Marc A. Scorca: Let's get started, cause you'll see where I'm going with some of my questions here, but as you know, I start out every one of my interviews; I'll start out this one too. Who brought you to your first opera?
Sherrill Milnes: Who brought me to my first opera? Well, that's unanswerable. First of all, I don't remember who perhaps brought me and I suppose my first opera experience were The Met broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, even on an Illinois small family dairy farm where I was brought up milking cows, Saturday afternoon radio...you could have the radio in various places. That's where I really first heard (opera). Probably at Lyric in Chicago was maybe the first one that I had seen. We did scenes of operas in my music school at Drake University in Des Moines. And there I got a tiny taste, a tiny inspiration about it, but I was brought up in sacred music. Now, if we think Mendelssohn and Brahms (and not so much Bach and Handel) as sacred music: that's not much of a detour into opera. If you think the Elijah: it's very dramatic or the German Requiem, which is not staged, but it's operatic in its flow. So I was brought up in this kind of music.
Marc A. Scorca: But there are a lot of people who've answered the question saying that they were in their first opera that whether it was at university or college, if not conservatory, that their first live opera experience was actually performing in one.
Sherrill Milnes: Well, and that would be a normal answer. Certainly feeling the sweat and the nerves and vocal insecurities and all of that stuff would certainly have been when I was in a scene. I have a tape from way, way back of Aida. I did the triumphal scene and the third act duet following that. And I suppose there I got - I can't say got used to the nerves, but at least knew that nerves were part of it. And that's somewhere, where certainly lots of singers wanna figure out that they ask me, "How can I control the nerves when I perform?" Well, my answer is, "You can't."
Marc A. Scorca: And it's so funny because nerves and adrenaline are two sides of the same coin and you want one without the other.
Sherrill Milnes: Of course. And I always say: if you can't perform nervous, you can't perform. Now, Beverly Sills and Richard Tucker both talked about not being nervous. I think they fibbed.
Marc A. Scorca: We read of course of your youth in Downers Grove and that your family were dairy farmers, and yet you had such a rich musical childhood. Again, your bio talking about piano and violin and other string instruments. How is it that you were so musical as a child? Were your parents very involved with music? Church music or just music at home?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, my mother was a piano teacher-church choir director; not very normal Illinois-small-family-dairy-farm-down- and-dirty, as I often say. But The Messiah every year and all of the great oratorios, she did in her church choir. So I was brought up in church music, not at all normal for a farm boy. In fact, my brother and I were considered a little weird in high school. You know: you milked cows; you shoveled manure; and you sang in a church choir. Well, that's weird. They thought we were weird.
Marc A. Scorca: You didn't have a choice. You wanted to get dinner, I guess.
Sherrill Milnes: Well, that's exactly right.
Marc A. Scorca: When I read your biography, there are so many names and you, yourself have a storied career, but some of your early contents are with people whose storied careers reach back, even farther into American vocal, American opera history. And the first one that I come across is: let's say Rosa Ponselle. You had some study with the great Rosa Ponselle. And what was that like? What was she like? Memories of Rosa Ponselle?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, I was very nervous. This was a huge, huge name, like (Enrico) Caruso for tenors; Rosa Ponselle for sopranos. She was quite elderly and I was lucky I was old enough at the time, old enough vocally; old enough physically to be able to translate things that she said, (which were not the way I talked), into things that were meaningful for me. I had to translate (if you understand how I mean that); I had to take her words and put them into systems that made sense to me. I was able to do that. And I knew that she had all of the sounds of the great singers of the '20's, well even teens, '20's and '30's in her ear. So I was thrilled and happy to be working with her. I spent about a week, and I didn't stay at Villa Pace in Stevenson, Maryland, but I would go there every day. I guess I stayed in a hotel because I was doing Chenier with the Baltimore Opera. And it was a set up for the Chenier. And we worked, especially on Carlo Gerard and 'Nemico della patria' and all of the other wonderful music that's in Andrea Chenier. But her influence stayed with me, although she was not my voice teacher.
Marc A. Scorca: And was she encouraging of your youthful talent?
Sherrill Milnes: She didn't do that. She wasn't a 'bravo' or she wasn't an applauder. She was older. And if she sang something, you listened not the tone, but the shape; you listened to the shape, cause she had all these sounds in her head. And again, I was old enough to be able to take whatever somebody might consider a negative - it wasn't a negative; I didn't take it as a negative - I took it as information and how to make it work for me to take the ideas that she threw out and make them work for me. I was a good sponge, in the way that I mean that, and I tell my students, "You've got to be a good sponge." You can sometimes learn as much by listening and not doing.
Marc A. Scorca: Right. Boris Goldovsky?
Sherrill Milnes: "Boris; my boy." Anyway, Boris was a huge influence; a much longer influence than Rosa Ponselle, although he thought she was the greatest voice of our century, or of our time.
Marc A. Scorca: Many people would agree with that.
