Baritone Sherrill Milnes
Two conversations with Bruce Duffie
Contained on this webpage are two interviews with baritone Sherrill
Milnes. Both took place in Chicago. The first was held in
October of 1985, and was published in the Massenet Newsletter
of January, 1990. It has been slightly re-edited and is reproduced
here, along with the introduction that accompanied the printed version.
The second interview took place in February of 1993. Portions
of both were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and now the entire
second conversation has been transcribed and is also presented here.
Photos and links have also been added for this webpage. Links
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website, and photos of recordings
have been selected to show the artist in costume, or because they are relevant
to the discussion.
The Heart and Soul
of Sherrill Milnes
By Bruce Duffie
There are a few operatic personalities who need little
introduction, and my guest this time certainly fits that order.
Sherrill Milnes has been a major figure on the operatic stages of
the world since his debut at the Met — on
the same night as Montserrat Caballé — in
1965. Besides his globe hopping, he comes into our homes via
radio, TV, and a has discography as long as your arm!
From Downers Grove, in suburban Chicago, Milnes studied
at Drake University, Northwestern University, then was a chorister
under Margaret Hillis,
and later in Santa Fe. He toured with Boris Goldovsky, and sang
in Rosa Ponselle’s Baltimore Civic Opera. Then to the New York
City Opera, and finally, as they say, the rest is history.
Now that the world has him, we in Chicago are subjected to
many years between return engagements. [See chart of his
appearances at Lyric Opera farther down on this webpage.] Happily,
this January (1990) not only marks his fifty-fifth birthday, but also
his performances here as Hamlet in the setting by Ambroise Thomas, one
of his many recorded roles. It was during an earlier visit that
I had a chance to meet with him at his apartment. We spoke
of many things, and even got around to some ideas on French Opera.
The thrust of his career, as we know, is in the dramatic
Italian parts, but since the few French things he has done are significant,
and since his personality and importance in the world of opera are
so overwhelming, I thought that readers of the Massenet Newsletter
would be interested in the entire conversation. Besides,
much of what we talked about concerns stage deportment, attitudes of
both performers and the public, as well as revelations about the singer’s
Here is that meeting with Sherrill Milnes . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’re known as a ‘Verdi
baritone’. Do you like that label, or
is it confining?
Sherrill Milnes: I don’t think the title in
or of itself confines at all. That name, which has evolved over
the years, indicates a certain timbre, a certain tessitura, a certain
center of gravity of a voice color which is certainly applicable to
various things — including Puccini and various
French roles, as well as art-song literature. I rather like it.
BD: How are the Verdi roles different from
the French ones, or those of Puccini — if
SM: In general, those have thicker orchestrations.
There is more noise in the pit. That puts it in an uncomplimentary
light, which I don’t really mean.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You mean,
you don’t like trying to sing over eighty guys all blowing and sawing???
SM: [With an ironic tone] When
they’re all trying to getcha? [Laughs]
Especially in Verdi, it seems like every time the baritone opens
his mouth, the brass are trying to get you. Certainly there’s
a lot of fat, rich playing from the orchestra over which one has to
kick the voice. Maybe the general tessitura is higher in Verdi,
though it varies even among the parts written by him. Amonasro
in Aïda and Rodrigo in Don Carlo are not so punishingly
high as are Rigoletto, Miller in Luisa Miller, or Giacomo in Giovanna
D’Arco. Iago in Otello is not as high, even though you
need an A at the end of the second act. That one is interpolated,
but the As in the ‘Drinking Song’ are written by Verdi to be tossed
off with a swagger. But there’s a richness that is undeniable,
perhaps the richest. As to Puccini, Scarpia in Tosca is a
great part, but the tessitura is not punishing. There are traps
in the part where you can overblow. He has to be a strong man, the
Chief of Police, in control. I suppose he’s a little sadistic.
BD: Is he evil? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Mirella Freni, Italo Tajo (Sacristan), and
John Tomlinson (Jailer).]
SM: Not in the same way Iago is.
