to do things you can't do. Learn it correctly the first time, and then you don't have to change anything; then you don't have to (fix) mistakes, which takes longer to do, and you're gonna get some conductor, who's gonna want it a little bit different, or a stage director. You gotta be flexible. You can't just walk in and say, "This is the way I do it," because that won't work. Sometimes you can, but not right away. And so, you have to be flexible, but you have to be prepared. You have to know what you're doing. And that was hard work, but I had great colleagues and it was fun. It was a fun time, but it was tiring. And that was the time I realized I was not a multitasker. I could sing. I could teach. I really couldn't do both.
Marc A. Scorca: You know from the exhaustion of academia, to being an artistic director of an opera company. Are you just a glutton for punishment?
Erie Mills: I am. I'm a glutton for punishment. I think what's been so interesting and I really am blessed - I do wanna say this - even on the hardest day of anything, to be able to have...I equate it to being a tree with many branches, and I did the singing; I loved that. I did the teaching; I loved that. I continue to teach, periodically, and the diction part, I love that. I love going places, and helping young singers sing in English. And then this artistic director thing...well, you know, dealing with a board of directors...interesting, because I never had to do that before. It's not that it's out of the norm, it's just, I personally never had to do that. I dealt with a director, conductor, few people, but it's different, and you want what's best for the community. You want it to be as high a quality as it can be for the money that you can spend. And so it's been very interesting, very interesting. And the company just celebrated 30 years in business, and they're still going, and it's a blessing for the community really. And we just try to give them the best product that we can.
Marc A. Scorca: What's amazing is, from David Lloyd on, you've had this 360 degree relationship with opera: having run the scheduling and the costumes back in college, then to being a star singer, to being a teacher for 10 years at a university, to being an artistic director of an opera company. And you just keep exploring opera from every perspective.
Erie Mills: Well, I do love the medium. I love it. When I came to it, it was the greatest thing in the world, I thought. Because this is the one art form that just has it all. That's why it's so difficult to produce and expensive, and people need to realize that. That's why it is what it is, but it is also - when it's glorious - for the audience, it can be one of the most fantastic experiences ever. And I love getting those goosebumps. I love it when somebody sings something, or the orchestra...and it's going, and somebody hits a note, and it just goes up your arm (mimics a shiver)...you know, like that, and you say, "Oh, that was good. That was so good. Do that again." And that happens. It happens frequently, not probably as frequently as it should, but it does happen, and it's a visceral reaction and I know opera, so I'm looking around at my audience, thinking, "Gee, I wonder if they got that," and you know what? They did, they do. They don't know what it is exactly, but they do get it. So I'm grateful.
Marc A. Scorca: Erie, my last question. You've got to be asked for advice all the time. Such a multifaceted career, such success in the various facets of your career. What's at the heart of the Erie Mills advice to the rising artist.
Erie Mills: Oh my. I don't get asked that much, but when I do, especially in my repertoire...I think what's really important is that people know who they are and what their voice can do. I find these days that most singers are singing at least a bump up - maybe two - trying to be something that they're not. And one of my lines is: "You love that role, but that role may not love you." And to have a really good career, you have to find the roles that really love you, and that you sing. That doesn't make 'em easy. But you know that those are your roles. Now that doesn't mean that 20 years down the road, you don't sing other things; you don't move to a different (rep), but you allow it to happen. As I said, I love Traviata; I love Tosca: ain't gonna happen. And I knew that, so I didn't pursue that. And I think it's like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. You will sing better in the repertoire that fits you. And it happens countless times. People will sing a rep, and you suggest something else, and they come back and it's like, "Wow, it's almost like a different voice." And you think, "Yeah, that's it; that's your voice." And so I have to think of that. The coaches, plus the spaces, especially with COVID now, too...we were all singing...performing on Zoom. Who knew what the voice really sounded like in a way? And then the small rooms and universities...and don't listen. Don't listen to yourself. The audience listens. I listen. You feel. You go by the feel. That way you will always sing the same way; you will be consistent. And consistency is what being a professional at anything is all about. There's a level below which you cannot fall, and be a professional. You just can't. So, you've gotta get to that place and keep working at it. Stay there, and that's really important. A bad night is a bad night. You may not get rehired if you have a bad night. If you have a semi-bad night, you might get rehired.
Marc A. Scorca: What I love Erie, about listening to you is the way you combine this warmth and humor on the one hand, with this great rigor and discipline on the other hand. You are joyfully non-negotiable about the basics of good artistry.
Erie Mills: I'll use that, Marc.
Marc A. Scorca: Joyfully non-negotiable.
Erie Mills: (Upbeat) Joyfully (serious) non-negotiable. 'Cause that's part of where I come from, and that's how I was raised, and that's how the teachers...they were strict, and they just would not take no for an answer. You knew that they knew more than you. So I knew this is what I have to do. And my father was not all that pleased that when I went to college, I was gonna be a voice major, because he didn't go to college and he wanted math and science. He wanted me to be able to graduate from college and earn a living. And always in the back of my head was "I gotta make him proud, because this music thing was not what he was cracked up to be. But it's just what I love to do. You have to love what you do, but you also have to know what you can do. That's important. And just because you feel something...Karl Trump said to me, years ago, "I don't care what you're thinking about. I care what it sounds like." And he said, "We've got work to do." I thought, "Oh." It was before my senior recital. And I thought, "Oh, I thought I did that pretty well." Anyway, luckily we had three weeks to fix some things. So I mean, it's always working. It's working, working, working, keeping it going, being better. You put the restraints on yourself, and listening to what people have to say. I mean, we're not saying these things to badger you, or to make you feel bad. We're saying these things to make you better. And we know where we come from, that this is what works, and it's not that you can't....we have different niches now, which is great: the new music, the baroque music. And that wasn't around necessarily when I was (starting). You had to sing opera and that was it, pretty much. But now there's all these venues and that's great. That's wonderful. I think that's exciting. But you have to know who you are. I tell people all the time, if you don't like to travel, if you hate the fact that you have to pack a suitcase, I don't know that you're gonna be able to do this. You have to get used to it. Okay? I plan two days ahead of time, and then I feel better, but if you really hate being away, that's not gonna work. So lots of things, but I think people can do it, but they just have to be very mindful of what their instrument can do well. It's not about you personally. But again, I was lucky. I loved doing the comedies. I love making people laugh. That was good. So that's what I got to sing a lot.
Marc A. Scorca: We're so lucky for it, and so fortunate to have you as a member of this community in so many different ways. I'm tremendously grateful for your taking this time to speak with me today.