Sherrill Milnes: I suppose. Yeah. And he was not somebody that praised voices. But hers, Rosa's voice, he would say, "This was the greatest; this was the greatest." I learned many, many things from Boris. Some of it - it'll sound like just because he had a company. I sang hundreds...I sang more than 300 performances of about 12 different operas in English. This was before supertitles, subtitles or translations. And so everything Boris did was in English; was always for American audiences. It was southern Canada, but mainly the US; all over the US and over five years, I sang...Well, you learn when you sing every other performance, (everything was double cast) you find out about fatigue, about you get a little bit sick...just how sick. And can you sing a piece and you experimented diminuendi and crescendi and softs and louds and shape. You experiment. Unfortunately now, as you well know, if singers get one; if they get two performances of something, they're lucky, Well, I had 50. You just learn things that you can't learn in two. Anyway, Boris was a great influence.
Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting that you mention opera in English because certainly at the beginning of your career, at the beginning of the American opera industry, there were a lot of companies that performed opera in English. And I remember talking to Colin Graham so extensively about why he felt young singers should sing in English in order to understand what it was really like to connect to the words; to the plot; to the drama of the opera. The way, if you're in a foreign language, you just don't connect to it quite the same way.
Sherrill Milnes: Certainly not as fast. When I went from English Traviata to Italian Traviata or Pagliacci or Giovanni or Barber, or any of those, you already came in with a certain set up of 'this is my physicality, my vocality'. And some changes when you go to another language, the shape is a little different. Yes, yes. But you come in with 50, 60, 70% of certain things set up. And that was great for me.
Marc A. Scorca: Do you encourage some of the young people you coach and talk to today, to embrace opera in English, if the opportunity comes to them?
Sherrill Milnes: Oh, I would; absolutely. Now Boris, Mr. Goldovsky, was especially good because he did all his own translations. His language skills were phenomenal. And rather than always having a vertical relation: this word in that language means this word in English. Well, that doesn't always work depending on the vowel sounds and all that stuff. He made sure that the meaning of a phrase was the same. Whereas the vertical relationship, one word to another word may not be exactly the same. The emotion was the same. So when I went to The Met, you know, my first Italian Giovanni was at The Met. Can you imagine that, after 50 in English or 60 in English, then the first Italian, which is kind of the real Giovanni (da Ponte and Mozart) at The Metropolitan Opera: a little scary.
Marc A. Scorca: But then of course, you had the opera under your belt in so many other ways
Sherrill Milnes: Exactly right.
Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Wow. Norman Treigle?
Sherrill Milnes: Norman probably never knew how much I took from him. Not so much vocal things, but physical things, because we weren't the same voice category; he was a bass. And you know I was Masetto to his Giovanni in Central City in 1963, I think we're talking. And you know, who was in the chorus? Oh, Sam (Ramey) was in the chorus before anybody knew who Sam was! That summer in Central City, just about every good American singer was part of the cast. And that was in English as well. Buck (Emerson Buckley) was conducting almost everything. And, who was the stage director? He did that. I took so many things from Norman, because I don't know whether he knew how much control over his body he had. Maybe he did know. I would look - this is what I meant by saying 'I was a sponge'; I was a good sponge. He would do some physical gesture. And I remember thinking to myself, "Oh, that's good. I'm doing it. Let's see. Where can I put that in my music?" I learned from Norman. Norman was a great performer. Sam probably was a better singer, but Norman's electricity... I don't know how he did that, but his electricity.
Marc A. Scorca: Everything that I've read speaks about that: about the magnetism of him as a performer.
Sherrill Milnes: Yeah. Wow. Heavens. Fantastic stuff.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, I'll throw just two more names at you. Beverly Sills?
Sherrill Milnes: Performed quite a bit with her, but often the same piece, like Thais. We did a new production. It was a Capobianco production in San Francisco and then it came to The Met, years later. Well, I have wonderful, warm, loving feelings. You know, we used to do a program, dare I say, before you guys existed. We were at The Players Club and we would invite people. And this was when (her husband), Peter (Greenough) had passed away and she was feeling down. It was after she had retired as the boss of City Opera. And I got her on the phone and she answered, and I invited her to a concert and she thanked me very warmly for the invitation and said, "You know, I'm just not going out very much these days, these months, but please keep asking because once in a while I will do it; I will go out and see something." Well, that's the last time I talked to her, cause within what, three months or something, she was gone. And I'm not sure at that conversation, she knew she was that kind of ill. Beverly was a great performer and a wonderful (singer); very smart. Did you ever interview her?
Marc A. Scorca: I worked for her for four years at City Opera.
Sherrill Milnes: Then, you know, perhaps the most savvy American opera singer...
Marc A. Scorca: And from being a singer with no business experience, she became an incredibly skillful general director.
Sherrill Milnes: Absolutely right.
Marc A. Scorca: My last one: Leontyne Price.