I wouldn’t call him a sensitive laid-back human being, but there’s
something that people don’t like about him in that opera. Scarpia
is also under the gun. The King of Naples has put him in charge
of Rome, and a very important prisoner has escaped. That’s Scarpia’s
fault, no matter how it happened technically. He’s going to get
the heat for it if he doesn’t get him back and stop Cavaradossi from helping
as an accomplice. If things fall apart there in Rome, Scarpia could
lose his job, or his head! The whole business with Tosca comes to
a focal point of the opera. Are they going to make love? Is
he going to beat her up in the stylized way that opera deals with emotions
and mores? But all the while, he’s thinking about this problem. The
seconds are ticking away, and his head could be on the block if he doesn’t
solve the other problem first. So the public watches for the personal
interplay, and forgets about the political ramifications. I always
play Scarpia as a soldier-policeman first. On the surface, he shows
to other people a calm kind of control, but he’s really hyperkinetic underneath.
BD: How much do you delve into the psychology
of any character you sing?
SM: It depends on the characters themselves.
When you have a part that allows a search — Scarpia,
Iago, Rigoletto to a lesser degree, Macbeth absolutely, Hamlet certainly
— there’s a lot of thoughts about these people, and there’s
never only one way to play them. Some characters are less-defined
outside of the opera, and it’s up to the singer to improvise motivations.
Di Luna in Trovatore and Father Germont in Traviata are
like that. There’s not a whole lot of information about Rodrigo
— he is the quintessential good-guy — and
there are some instances where the real character’s personality doesn’t
fit with the grand and gorgeous music, so you have to forget about
history. But a singer has to be resourceful and not simply walk
on stage because you have to open your mouth in four measures.
You don’t have to know every detail about an off-stage personality, but
there must be something to give you a reason for being there at the moment.
BD: Is the job of the director to get you
to think about these details, or it is your own responsibility?
SM: It is one’s own responsibility for
everything. If the singer doesn’t do it, it’s his fault
— even if it isn’t! If you make a mistake and you’re
not with the orchestra, they don’t change. It’s 80-to-1, and the
1 has to change even if something is fouled up in the pit. It’s
up to the performer to find the motivations. When you work with
a great director and you have enough time to pick his brain and come up
with ideas together, that’s wonderful. You can really get a good
dialogue going, but it needs a communicative and thoughtful person on
both sides. A great director working with a dullard will get nothing
because a director’s ideas can only be realized through the mechanics
— the moving and the emotions of the individual.
If the singer cannot walk as a nobleman, the director can talk for weeks
and weeks, and still get nothing.
BD: What if you, as a thoughtful singer, work
with a dull director?
SM: That’s just as damaging because I can just do his
traffic patterns and my own character projection. Some directors
will only give you overall ideas and expect you to bring something to
flesh it out. Those guys are okay. Then there are a few who
simply don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know, and they throw
out some of the ‘gawd-awfulest’ ideas. Often, to try and make
intimate scenes, they will have characters singing to each other. On
the surface that sounds like a good idea, but constant profile with the
voice going into the wings does not work. There’s an odd thing
that happens, and the audience doesn’t believe it. The enormous
public at the back of the house is almost a city block away, and that
makes the audience feel left out if they don’t see more of your full frontal
face. They also don’t hear you as well. But you can’t go to
the other extreme and never face your lover in a scene. There
are lots of ways of playing it without always singing to the wings.
You can position yourself so that important or passionate lines can be
sung to the person, but in an open position.
BD: Can’t you also use variations of the upstage/downstage
SM Sure. That’s a great over-simplification,
but that’s one of the principles you do. There’s an enormous
difference between being perpendicular and being in a three-quarter-out
position. Your attitude is toward your colleague, but the audience
is getting more sound — which is not unimportant
— and more face.
BD: Is there too much to do in opera for singers?
You’ve got to sing beautifully, also act and remember where you are
and which character you are...
SM: You try to remember it all.
Some artists of the older generation don’t even try to act. We’ve
come through a change in attitude toward that, and in these years
we’re making much more believable drama on stage.
BD: Are we going too far now in the drama?
