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A conversation with opera legend Sherrill Milnes

Sherrill Milnes is universally acclaimed as the foremost operatic baritone of his generation. He sang over 650 performances at the Met, where he was honored with sixteen new productions, seven opening nights, and ten national telecasts. As a leading artist in all of the world’s great opera houses, Mr. Milnes performed and recorded with the likes of Domingo, Pavarotti, Caballé, Sutherland, Sills, Horne, Price, and Tebaldi. He is the winner of three Grammy Awards, and is the most recorded American singer of his time. 
WFIMC Secretary General Florian Riem recently talked to Sherrill Milnes at the sidelines of the Ningbo international Vocal Competition in China.

Florian Riem: It´s great to see you here in China! I think the last time I saw you must have been sometime in the late Eighties, Munich Opera, Tosca, with Mirella Freni…

Sherrill Milnes: Oh! That was a while ago…

What are your impressions of the competition in Ningbo?

It´s been wonderful. We have listened to many excellent voices, and the whole competition has been such a nice experience. It has become so much more international! I´ve been here five years ago, and it seemed a lot more Asian. This time, it´s very different, there are people from all over the world.

Looking at and listening to all these young singers, how do they compare to young artists 30 or 40 years ago?

Well, it´s become a lot more competitive. I´ve been to this competition (Ningbo) twice, I´ve been to Montreal twice. The level is always very high, no question about that. But my take as a singer and as a teacher, on this level it´s not very easy to find someone who is head and shoulders above everyone else. 
For me, some were struggling with language flaws, others were having some issues with facial expression. I think we all need to focus more on the level of diction. We need to sing meanings, not sounds. We all suffer from this problem, if we sing in a language which we otherwise don´t speak.  Sometimes even in our own language! But what I want to say: we often don´t imbue a word with any kind of color. We tend to sing the same color all the way through, whether we are talking to someone we love, or whether we are talking to a bunch of soldiers. Well- those are very different colors!

Milnes Headshot

For the Chinese, it must be hard to sing in several European languages as they are all so different from their own language. But how was this for yourself? For you, as someone who grew up in America, it also must have been difficult to learn all these languages…

Well, I am not a great linguist. I know a lot of words in German, and a lot of words in Italian. I get around in Italian, but I´m not great. I never actually lived in Europe.

They didn´t make you speak German, even in Austria?

When I came to Vienna in 1968, to sing Macbeth under Karl Böhm at the Staatsoper, I was aghast: they all wanted to speak English. I expected German to be the lingua franca, and I had studied German like crazy so that I could coach using German, but they all wanted to speak American English. I was grateful, but it also deprived me of the necessity of really getting good in the language. So I'm really not a terrific linguist, even though I know lots of words and I know pronunciation. My Italian colleagues said when I sang Italian, they could believe I was Italian. But when I spoke it, of course they could tell I wasn't.

You sang Don Fernando (Fidelio) under Böhm at the Met, and he invited you to Vienna. Böhm was famous for being difficult…

Well, he liked me a lot. I never really took criticism from him. He was always nice to me, and I felt like a son or grandson. But I certainly saw him crucify other singers. If he didn´t like something, he could be tough, really tough. But he was never that way with me.

He would have had a really strong German accent in his English….

He did! He was from Graz, as you know, and I was told to say certain things in Graz German. But my first production, my debut in Europe, Macbeth, was in Italian. And interestingly, it was also the first time for Böhm to conduct Macbeth in Italian. He knew it in German, but it was his first time in the original Italian version, so in a way it was also new for him.

Live Recording of Macbeth

As an Austrian I am quite sure I can master an Austrian accent, so when the soloist singing Sophie in “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Met surprised me with an excellent Viennese accent, I talked to her in German, of course! But she answered: “Please speak English with me, I don´t speak a word of German!”. This is a level of talent, diligence, and ability to imitate which I have rarely seen in Europe.
Karl Böhm, 1973


Photo: Live Recording of "Macbeth" with Karl Böhm, Sherrill Milnes and Christa Ludwig at the Vienna State Opera, April 1970

You have to be able to sing in a certain language and make it sound like you speak it. You want the audience to think: “they know what they´re doing!”. What the audience thinks is everything. It´s not part of it- it´s everything.  That´s why you have to sing meanings- not just words.
I ask myself, ‘What can I give my students that will make them better right away?’ Everybody thinks I’m a diction cop, and in a way I am, but audience perception is everything. What they think you know is more important than what you actually know. That sounds like nonsense, but it’s not. If the audience thinks you know what you’re doing, that’s what matters.”