Sherrill Milnes: Well, we're talking the gun of her time. My debut year at The Met, which was the old Met...I sang the last year of the old Met. So I'm old enough to say that The Met is no longer the new Met. At any rate, we did Aida and I rehearsed with Lucine (Amara) or somebody else. I never rehearsed with Leontyne. And of course in Aida, I'm her father. And he says, you know, 'sua padre; mia figlia' and all of those phrases, and I had never met her. And after the finale (of the) second act, I went up to her and said, "Hello, Ms. Price. I'm your father, Sherrill Milnes," which I thought was kind of funny. I remember a Forza del Destino where of course, she's my sister and I kill her. I stab her at the end. And I'm way upstage having been wounded by the tenor in a sword fight or dying. And she came up with her back to the audience and said to me, "You sound like a million bucks." And then I had to stab her; I had to kill her, and I felt terrible! She just paid me a huge compliment and then I had to kill her!
Marc A. Scorca:
I drove down from college to see one of the two performances when you and Mr. Domingo and Ms. Price did Forza together at The Met and that performance I saw, still is in my ear as a golden age; a personal golden age of opera. Sherrill: did you find the Verdi repertoire? Did the Verdi repertoire find you? And you are so associated with that entire repertoire from his youth to his old age masterpieces. How did you and Verdi come together?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, as I've said, I've written an article and maybe we do something with the magazine about what's the American Verdi baritone or what's a Verdi baritone? All of us, who are thought of as Verdi baritones sang other composers: Mozart, Handel, Ponchielli and Puccini, of course. Part of it was...now in history, or in hindsight, I can say this: I replaced Leonard Warren in terms of The Met's casting. And they needed - since Verdi wrote more famous operas than anybody else (I think Donizetti or Rossini probably wrote the most operas) but the most famous operas, Verdi wrote. How often did a given singer sing Verdi operas? How often in one season and how often in a total career? Well, I sang a lot of them. He wrote beautifully for the voice, but Giovanni is very different and Fanciulla is very different; Schicchi's very different. I loved singing Verdi cause the line that he wrote, whether he knew he was making beautiful legato lines, I don't know. Where you go in and out of top voice: it fits with what he wrote. Giovanni is very different because back then the word 'baritone' didn't exist. And now I'm teaching about teaching, right now. Giovanni is a lyric bass. And Verdi wrote special tessitura for the baritone and fatter orchestration so that the baritones of the time had to sing higher, longer, louder. It's a lot of brass; often a lot of brass there in the orchestra. And I guess The Met found out, or I found out first, that I could do that. And so the Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil and Leonard Warren, and before them...although they were the more modern names, although all history now. That word, 'Verdi, baritone', audiences; we Americans like titles and audiences like titles. And to a certain degree, it's a title-bestowed situation that an audience thinks of me. Cause after me, I don't know that there's the accepted American Verdi baritone.
Marc A. Scorca: Let's talk about that for a second, because - and if we go back and think about Lawrence Tibbett (a remarkable, wonderful singer) and Leonard Warren - you mentioned Robert Merrill. Cornell MacNeil's a wonderful singer. On a good night Cornell MacNeil was wonderful. And you could go and hear the prologo of Pagliacci and one night it might be you; one night it might be Cornell MacNeil and they were different and they were both fantastic. So it's hard to name the Verdi baritone. Hvorostovsky sang beautifully...
Sherrill Milnes: He would have been known as a Verdi baritone; obviously not an American Verdi baritone.
Marc A. Scorca: Looking at the line of American Verdi baritones, it's hard to name anyone today. And why do you think that is?
Sherrill Milnes: I don't know. There may evolve an American Verdi baritone: it's partly an audience's perception. That means you have to sing a lot of Verdi, for a lot of people, a lot of times. How often does one sing Verdi in one season and over a 20, 30, 40 year career. That's part of it. There's a Russian line of Verdi baritones, and a little bit Spanish, Juan Pons and so forth. But right now, and I don't know why, as you say, there isn't the automatic jump to the conclusion right now: the American Verdi baritone is...I don't know who that is; it's an oddity.
Marc A. Scorca: It is. And it would be nice to continue that line. In working on your own voice and developing your instrument: were there specific aspects of your singing that you had to work really hard to get right? You know, other parts fell into place, but was there a spot in the voice, was there a kind of legato or turn over into your top? Was there something you had to work on, more than other parts?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, I suppose the passaggio. Where do you turn? And that's a difference. That's one of the reasons I wasn't going to go there in our discussion. There is a point of view where...you don't turn, unless it's a closed vowel on F's, F sharp, G's, A flats. Unless it's a closed vowel, you just sing them open. Well, that's not a Verdi baritone. There is a fatter, richer, deeper sound. Now, we're talking a little bit of vocal technique here, but fatter, richer, deeper sound, and a baritone going in on E natural, certainly F's turn, not wide open. Now there are a lot of singers out there - beautiful singers, musical singers - who would sing an F open if it was an open vowel, you know, open vowels like 'ah', which is common, whereas 'A' or 'E': closed vowel. And they tend to take care of themselves. It's the open vowels, that are the tough (ones). And if there was a problem or an area that you were talking about where I had to work on: how do you get the closed vowel? Well, vowel modification. That's the secret. Everybody agrees there's vowel modification, but just how much.... And I always joke with the Italians, kind of 'seeing whatever vowel works the best'. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's somewhat true. And it should give the Americans the largesse or the permission to modify: 'E' vowel on a high 'G'. It's not an 'E' like the octave lower; it simply isn't. You've got to put a lot more 'A' in it and keep a lot more vertical. Now I'm doing a little teaching voice here. You gotta keep a lot of vertical and less horizontal or north, south, east, west, or, you know, teachers use different phrases: fish mouth: that's another one.