SM: That’s another director situation
that I didn’t mention before. I’m not an unknown name, so I
do have a bit of influence on the stage directors, but a young singer
with no clout, who works with a director with more clout, may not want
to get into a dialogue for fear of being thought of as talking back, or
trying to make trouble, or being temperamental. That can be a real
problem. When you rehearse in a room, the duet of Ophelia and
Hamlet, or Tosca and Scarpia will have tension, but on the stage it all
dissipates. Some directors just don’t understand that.
BD: You bring up a point about clout.
Is it right that the public come to see Sherrill Milnes? Shouldn’t
they be coming to see Verdi, or Thomas, or Macbeth, or Hamlet?
SM: They’re kind of one and the same.
There’s no way that I can tell the audience what they should be coming
to see by what I do in my life or career. One hand washes the
other. If they come to see me, they’re going to see Hamlet
as done by me. But if they come to see Hamlet, even his fame is
inert. Without someone portraying him, he’s without life.
So the public has to go and see someone with another name, be it Sherrill
Milnes or Laurence Olivier. Without the personality of the actor,
there is an inert product. I don’t see any conflict in this idea.
The public will hear Thomas, they will hear Hamlet, and they will
hear Milnes, in whatever order is especially meaningful to them.
BD: What do you expect of the audience each
night — if anything?
SM: I don’t have any preconceived expectations.
Audiences vary a great deal around the world. Opera is primarily
emotional and secondarily intellectual, so somebody can enjoy opera
knowing zip. However, as in any field, the more you know about
it, the more your enjoyment is heightened. Different operas demand
more or less from the audience. For some of the Puccini works
you can know less and still get it. They are such wonderfully simple,
overtly emotional stories. You really don’t even have to read the
synopsis and still be washed with the flow of sound. But even there,
the more you know, the more your interest stays at a higher level.
Ideally, the audience can have read through the libretto. Not
everybody is going to have done that, but the more lines they know, the
better. When they know a single scene, that scene is more special
for them when they see it.
* * *
BD: Do you play any comic characters anymore?
SM: Not really. I’ve played The Barber of
Seville many, many, many times, but I’m getting a little old for
Figaro. I’m kind of serious and evil, so I like playing those
kinds of parts! [Laughs] Evil is kind of fun, and my good
guys are all serious. The closest thing to screwing around is
Iago in the first act where he’s egging on the people at the party.
It’s all a put-on because, except for the Credo, Iago doesn’t say
an honest word in the whole opera... and maybe in his whole life.
Perhaps he is only honest when he’s by himself, and in the opera the only
time is the Credo.
BD: [Note: During the conversation, Milnes
would often make gestures to indicate this or that bit of stage business,
or to emphasize his point. At times, even his whole demeanor
would become the character being discussed.] You’ve done a
lot of recording. How do you bring all these wonderful gestures
and visual emotions to the purely aural medium?
SM: [Knowing that we are taping our
chat for radio and not TV] The animation of the voice is
somewhat enhanced by gesturing. There’s a certain muscularity
that transfers into the voice.
BD: Do you gesture physically in the recording
studio? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my
Interviews with Renato
Capecchi, and Ruggero
SM: Oh, sure! If you were to watch
it, we’re as physical in front of a mike as we are on stage.
Some people who are not very physical on stage are also pretty stoic
for the record. So whatever you do on stage is the same when
recording. There are certain mechanical things... You
gesture toward the mike and not away, but that takes you about forty-five
seconds to learn. Sounds vary. I’m not pleased with all
of my recordings by any means. It depends on the hall, on the
engineer — in the operatic world they’re called
producers, but that’s the guy responsible for making the mix.
Being a radio man, you know that you can lift overtones, decrease overtones,
add ambiance, and so forth. There’s a variety of things you can do.
BD: At what point does it become a fraud?
SM: It’s all a matter taste. I don’t
buy all of the hi-fi jargon about the ‘flat sound’ being ‘just the
way it was recorded’. What does that mean? It depends
on the set-up of the control board, and how hot the mike is, and whether
the singers dip in for low notes. [Leans into the mike and
thus accentuates his rich, round sound.] When you drop an octave
on a mike, you’ve got to move at least six inches in or it’s not there.
