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Celebrating Sherrill Milnes at 85

Dario Acosta

A personal tribute, interview, and words from friends 

This week we celebrate the eighty-fifth birthday of the legendary operatic baritone Sherrill Milnes. Born on January 10, 1935 in Downers Grove, Illinois, Sherrill lived his early life on a dairy farm. His mother was the music director of the Methodist church, where Sherrill gleaned his early music education; singing hymns and playing several instruments. His father was the minister. From this grounded place, Sherrill grew up to become the most celebrated and the most recorded American opera singer of his time. To me, he is family.

Sherrill has sung over 650 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, was a leading artist in the world's great opera houses, a winner of three Grammy Awards, performed for several Presidential inaugurations, sits on the boards of several major operatic organizations, and is the founder and artistic director of VOICExperience, The Savannah Voice Festival, and The Savannah Opera. He continues to travel the globe, teaching and enriching lives.

The author, singer Jessica Ann Best, with Sherrill Milnes in 2018

I met Sherrill when I was in the first year of my Master’s program at Northwestern University; which also happens to be Sherrill’s alma mater. My wonderful teacher at the time, Theresa Brancaccio-Hansen, mentioned that I might ask if I could coach with him, as this was his final year and semester at Northwestern. Nervously, I sought out the great Maestro. He was ever present at our Monday studio recitals, our opera rehearsals, and even on the second floor of the MAB, ready to connect with students to ask them how they were doing. He was always kind and approachable.

Taking her advice, I walked up to Sherrill during one of our Bartered Bride rehearsals and asked him, “Maestro Milnes, May I coach with you next semester?” Thankfully, he said yes. And so, on January 10th, 2007, I prepared for one of my most life changing moments- my first coaching session with Sherrill! I steamed my face. I drank several cups of throat coat tea. I planned my outfit, prepared my music and nervously walked into my first session. When I arrived, I discovered it was his birthday! My sweet collaborate pianist had brought him a cupcake! Then we began the music, “Smanie Implacabilli,” from Mozart’s Cosí fan Tutte and “Must the Winter Come So Soon,” from Samuel Barber’s opera, Vanessa. Sherrill always begins with, “Good,” and then we began an encouraging and insightful session on diction, characterization, and musicality. The rest is history.

I have now been working extensively with Sherrill and his wife, Maria Zouves, for the past thirteen years. I began as a student in the summer of 2007 with a scholarship from the VOICExperience in Orlando, in the happiest place on earth-Disney World! This very year, we celebrate twenty years of VOICExperience and have a big celebration planned in May! VOICExperience has grown several substantial branches and I was on the team as we planted our seeds in the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia. Savannah is now our new operatic home. I have grown from being a student, to a leading artist in the Savannah Voice Festival and Savannah Opera. I even teach alongside Sherrill and our incredible faculty. Our global faculty is composed of Sherrill’s friends-the best in the business. We all pinch ourselves at the opportunity to work with Sherrill and our operatic family has grown. In fact, this grand musical family even makes families, but we’ll get to that a little later!

An interview with Sherrill Milnes

I interviewed Sherrill earlier this week and I wanted to share some of our discussion below.

What do you think is important for young singers (ages 18-30) to know today?

Milnes: (In regards to learning music) Don’t do every possibility. Pick and choose. It’s a very personal thing. Böhm wanted nothing and Goldovsky wanted everything. In general, a non-harmonic tone can soften the meaning of the word. So, there’s a choice. Do you want to soften the meaning?  How do you feel about your character at that moment singing that word? You have choices, “Voi, Tu, Lei.” How familiar do you feel? Make choices. It isn’t that you should always, 100 percent, do the same thing. Choose. Decide. It’s wrong if you do every possible choice. It becomes sing-songy. Choose.

We’ve talked about having a “friend in the pit.” Can you explain why this is important and how it’s helped you? How can singers build a good relationship with their conductor?

Milnes: You’ve heard my say that I’ve worked with, (in my own words), "love conductors,”  and some of the old conductors who say: “This is the only way and there is no choice.” Well, that’s silly. There are choices in music. Does it make musical and word poetry sense? Well, it’s easier when you look down and you feel that there's a friend in the pit. With regards to getting on with a conductor: Ask for help if something doesn't feel right. Never argue in front of the orchestra. Always ask for help.

What skills do you think best make an opera singer? (Musicianship, acting, language, movement?) I know we often talk about “putting the work in” and learning efficiently. 

Milnes: The more you know about the keyboard; the more you know about instrumental music-the easier it is as a singer. There is no career if you are slow. Do you make music? The better you sight read, the more you know, the faster things happen. Being very good doesn’t guarantee a career, but it's the only possibility.

If you had a chance to meet any composer-dead or alive, who would it be?

Milnes:  Mr. Goldovsky said he would have loved to have known Verdi and worshiped at the feet of Mozart. I agree with that. What Mozart was doing in his time was unique. He was the only person doing that.        

What is the funniest moment you have had or experienced onstage?

Milnes: I didn’t happen to me; but I was in the audience in Vienna. Kostas Paskalis was singing Rigoletto and I was in the audience. He didn't know that hump was not on his vest, (as it normally is sewn), but instead on his jacket. Doing one of the normal staging things; he threw the  jacket down. I almost yelled, “The hump is the jacket!” So, always find out what your hump is.

Jess: That’s so funny and practical for any costume!

How do you handle stressful situations and maintain being so grounded? Can you give an example?