Marc A. Scorca: It's really wonderful to hear you, such a great singer talk about singing. When you were breaking into the business, you mentioned Goldovsky and working with him out of Boston, but keep in mind that over 70% of the companies in the United States today have been established since 1970, which is after your career was up and running. So companies like Opera Theatre of St. Louis, all the companies in the 1970's, and there are so many of them. In the '80's, talking about Austin Lyric Opera, whatever...you could sing at City Opera, and you did; you cut your teeth there, and then at The Met. You went to San Francisco. But today the country is populated by opera companies that give young artists steps on the ladder to build their careers. How do you feel about the development of the American opera infrastructure?
Sherrill Milnes: That's a doctoral thesis question: no, thank you. But at any rate, it's a different world, very different world. Not just because of social media, although that's a lot of it. In my time, if you did a CD, it was Deutsche Grammophon or RCA or Decca who put it out. Now, everybody can have a CD in their own room. And you didn't ask me this question, but it relates a little bit...When I debuted at The Met, New York had seven daily papers. Well, (Montserrat) Caballe also debuted the same night, as you know, and there was a bit of a gamble on my part. I could have been run over in the rush to see about this famous Spanish soprano who sang beautifully. I wasn't run over, and with the weeklies and the monthly’s and the dailies, I got 12 reviews for my debut at The Met. Well now somebody is lucky to get one. Big difference. Social media has reviews, but it's not quite the same. Although the newspaper importance now is very different than way back...
Marc A. Scorca: And much less...
Sherrill Milnes: Back then again, if you had a story in The New York Times, that was huge. Now, forget it. It's not going to happen. And it doesn't carry the same weight at all.
Marc A. Scorca: No, but you also mentioned when you made a recording, it was for RCA or any other great record company. And the corner record store had the album cover as a big poster in their window; and your photograph was there; your name was across the window on Broadway, whether it was Broadway in New York or Broadway in any city in this country. So the record companies were part of your promotional machine.
Sherrill Milnes: Absolutely. I was lucky in that way. Robert Merrill was starting to do less, although the sound was just glorious, gorgeous. And unbeknownst to me at the time, The Met was looking for the replacement for Leonard Warren and record companies didn't have (dare I say) the obvious baritone. Lucky RCA, they had Leontyne, Placido and me. We were the team, the RCA team for 10 or 15 years. And then I had a contract that allowed (partly Mr. Barrett's management and my own smarts) if RCA wasn't going to record a given opera, and I had an offer from another company, they had to let me go. Well, stuff like that doesn't happen now. And unfortunately, classical music record sales have never been great, but they're even smaller now. I don't know: a fraction of 1% or something. Wasn't great in my time, but still recording with Placido or Luciano (Pavarotti) or Leontyne: they sold records. So I was there and hopefully I added my own cachet too...
Marc A. Scorca: And the repertoire has expanded so much...When you look at the back of Opera News magazine, it isn't another recording of Forza or Otello, it's a rare Rameau opera; it is another Handel opera that someone's just found in the wall of an Italian Palazzo and they've pulled (it) out and suddenly they're doing it. And so you're dealing with a lot of young singers who are singing a lot of baroque opera, which just wasn't done when you were... maybe Handel Messiah or some of the oratorios, but opera, no. And then all the new work, so the repertoire has expanded in both directions.
Sherrill Milnes: Tons. It means I have to...fortunately I sight read well. So if I do a masterclass on a modern piece, give me the music and then I can make something out of it when I see it. And I suppose a lot of that came from years of violin playing - cause from fifth grade in grade school, the squeak and squawk years... and then I was concertmaster in high school and continued...I played in the Des Moines Symphony: not a great orchestra, but still we did the major works all through my masters. So I played violin for 12 or 14 years. That's a long time and you learn shape. And I played the bass. And you mentioned piano: - not so well, piano, but I play piano. You didn't ask me this, but I was always a chord progression guy, not so much lyrics. I would sing whatever lyrics were there. At some point I found out what I was saying, but for me, where the music led me was the most important thing. A lot of singers aren't that way. It's the words. They want to know where the words; where the character; where the guts of the character; where that leads and that's what drives them. For me, it was sound. It was chord progressions.