Maybe not in an a cappella piece, but with a big orchestra you
have to. I’ve recorded in many halls — several
in London such as Kingsway, Walthamstow, Abbey Road, where the Beatles
did a lot of their albums.
BD: But by fraud, I mean not so much the engineering,
but the cutting and pasting.
SM: Ah, the splicing! My feeling
is that the collective ears of the performer, producer, and conductor
should make the best choices for the best recording, even if it’s bar-by-bar
pasted together. It’s not a library copy for the archives that
is a faithful representation of however it went that day. No!
It should be the best sound, balance, tone, beauty, most exciting
product that they can put out, given that set of circumstances and
BD: Are there some of your recordings that
you feel are outstanding examples of your vocal artistry and/or sheer
SM: It’s difficult because I’ve not heard
lots of them in a long time. The Hamlet comes to mind,
but all the Kingsway Hall things from Decca/London are good because they
like to keep the voice ‘hot’, and also the Lucia with Joan and
Luciano — when we did the only Lucia Quintet
in history! Luciano was sick that day, so he did his part later,
which left the sextet with just five singers. We couldn’t just stop
and wait for him because the other singers had schedules to keep and engagement
to fulfill. Those kinds of things are extra hard when you’re putting
another track on top of the rest of the music. Another favorite album
of mine is The America I Love, where they used artificial reverb
— which is not a sinful phrase. It gives the sound real
ambiance, and there’s a terrific ring in the voice. It’s really there.
They just put back what would have been there in a more echo-y hall, and
I find the sound and presence very satisfying. If you can’t hear the
words, the voice isn’t loud enough. At one time or another, all
singers of every kind have had a battle with a producer or engineer
about ‘more voice’. They want it to be like a performance. Why???
The orchestra can always be louder than we are. Most of the time,
the orchestra is too loud, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Part of the rich sonority is the power of the orchestra. I think a
recording should have more clarity on the voice than a normal opera performance.
That’s one of the things that makes it exciting.
Do you then work harder at your diction for the mike?
SM: Probably so. I shouldn’t have
to. The mike should be hot.
BD: Should opera ever be done in translation?
SM: Oh, I think so. There’s
a time and a place for it. All the things I did with Goldovsky
were in English. Probably ten of my often-used roles I knew in
English before I sang them in Italian, and I’m probably the better performer
of those roles because of it. If we never learned a role without
knowing the language, we’d probably never learn anything because the
time-factor would be so enormous. When you have sung it in English,
you are singing the lines and making the stage movements knowing each
word, and it makes you more believable as an actor. So it does a
service for the performer as well as for the audience. It’s a give
and take, of course. You lose a certain flavor that the composer
was intending. This is not just opera in English, but also Italian
opera in German, or German opera in French. [Sneers] Ugh!
But it’s only ‘ugh’ if you are used to hearing it in another language.
For me, there has to be a certain progression. I would know a part
only in English, then better in English than Italian, then about equally
well — which is the most difficult because
when starting a phrase, if I didn’t feed myself the right word, I’d
be in the other language and not be able to get out of it. Now, I
suppose I know all these roles better in Italian, but operas vary in their
adaptability. Comedies are better, and operas in translation are
often better for first-time listeners.
BD: What about this new gimmick of supertitles?
[Note: at the time of this conversation, they were just beginning
to be used in theaters.]
SM: That’s live theater with the lines
above, right? I’ve not done any productions with them.
I’ve read the pros and cons, but I don’t know. However, the
subtitles on the TV took a beating when they were first used, but I think
they’re terrific. I don’t think they take away, but a television
screen is a contained area of focus. Your eye can take in the words
quicker than I can snap my finger, and you’re still seeing the whole picture.
It’s instantaneous. But I’m not sure about having to take your
eyes totally off the stage to see the words.
BD: If a company asked you to do a Figaro
or Rigoletto in English tomorrow, would you do it?
SM: [Laughs] Probably not, because
I’m too lazy. But the question is academic because those companies
doing it in English in places where it probably should be, don’t have
my kind of money!
BD: Is opera too expensive?