Milnes: If you don’t know a piece well enough, don’t do it. I’ve seen some of my colleagues who wanted to cooperate when someone got sick, and that had big hunks of things they didn’t know; making mistakes. I was asked in Paris. I went to a dress rehearsal of Don Carlo and a french baritone was doing Il Trovatore. I was singing two operas and he was having trouble. The next day they asked if I could do it, but I waited to answer. There were pages and pages that I didn't know, so finally I had to say that I couldn’t do it. I had my own stuff to do. I did that. It would have been a disaster. I had to say no. I think I protected myself. Other times; if I’d known something, I’d say sure. One time a baritone left stage after first act of Otello. I was called, and I was already singing two others operas that week. I mentioned other people; but, ultimately, I did it. I knew that I knew it. You should know the piece to say yes.

Tributes from an extended operatic family

Any of my colleagues could tell you this is just some of the incredible advice and wisdom we receive from Sherrill on a daily basis when working together. He is the first person to come up to you after a performance and give you an encouraging word, and often, another way you can improve the performance. I always go to him for advice. When I made my Carnegie Hall debut; I asked him about singing in the space. I received a very wise answer. “Never sing to the space. Sing how you feel. Don’t push. Sing how you know it feels and trust it.”

I asked several of our beautiful opera family if they would share some words about Sherrill on his birthday. It is here that I sense such gratitude because it is evident how small and beautiful our world is. I begin with my next stage director of Candide at the Syracuse Opera next month. Here is what my friend, Julie Newell, had to say: 

I had the honor of working with Sherrill with the Orlando Opera Company, as Alice Ford, in a production of FALSTAFF with Mr. Milnes starring in the title role. I was, as you would imagine, a bit nervous about working with this international superstar, and someone I had grown up listening to, but what I learned immediately in the first rehearsal, was what a wonderfully supportive colleague he is and a warm and entirely encouraging mentor. He was a perfect example of a true artist-he was always honing his character and always open to a new approach. Eye contact on stage is so visceral - one knows if you are being "seen" by your acting colleague on stage and he was so entirely respectful of me, even though it was my first Alice Ford. His eye contact was always the perfect balance of character... living the text... and warmth of sharing the stage together.”

Ten years ago I began studying with my current voice teacher, bass baritone, Mark Schnaible. I met Mark during VOICExperience in Tampa; and he had these beautiful words to share:

I was first mesmerized by Sherrill Milnes as I watched him perform Live from the MET on television in the 1980s. Since that time I have met him, coached roles with him, worked for him and had many interesting and informative discussions with him. Sherrill Milnes was a huge inspiration for me as a young singer. Whether it be through the voice, the music or the drama, Sherrill was the standard to live up to.”

And remember how I told you that we make opera families? Well, here is just one example. I asked my friend, Buffalo-born baritone, James Wright, if he would share a few words. Several years ago; Jim and I were singing here at the Rochester Lyric Opera and I told him I worked with Sherrill. Jim came to work with Sherrill soon after and introduced me to our resident composer, Michael Ching. Michael worked with Sherrill and Maria several years at Opera Memphis and we all reunited in Savannah. In 2015, we all premiered Michael’s beautiful new opera, Alice Ryley. It was here that Jim met his wife, Anne Louise, and now they have a beautiful baby girl. The circle grows and grows. Jim had this to say:

One of my favorite things about Sherrill as a teacher and a mentor is that he never looking to stroke his own ego. He is always trying to give advice and wisdom that will make the artist better. He includes much more than just vocal technique. Stagecraft, professionalism, musicality, presentation, and anything else he can think of-all to help make someone be a more complete artist.”

Pittsford native and my former student Ben Lewandowski, who now studies at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, had this to say about studying with Sherrill when he came to Camp Voice in Savannah a few years ago:

I had the pleasure of working with Sherrill on three separate occasions, and each time, I was amazed by how much I learned from him. His experiences as a performer make him a wonderful teacher and mentor.”

Savannah has embraced all of us and I reached out to my dear friends and sponsors, Dr. Wesley and Judy Krulic, of the Savannah Voice Festival for their thoughts:

“To Sherrill Milnes: Thank you for your friendship and your wonderful gift of music to Savannah.  These last seven years have been an incredible journey for our community as you have brought some one hundred plus singers each year into our midst who perform some thirty plus concerts each August, including 4 opera productions for our community to enjoy.”

Finally, I wanted to end the most important person in Sherrill’s life, his wife, Maria. She had these beautiful words to share:

Sherrill Milnes encompasses what it means to be a man, a myth, and legend. When you think of how down-home and family oriented he is as a person, and then look at the extraordinary career and almost superhuman efforts of his art, then realize that he’s worked with everyone in every place in every way in classical vocal arts of the late 20th Century, you can’t help but think that it’s a story meant to be told in the most operatic way. As an artist, I am constantly in awe of his past achievements and his continued ability to communicate method and practicum to the next generations. As my partner and cofounder of our programs, I find him to be a kind, steady and loving person with whom to stand shoulder to shoulder. I’m grateful that his enormous video archives will be there for many generations to come so that one can truly understand the pinnacle of how a great opera singerWalks through the decades of their career, their physical evolution and the difficulties of such a lifestyle. I hope he will continue to inspire people for generations to come.”

So, thank you, Sherrill. Thank you for the music and for the family you and Maria have created in the opera world. We continue to grow and make the world a more loving and kind place because you are in it. Thank you, Maestro. Happy Birthday!

Thank you, Mona, for having me as a guest on this blog.

Mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best is a diverse cross-disciplinary artist, performing nationwide in opera, musical theater, concert, oratorio, recital, and jazz.