Marc A. Scorca: Interesting. I like that distinction in terms of where you found the character and you found the character in the music and in a lot of new opera, the character's found very much in the words. It's a different balance between words and music.
Sherrill Milnes: Absolutely right. And in our programs, I'm known as the diction cop, because these modern works, that are often in English: if you don't understand the words, you got nothing. You have nothing. You gotta be able to - just like I'm enunciating right now for you...I've learned to do that, I guess maybe from thousands of hours of recording. You listen to a playback and you think, "Yeah but I'm not getting the meaning of the words." Obviously, meaning of the words is very, very important, but you got to make music. It's got to have shape. That's where I come from.
Marc A. Scorca: Let's talk about young artists programs for a second. And let's put into a box over here the fact that you are central to a young artist program, but if you think about - cause you have done masterclasses at St. Louis, Santa Fe, elsewhere, you spent a summer at Santa Fe. (I think it was just one summer at Santa Fe Opera). How do you feel about the place of the importance (or not) of young artists programs in the development of singers today?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, it's very important and it's valuable because it's kind of the next step after your very, very talented master's candidate (using university timing as a criteria here.) Very important. What sometimes happens in the programs and that's not as good, is that they use the apprentices as the chorus. And that's kind of all they get. Every singer in the whole world has to be able to sing all kinds of music. Now that's using it in the best sense. That's showbiz. You gotta be able to turn on; you got to say things in your face; in your eyes; in your body language. You have to be able to do that. Just standing and making what pearl-shaped tones or whatever phrase you like there, is just not good enough. Audiences - that's what I tell singers - aren't sitting there analyzing the music. "Oh, I said a masculine plural, and it's feminine singular" or, "Oh, that's a half note; they sang a quarter note." Nobody's doing that. They like you; they don't like you. It's not quite that simple, but you've got to have body language and face and eyes. The character has to live. You have to tell a story, whether you're doing Carousel or you're doing Nixon in China, or you're doing Otello or Falstaff or name whatever you want. Those aren't the most modern pieces, but some modern: you've got to say something. You've got to reach out to the audience and bring them to you. Don't go to them; bring them to you.
Marc A. Scorca: And do you feel that young artists programs give the young artists this experience they need, in order then to be able to communicate the way you prescribe here?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, a lot of them do. There's probably a few and I don't know who they would be. One simply uses the apprentices as the chorus. Well, it's a rich chorus, and you've got these voices making wonderful choral sounds, but it doesn't give the singer... They can learn from singing in the chorus. I did in the chorus in Santa Fe you mentioned, I was in the chorus. I was the chorus. You can learn things, but if that's all you ever do, your growth is stunted. So you've gotta be able to do all of these things. If you sing Carousel or Nixon in China or Dead Man Walking or whatever, you gotta be able to say something to the audience.
Marc A. Scorca: Now, you were talking about the young artists program after your master's degree, and maybe you do a couple of young artists programs. Rosa Ponselle was 19 when she made her debut as Leonora in Forza del destino. So how do you - and you were taking on important work when you were a young guy...you were making your Metropolitan Opera debut in leading roles at the age of 30...
Sherrill Milnes: 29. Then I lied for four years.
Marc A. Scorca: The truth comes out!
Sherrill Milnes: I lied for four years, and then at some point I remember thinking to myself, I shouldn't be 29 and singing Gioconda and Macbeth and these things, and so the next day I was 34.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, you know, you're not the first to fib about an age. So, there's this prolonged period of training of masters degrees and young artists programs. You were Metropolitan Opera, singer, lead role. 29 years old. Ponselle was singing Leonora in Forza at 19. What's taking so long these days?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, I think first of all, that 19, 20, 21, 22 year old debut-business is way in the past. Physically, we don't mature as singers. I mean, we go through puberty, okay? But puberty is not the voice. And you have to... in a manner, if you sing before puberty, you gotta retrain everything, cause you have a different set of muscles and different set of everything: emotion, certainly. And you need to know Lieder and sacred songs and opera, but especially art songs: art songs often are undervalued. And I push our singers to do art songs because they're not about high notes. You probably get this as well. We've had singers say, "Oh, I love the Improvviso (the tenor aria from Chenier) except I can't sing the B flats at the end". (There's two B flats in it). And I say, "Well, you can't sing it". If you don't have an A flat for the prologue in Pagliacci, it doesn't matter. Love it, oh, love it: sing it for your girlfriend, your wife, or your mother or your father. But if you don't have an A flat for the end, that doesn't look like you're going to have a heart attack to get the note, you can't sing it. You got to have those things under control. Well, ordinarily that's not a 19 or 20 or 21 year old, dare I say, device or strength. You can't; you've got to be older. And part of we say my 29 at The Met, when I had done hundreds of Traviatas; of Barbers; of Giovannis or Rigolettos or Toscas or Bohemes; of Carmens. I had done hundreds (total) of these things.