SM: [Sternly, but not aggressively] What
I just said shouldn’t lead to that question. Certainly I’m expensive,
but I pull people into the house. I’m good at what I do, to some
degree, and the smaller companies that would do operas in English can’t
afford the big fees. They’re not star-system houses. It’s
not that I’m the only one out here making lots of money. Some get
more than I do, and a lot get less, but that’s the structure of the star-system,
and it’s the stars that bring people into the house. To really discuss
that, we’d need others involved in this discussion, rather than just
a focus on what makes Sherrill Milnes tick.
BD: Then what does make you tick
— or rather, what makes you happy?
SM: Anyone has to be happy when he’s doing
something that he loves and happens to be very good at it, and brings
him the obvious financial success as well as fame. The roles
that I do, the kinds of people that I play are very satisfying.
I communicate with the audience, and they feel what I’m sending.
Whatever the character, I can move the people. It’s probably more
apropos in a recital, which is a much smaller canvas with smaller nuances,
and I’m doing all the painting. Also, my family makes me
happy. Life does, too, with its sadnesses and panics and certain
agonies, but by and large it’s been pretty terrific.
BD: Do you feel you’re part of a line of American
SM: I know I am. I feel a responsibility
of following the big names such as Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren,
Robert Merrill, and some who are less familiar, like Richard Bonelli
and Robert Weede.
BD: Are there some younger than yourself
coming along to continue that line?
SM: I don’t see the obvious person.
There are names that you could throw out, but none of them as yet have
paid enough dues, or sung long enough in the right roles to be identified
clearly. There’s a lot of good talent out there, but traditions
are created by looking back in history, and comparing long periods
of time. Each person in the whole world who is studying voice, who
is getting better, and having a career and making a success day by day,
none of them are thinking of traditions in that way. It’s not like
a man becoming a doctor because his father is a doctor, and his father’s
father was a doctor, and so on. Singers just struggle day
by day with the rigors of whatever their responsibilities are
— new parts, rehearsals, performances, languages, etc.
That doesn’t mean that a youngster in his twenties isn’t seeing a direction
and going that way. But in the younger years, when you’re padding
like crazy to keep up with the world, you’re not thinking of tradition.
You’re thinking of the next day, and vocalizing
properly, and whether you’ve got a cold, and so forth. You have
to put in a certain number of years in order to look back.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk a bit about your French roles.
Are they different to sing than Verdi parts?
SM: There don’t seem to be as many high
notes per se.
BD: Is the French language harder to sing?
SM: To sing French beautifully is hard.
You can sing ‘ballpark’ French — or even ‘ballpark’
any language — without too much trouble, but
the trick is to really have the correct style and not sound like an
American singing French. The trap in French is the nasal sound.
In some ways it’s a very good container of a bigger voice, and it may be
an inhibitor of smaller voices. To oversimplify, French is very much
in the nose, and very narrowed down. I like to sing in French.
It takes me longer to memorize it because I know Italian better, and even
German because of my Lieder. I sing in Germany a lot, so I
must be able to handle that language, even though I mainly do Italian opera
in Italian. I do use a kind of ‘international’ French, the kind
that Gabriel Bacquier uses. He does not sing ‘Parisian’ French.
There is a ‘stage’ French,
which employs an Italian R, and Bacquier has told me this specifically
many times. He’s one of the great French singers of his century,
and a world talent. It’s an odd thing, and perhaps the language
has a lot to do with this, but France has produced fewer world name
singers than Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and America. There are
a lot of famous singers within the country, but something didn’t expand
and soar to give them world careers. Please don’t send letters to
me about this! It’s my feeling, but I think it’s true.
There are fine French singers, but it’s easier to rattle off a long
list of Italians that are more well-known. Perhaps some of the
characters of the French language inhibit bloom on the voice.
BD: Is Hamlet a Dane, or a Shakespearean, or a French soul?
SM: Just because the opera was written
by a Frenchman doesn’t automatically make it a French opera in the
literal sense. It uses the format of the last century with the
ballet and so forth. I love it!