In an interview, you once said “I took stuff from everyone- I was a huge thief!”

Maybe the word “sponge” sounds a bit nicer. For instance, take Hermann Prey. He was a good friend, and I loved his Lieder. Or take Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, or Richard Tucker, to take a few tenors: all of these great singers from the past, they would do something special. I would listen to them and I thought: “Oh, that´s beautiful! Now, where can I do that effect in my own music?” I was good at that, and that´s what I call being a sponge.

This is something you would advise young artists to do?

Well, yes! My wife and I have this program, “VoicExperience”, where we train and talk about all these things. As well-rounded artists, we need to sing everything- opera, Broadway, Latin, French mélodie, Lieder, Italian songs, Zarzuela, sacred music, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn… If you don’t know Messiah, Elijah, The Creation, the Lord Nelson Mass. . . why don’t you know it? You better know a big hunk of it, because that’s where you’re going to be hired and show your musical guts as a soloist. A mezzo coming out of college is not going to get a job as Carmen. Having a career is not easy and is becoming harder nowadays, especially here in the United States. There is not a lot of opportunities here in the U.S., and there is certainly not much in China. It´s in all these German speaking theatres, where the work is. Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Therefore, I tell singers, if you want to be on stage, if it´s your desire to be on stage, you have to move to a German speaking town! And you have to speak the language.
I was lucky, I didn´t have to move to Germany or Austria. I was taken there. But if Karl Böhm hadn´t liked me and hadn´t taken me to the Staatsoper in Vienna? Not sure if I had done what I told myself at the time: If I´m not better one year from now, better in range, better in languages, better in nuance… then I´ll teach. I have music education degrees because I studied in order to teach.

Sherrill 2
Well, it seems like you did get better… but here you are, 55 years later, and you are teaching anyway.

Sure. As I tell my students: I just took out 40 years, 42 years actually, to sing around the world, and now I am doing what I trained to do: teach! And I love teaching.

You are a singer, conductor, teacher, but you are also an actor. One of your most famous scenes is when you sing Scarpia and are stabbed by Tosca. Falling over backward in a chair looks so realistic that the audience thinks you are hurt….

I worked out that staging in a new production in Munich and kept it for Berlin, Paris, the Met, and other theaters where the chair allowed it. It had to be the right kind of big chair, with a thick back that protects the fall. The trick is to push back with your legs like you’re getting away from Tosca, and that’s what pushes the chair over. The big challenge was to not make it look like a trick, but like it was really happening. If you’re going to do some physical activity on stage, it has to look like it’s really happening.

How many times did you “die” that way? You must have performed Tosca quite a few times.

Sure. I couldn´t give you a number, but I probably did around 150. Not every theater in the world has the right chair, but probably about half the time I made it work. The problem with it: it must not look like a trick, like an athletic peak of some sort. It has to look like it was an accident, and that´s much harder to do. 
I would check the chair and I would try it. Falling backwards in a chair with a big back, you have to tuck your head and know that there are certain mechanical things so you don't get really hurt.  Sometimes you get a bit banged up, but if you're willing to take a little discomfort or pain, it can be very effective.

You always tell your students to think about a reason for what they are doing on the stage.

When a singer tells me they’re coming on stage because they have to sing for four bars, that’s the musical reason. The character doesn’t know that they have to sing four bars. You, the singer, have to find reasons for things. You’re entering for a reason. That makes a huge difference. Or, often, somebody sings something and they politely turn, because they know the soprano sings next, and they wait for the soprano. I tell them, ‘You don’t know she’s going to say something. For all you know, the scene is over, and the sound of her voice stops you. The character does not know who’s next.

Milnes/ Riem

Thank you so much for this conversation. Just a very short last question: does the Milnes Mocha Chocolate Chip ice cream still exist?

Well, yes! Leopold´s ice cream here in Savannah is an old favourite. Leopold is Greek. My wife is Greek too, so when they´re together they speak Greek. I know only 12 words or so, but he´s been wonderful and has named various flavours after us in his shop.


Photo: Sherrill Milnes with Florian Riem at the 2023 Ningbo Intl. Vocal Competition
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