Marc A. Scorca: Because with Goldovsky you had sung hundreds and hundreds of performances.
Sherrill Milnes: Oh my heavens. Five years; over a hundred thousand miles bus rural tour. That was a tour. The Met tour was a luxury. I loved The Met tour. Boris was hard work.
Marc A. Scorca: And I will be talking to some other people in the course of the next few weeks about some of the touring companies, whether it's Western Opera Theater, New York City Opera national company. Of course, you experienced The Met tour. And we have been visiting various opera companies virtually in the course of the year of COVID, and we've studied The Met tour across the country. And how much, how many performances there were and how many productions were brought across the country. Were you on the train? Did you go on The Met tour while it was still going on the train?
Sherrill Milnes: I did the last Met tour on the train. Then they started to fly. The train was much nicer because it was much more family. The plane: you're kind of strapped in your seat and you didn't chum nearly as much, but I'm convinced that, as I say, I loved The Met tour. However, I think every local company: Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit...When The Met stopped touring, the local companies expanded because when The Met would go, the wealthy folks, the music lovers, "Well, I want to support The Met because that's the highest form of opera." I understood that. But then when The Met wasn't a possibility, they supported the local company and that was healthy.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. And a very important chapter in American opera history is the intersection between the Met cities, where they went every year, then stopped. And the growth of those opera companies after The Met stopped touring. What was it you enjoyed about the tour so much? You speak so warmly about it. What did you enjoy about it so much?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, money - you know - that word money. First of all, you're paid whatever your contract says and you flew first class and in a nice hotel. And unlike the orchestra and the chorus who, when they went out, they didn't like it, because they had to stay there and of course they were there every night. Well, I would do maybe two in a week, so I'd fly home and I'd fly back, and first-class then was great. And that was all part of the deal. I mean, you paid for it, but you were being paid and ... parties. I mean, not that one should be a drinker at all, but then you could drink free of charge if you locked into the parties.
Marc A. Scorca: There's still stories about those incredible Met Opera parties. And I'm sure they were elegant affairs, but just how the host cities would roll out the red carpet.
Sherrill Milnes: Absolutely that. Exactly that.
Marc A. Scorca: So when you're giving advice these days (and you do so much of it and it is so valuable), are there commonalities to the advice you give? What are the three or four biggest points of advice you give young singers today?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, given that I come from teaching; my mother was a teacher and I don't think they have DNA for teaching, but I feel like I do, mastering all of that. Sing anywhere and everywhere you can, regardless of the fee. I remember a church job in Chicago, University of Chicago chapel choir there.
Marc A. Scorca: I wanted to pursue a little bit as I thought about it: this whole question. So you're touring with Mr. Goldovsky; you're touring with The Met and all of this live opera coming to people. Now there's this infrastructure of local companies, but they're all of these live streams and video projects and transmissions of all sorts. So, touring is a thing of the past and it has been replaced. Do you think there's something lost without touring?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, there's something lost for the singers, yes. Maybe for audiences as well. I remember at some point, you know, with Goldovsky, we were in high schools and lots of smaller venues, and we did Boheme and then somebody at the end of Boheme and Mimi dies and all of that stuff. And somebody said, "Oh, do you do an encore?" Well, fair question; wrong, naive question. But you know, okay. We understood it.
Marc A. Scorca: In The Met tours in the early 1900's after Boheme, they would do Lucia's mad scene. There would be an encore. So what I hear you saying, unlike the Met tour, the Goldovsky tour went to small venues and little communities that would never either have their own opera company, or would never have a visit from a big opera company. It was live opera, in-person close to home?
Sherrill Milnes: Right. In fact, never were we in a city that had its own company; almost never, and Boris always used younger singers. So I sang things with him - and I tell this to singers all the time. They say, "Well, should I sing this or this or this?" Well, some things are too old for a given singer, but I say, "Who are you singing with?" I remember in Beijing, a young baritone, very talented baritone asked me, should he sing Carlo Gerard? And I said (ordinarily, you would say, of course not: Chenier is a grown-up piece). Well, it is: yes. I said, "Well, who are you singing it with?" And he said, "Well, my colleagues in college" I said, "Sing it." Because everybody is 25, 24; they're all going to have the same weight you won't be - as I put it - you won't be conned into trying to artificially darken your sound and sound 40 or 50 years old. You shouldn't. So you sing with young singers and you do it. Okay.
Marc A. Scorca: The absence of touring may be a loss for the singers. What are singers missing out on and not having that touring experience?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, repetitions, the learning. Can you take the diminuendo even further. Can you do more crescendo? Can you do more accent? Can you and your body language? All of that. This is why I tell...if a singer really wants to be on stage and that's very important for them, the German-speaking houses are still the place to go. That's most of Switzerland, Austria, and of course, Germany, even though there's some less there than once upon a time. You got to learn the language.
Marc A. Scorca: But because of the repetition...