BD: Is it as much Shakespeare as, say, Verdi’s
SM: Opera has to simplify any
story, because opera takes longer to deal with any human emotion than
a play. A simple, “I love you, I love you!”
can take twelve to fifteen minutes, which it should because opera
is a bigger-than-life medium. So some of the subplots and
minor characters get eliminated. They have to decide more on the
focal point. I love that opera and enjoyed making the recording,
but in the opera, the love of Hamlet and Ophelia is overt, declared, big,
and passionate. In the play, it’s only referred to; it’s assumed.
Gertrude reads a note from Hamlet to Ophelia, and there is a reference
to the love. In the opera, it’s right there. To me it makes
it stronger when he says, “Get thee to a convent!
Allez dans un cloître!” That
makes the break in the love, and the whole confusion Hamlet’s going
through, and the moral issue. Is this his father’s ghost, or a demon
from Hell? But because of the open, declared-love in the first
scene, it’s so much stronger later on when he breaks it. That sets
up her being crushed, and the Mad Scene. At the time the opera
was written, Shakespeare was not considered such a huge figure in France.
So because of that, and the style of having the good guy win and the
bad guy lose, Hamlet had to live. So in the fight, Laertes doesn’t
stab him, and there’s none of the business with the poison in the cup.
He says, “My soul is dying with you, but I am still
the King. Long live the King!” and that’s
the way it ends. Then, when they took the opera to London a few
years later, you can imagine the reaction, and Thomas rewrote a death
ending. It has to be, otherwise it destroys the whole classical flawed
hero, tragic ending Shakespearean play, which is one of the bulwarks
of literature. He has to die!
BD: At least Thomas rewrote it,
rather than some other composer tacking on a different ending to the
SM: [Laughs] Well, I suspect he
did it under protest, and resented having to do it. I have no
letters from anyone to support this, no correspondence to back it up,
so that’s just my feeling.
BD: Do you get involved with reading the letters
or other items of composers when working on a part?
SM: I look through them, but I take it all
with a grain of salt. We have all said dozens of things that
we don’t subscribe to the next day, or the next week, or next year.
How often do we say, “I don’t feel that way anymore.”
But in his Hamlet, Thomas did this death-ending, and Laertes
does stab him, and he bleeds to death at the end. It’s a very dramatic
ending as he falls, but he only changed the last thirty-two bars, the
very ending coda. The rest of the music goes to the ‘living-ending’,
so you still have the lead up in structural concept going one way, and
then all of a sudden, boom, it makes a left turn. They see the
ghost come back, and you have a lot of stage problems. Is it a real
person, or a projected hazy form on scrim, or is it imagined by Hamlet?
Those are three valid ways of doing it. I think there should be some
kind of hazy ‘fantasma’ without ghost-like definitions. It loses
something when it’s a person in costume. It must be more nebulous,
but the sound should also be more scary. If the singer is terrible,
you have an awful ghost, and who would be scared of it? There should
be some kind of ambiance, perhaps even careful amplification. But
it can’t sound like a ‘Rock’
concert, or a twentieth century device imposed on it.
BD: Is ‘Rock’, music?
SM: Sure it is! Music is organized
sound. If my now-retired theory teacher from Drake University
ever sees this, he’ll be thrilled because that was one of the first
things he taught us in first year theory. ‘Rock’ is an undeniable
influence and undeniable reach-out-and-grab-you performance. I’m
not so fond of the videos, although I’m not so closed off from them that
I can’t see how others might like them. One of the things in the
‘Rock’ videos is that
we’re getting so used to lip-synching because every one is recorded at
some other time. We don’t see the vocal energies which are really
there. This might lead to a danger down the road, cumulatively
thinking that singing is just open the mouth and loud sounds come out.
BD: Would it bother you if, after a performance,
some eighth-grader came backstage and said, “Gee,
it was great and the synch was perfect!”?
SM: [Laughing] No, it wouldn’t
bother me at all. I’m more of a ballad fan, like Elvis Presley,
but that gives away my age. Still, the beat commands your attention.
BD: You say ‘Rock’
is a reach-out-and-grab-you thing. How can we make opera
a more reach-out-and-grab-you thing?