Sherrill Milnes: Yes. Now you don't get to do a 40 or 50, but you do 10 or 15. Well, that's a big difference from one or two. And I've always thought - not everybody agrees - when you can control this, and that's not always, but when you can control this, you should graduate opera companies with the same role, rather than graduating roles in a big company. Singing small parts in a bigger company, your whole psyche; your concentration; your mental...your physical energy gets used to the small part. And you never grow into the bigger one. Well, if you sing Trovatore, or Giovanni in a small theater, you at least are doing the whole curve. You learn the fatigue and the attitudanal differences towards singing a big role versus a small role.
Marc A. Scorca: We've talked about Norman Treigle and Boris Goldovsky and Rosa Ponselle - and your being a sponge and your translating their message into something that was useful for you. Are there other people who were important reference points for you in your early career development? Folks: you may not even have known them, but you listened to them, or you knew them. They didn't teach you, but they gave you advice. Role models. Are there some other folks who really helped shape you in some way?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, two voice teachers: Andrew White, who really taught me how to get into top voice, and Hermanus Behr, which was a Northwestern situation; the coaches at The Met. You know, when I went to The Met, every coach was European. That phrase that I used 'Nazi Germany fallout' is not the exact phrase, but we know what we're talking about. They were all Jewish, of course, Polish, Swiss, Austrian, and of course, German. All of them brought with them a wealth of knowledge and I was a good, well, sponge. I already used that word. I was good at taking what somebody would say. Also sitting in a room rehearsal with a (Franco) Corelli, (Carlo) Bergonzi, (Nicolai) Gedda, Richard Tucker: these people. Okay: they had studied with others and I was good at hearing them do something to, "Oh, I love that. That's good. Where can I put it in my music?" (We're not singing the same music). So I'd have to find the place; some shape - I mentioned that already - some shape that Franco did. Was Corelli a great sight reader? Of course not. None of them were great sight readers. Nevertheless, they had certain qualities that were quite beloved and exciting and thrilling. Corelli's sound, especially: great sound. Well, I was good at taking things, so I wasn't really studying with them, but I would hear them do something, "Oh, I'm going to do that. Where can I do that? And make it effective?" I was good at that.
Marc A. Scorca: You know, it's amazing to just hear you rattle off those names. And those are not bad names to be around.
Sherrill Milnes: Well, I was lucky in that, without realizing I was lucky at the time singing with all of these people. I mean, Richard Tucker...how many... Leontyne is alive and sang with him...Martina (Arroyo) sang with him. I sang with him tons, which makes me part of the Tucker Foundation, of course.
Marc A. Scorca: Sherrill, so, the economics of studying: it is so expensive to study today to take the time to perfect the career. You may not have a lot of work coming out of conservatory; coming out of a young artist program, but you want to do a role study and prepare, or you have a number of debuts coming up that are new roles to you. And you want to work with your voice teacher, your coaches: the economics of a career today are hugely discouraging. And, of course, you're dealing with a lot of young singers: how are they coping with that?
Sherrill Milnes: Part of it is, the programs: Voice Experience, and Savannah Voice Festival. If you want to cut it down to how much are you paying per lesson? Well, it's a fraction of what you'd pay in New York, cause what you're saying is absolutely true. It costs a lot. I think singers when they come to our programs in particular sometimes find out, "You know, I don't think I want to do this," or how talented are they? The biggest problem with young singers is to inspire within reality. That's tough. That's tough because you can't tell them 'you suck'. Cause somebody probably could have said that to me as a sophomore in college or something. I was a good musician, but I didn't have a great sound.
Marc A. Scorca: Every great singer has been mistaken for a loser.
Sherrill Milnes: It's a problem with competitions. If you don't win the competition, you think you're a loser. I was a big competition loser. I didn't win a whole lot of competitions. My career did not come because I won first prize somewhere. I think a couple of local Chicago things I did, but the Met auditions, the best I ever did...I got some money out of it. I think I tied for second or third in Chicago with Ardis Krainik. I have a picture with Ardis. We split second prize.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh my goodness. You have to bring that picture. So did working with Goldovsky keep you fed?
Sherrill Milnes: Oh yes. Also in Chicago, I did a lot of voiceovers. You know, I could sing poppy stuff and they found out that I could sightread; I didn't make mistakes and I could sing totally pop or kind of barroom baritone; unrefined with the honky sound, or more refined stuff. And I learned early on if there was any problem that the guy from the ad agency heard, cause lots of Schlitz and Marlboro and International Harvester Tractors...and I mean, tons of products...that was paying money; that was paying a lot. Chevrolet truck; Chevrolet for '63. You see what I'm talking about, cause that was the commercial for '63? That paid me some thousands of dollars. And I bought choir robes for my mother's choir with one of those checks.
Marc A. Scorca: That is fantastic... just trying to figure out how to hold it together until your sound became the sound you needed it to be to have a career.