SM: I don’t know that we need to make it
more. It is that. Operas vary somewhat, but Otello
is gangbusters, powerhouse stuff. Most of the things I do are
like that, with wonderful, muscular, powerful stuff. The stories
may not be as well liked, but the musical pieces are. The production
has a lot to do with it. Singers in formal wear, standing in front
of a curtain, will have less visual impact even though the music will still
BD: As a baritone, sometimes you kill
and sometimes you are killed. Which would you rather?
SM: [Singing ‘To kill or be killed!’
to the appropriate tune in Hamlet] Actually, I like
to be killed! One of my trick things is a full-length fall.
It’s not really a trick because I really do fall. If you saw the
Simon Boccanegra on PBS, I fell like an oak tree. The trick
is knowing how to do it so you don’t get hurt. The control has
to be so good that it doesn’t look controlled. I often bang my elbow,
so I wear a pad. A noble death, such as Rodrigo in Don Carlo
can be upright until the last moment, then a fall. It’s worth it,
and it’s a fine effect on the audience. As long as they don’t think
it’s Sherrill falling as Rodrigo, but rather the character dying, then it’s
BD: If a young composer came to you and wanted
to write an opera with you as the central character, what advice would
you give? [Vis-à-vis the PBS Broadcast Advertisement
shown at right, see my Interviews with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Vasile Moldoveanu,
and Paul Plishka
(whose caricatures are shown right to left, with Milnes at far left). Also
in this 1985 performance was Dawn Upshaw in the very
brief role of Amelia’s Maid.]
SM: It would depend on the subject matter,
and how firm the performance possibilities were. I’ve had it
happen lots of times, and most of it is just talk. It never comes
to pass, so I have learned not to get all excited and start putting aside
big pieces of time. Usually what happens, the way my booking schedule
is, there isn’t a prayer of it happening unless I cancel signed contracts.
I probably will be doing one, but we’ll see how it shapes up before I say
anything. With twenty-five years of singing now, I’m not anxious
to search out new music to learn. I’m trying to cut down on the
amount of reviewing of roles, and since I’m doing recitals, I’m constantly
learning new song literature. But for reasons beyond anyone’s control,
modern works almost always get short-changed in that they never get the
ideal people. They’re scheduled too close to get the best people,
and that’s too bad because a Bohème or Tosca can still
be good with a moderate cast, but the new pieces need the best voices.
With all respect to Tim Nolen, who did it very well, I would have liked
to have done Willy Stark for Carlisle Floyd. It
was just impossible to push around all the contracts to free up the
dates. A recital can be postponed, even to another season, maybe,
but where you’re the only star that has sold subscriptions to the series,
that would be unfair to cancel.
We now move ahead seven and a half years,
to February of 1993.
As we were setting up to record, I invited my guest to
make himself comfortable . . . . . . .
BD: [With a wink] Is that what a baritone
looks for — to be comfortable?
SM: [Laughs] Well, it depends if
you’re a baritone off-stage and on-stage!
BD: Are you a baritone off-stage and on-stage?
SM: I don’t know that anyone knows what
a voice category means when you’re not singing. It’s only valid
when you’re singing. Maybe there are some types... [laughs]
Coloraturas tend to be smaller and cuter.
BD: Sutherland’s a rather large but beautiful
SM: Yes, but she wasn’t a coloratura.
She sang the music that had a lot of notes in it, but that was a heftier
sound than the traditional Roberta Peters-type,
or Kathy Battle now.
BD: Or Ruth Welting?
SM: Or Ruth, sure!
BD: She’s a bit smaller, but has a large sound.
SM: I think baritones tend to be more
BD: Is there not a baritone-type personality
that goes with the baritone range in the voice?
SM: You mean, as a private individual?
I don’t think so. Maybe when I said ‘more normal’, I meant
that we worry a little less about cold weather, colds, the right foods,
etc. All singers take care of themselves health-wise. It’s
just common sense. But lower voices tend to be a little less
hysterical about it. Maybe it’s because tenors and sopranos have
to sing more high notes. In any given piece of music, tenors and
sopranos do sing higher in their relative voice range than baritones and
basses do. Mezzos also sing higher.
BD: Do you try to not let the business of
music invade your personal life too much?