Sherrill Milnes: Yes, you're totally right. And another reason I talked about art songs, but I tell our singers: if you don't know the sacred music, all the Mozart things; all the Schubert things; Haydn things; Handel things; Bach arias - all of this stuff. You should know the Elijah: it's a tour de force for the baritone...great music: you're not going to be hired. (This is what I tell them). You're not going to be hired for Trovatore, Carmen, Aida, Butterfly - name something - but lots of churches do The Messiah or the Brahms Requiem and the Mozart Requiem or the Faure Requiem or The Seven Last Words or all of these works: churches do that. For that you will be hired, but you got to know it. A lot of people (think), "Oh, I know the Messiah". They know one piece or the Hallelujah Chorus. They think the Hallelujah Chorus is The Messiah. Well, it's about a 10th or even a 15th of The Messiah. And there's five great arias for the bass. Some of them are a little lower, so you sing something up the octave or your futz a little bit.
Marc A. Scorca: What gets you out of the house today? When you go out to see a concert, to see an opera, what excites you these days? What do you want to see to say "Yes, let's go out. Let's do that."
Sherrill Milnes: Who's singing. The cast. That's the main thing. In fact, the last thing I saw at The Met was Neil Shicoff, because he was a friend. I wanted to see him. It's a cast that makes a piece. Lots of times well-known composers go to cast a work they'd just written and their first choices are busy; their second choices are busy; the third choices are busy. And so they end up with a new work with the fourth or fifth or sixth or seventh choice of cast. Well, it wasn't a success. Maybe it wasn't a success because the people weren't good enough, because they didn't get the best people to sing it. It's a problem. You don't know. Was it the work or was it the cast? You don't know: that's a tough one.
Marc A. Scorca: Before the thunderstorm hit, I was asking you the themes of your advice to young singers and the first one you said "Sing anywhere and everywhere." Again, it gets back to that point about repetition...about just really knowing yourself, knowing the music. Is there another headline bit of advice from Sherrill Milnes?
Sherrill Milnes: Well, I already said: sacred music; art songs (not about high notes). It's about telling a story. Whether your languages are great or not, you work to make them great, of course. But audiences, most of the time I tell our singers, "You are singing for an audience for whom it's also not their language." So they don't know you did a feminine plural and it's masculine singular or whatever. They don't know that. Of course you try to do it right. But what is the story? What is the poetry? What is the heart? You have to say something; they have to like you and what is it that they like? Well, you can't always identify that. And some of that is DNA. That's what I said in "Inspire within Reality." Sometimes the reality...somebody isn't that talented or vice versa, they're very talented. We've all seen singers who could turn on physically wonderfully, and didn't have the throat. Well, that's a problem. Or they can have a throat and their face is blah, blank. No good.
Marc A. Scorca: There are so many talented singers these days and we'll reorder this because we'll fit this together, so that there's a logical narrative to our interview. So many singers with great talent. The rigors of being in a hotel, all your life; the rigors of being in airplanes: I know some young singers who don't have a permanent address because they're busy and it doesn't make sense to have an apartment. They just go and stay with family between gigs, if they have any time. And yet there are a lot of young singers for whom that work/life balance, isn't acceptable; that they don't want the kind of rigor that is part of a career. Do you think people have adjusted their expectations of work/life balance and that opera suffers from that?
Sherrill Milnes: Interesting. People certainly have a right to decide 'I don't want to do that'. And something else that (my wife) Maria (Zouves) and I try to stress is: that doesn't make you a failure. Because you didn't sing at The Met doesn't mean you're a failure. We tend, we Americans especially tend to think if you haven't sung at The Met: well, you don't have a career. It's problematic...personal choices though. Two or three performances a week does not a life make. There's other things in life besides singing arias or art songs or recitals, although the recital business is kind of in the tank right now, unfortunately. Over my career, I saw the diminution of companies going out of business. That's a whole other subject. I won't even go there cause I can get quite worked up about why that is. And it's a shame, but it is a fact that really, you can't earn a living from singing recitals now.
Marc A. Scorca: And, so few cities even try to produce them at this point.
Sherrill Milnes: Right. Well, some of it - I won't do the whole thing - but some of it is like the 10 tenors or big groups. Okay. If one person walks out with a piano and a pianist, that's three things on stage: two people and a piano. And then two weeks later, they have 10 singers with loudspeakers and taped accompaniment or a band there: same cost. They're going to think that the bigger group is a better deal. Well, it may not be a better deal, but it's gonna look like a better deal. Of course. I mean 10 versus two. That's a toughie.
Marc A. Scorca: Sherrill, I'm going to tie off this and just say, thank you. You know, we could go on talking for hours and I hope we do. This has just been wonderful to have some of your recollections of some of the Titans in our field. You were a Titan in our field, sharing some advice for singers; advice for professionals who run companies. It's been great to capture this. I thank you for being a part of our belated 50th anniversary celebration and the creation of our oral history project. Thank you.
Sherrill Milnes: Well, it's been my pleasure, Marc. Thank you.