SM: Of course! One spends three hours
on stage in a twenty-four-hour day, although certainly on a performance
day some of those non-stage hours are involved in getting ready to
be on the stage — make-up, resting, etc. Sleep
and the voice are great friends. [Both laugh] But to conduct
some kind of a normal life and not have everything determined by a hard
aria or a certain set of difficult high notes, one has to keep a balance
for the family and children. You have to keep a balance, otherwise
you can go crazy. It’s not your ego so much,
but everything you think of has to do with a performance either the
next night or next week, and that makes for a strange kind of life.
BD: So for the three hours you’re focused
on the voice, and the rest of the time you’re not as focused on it?
SM: Sure, but it’s more
than three hours. That’s just walking out on stage. The
day of a performance is pretty much given to the performance, and what
you need for that. But on non-performance days, we conduct more
normal lives, with business pursuits in other areas.
BD: So you have your artistic side, and then
your business and personal side?
SM: Business and then a personal side, sure.
Singers in this time frame are better business people than in the
BD: Is that good thing or a bad thing, or
just a thing?
SM: It’s good for the singer and his family,
especially if one is taking care of what happens when the singing is
not earning the money that it once was, and one does not have the cash-flow.
Finances are much more complicated in these years, with taxes, and
the tax shelters, and IRAs, and Keogh Pension Plans. Singers are
self-employed, so if you don’t chuck away that money, with few exceptions
there’s no company doing it. You don’t have the perks that the business
world has automatically.
BD: Don’t you have an accountant that takes
care of it and advises you?
SM: Sure, but the singer has to spend an amount
of money that will allow enough left over to save. You can’t
force the singer or the singer’s family to lead some kind of normal expenditure
with normal costs in life. Singers do have extra cares.
Performers in general have extra costs.
BD: Because you’re on the road so much?
SM: Conditions on the road, hotels
and food are all very expensive. Plus there are commissions, pictures,
as well as the travel costs! In the movie world and in the theater
on Broadway, a lot of expenses are picked up, or you get a fee plus a
variety of other side expenses which are picked up. In the music
world, by and large, there are no expenses picked up. It’s the
rare date that pays transportation and hotel. You’ve a fee, but
everything comes out of that.
BD: You’re expected to do everything yourself?
SM: Exactly. So a gross fee of
$10,000 is nowhere near the same as a business executive getting $10,000
for a piece of time. He doesn’t have to hand out pictures afterwards!
There is a ten, fifteen, or twenty per cent cost, and if you have a business
manager, it’s usually another five per cent on top of that. Some
dates are twenty per cent dates, and that can be a twenty-five per cent
commission right off the top. Movie people have the commissions
as well, but there are other expenses thrown in. When you are doing
a movie on location, your expenses are picked up. It is an assumed
thing. If I go to, say, Houston to sing with the opera company there,
I may get a handsome fee, but it doesn’t kick in until the rehearsals are
over. So until the performances start, there’s no money coming in.
Your hotel is almost never picked up, and transportation is sometimes provided,
but not always.
BD: Then let me ask, is it all worth it?
SM: [Thinks a moment] Well it depends
who you’re talking about.
BD: Is it worth it for Sherrill Milnes?
SM: Has it been worth it? Of course.
Whatever area we’re talking about, we’re lucky. We’re blessed
not just because of first class travel and first-fclass hotel accommodations,
but the enormous internal satisfaction of the kind of music that we in
the classical world do, be it symphonic or opera or oratorio or recital.
We are dealing with a profound art-form, and when we’re part of it, as
soloist or part of the ensemble, at the end of the performance there’s
a huge internal satisfaction. Even if it hasn’t gone perfectly
— which is almost never the case — you
go away feeling as though you have made a contribution to the world,
and lifted your own existence to a higher plane. A nine-to-fiver,
no matter how much he likes his job, can’t equate what music gives back
to the performer.
BD: The applause that comes back to you is
part of it?
SM: Oh, yes! In the heat of the performance,
when you have sweat and you have worked and your adrenaline is pumping
and your heart’s going fast, audience appreciation is an immediate satisfaction.
But that’s only one investment return. There is another, internal
one. When you’re doing great music, it has its own return to
your soul. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, all of them are indeed the
great composers, and doing great music is, in and of itself, a reward.
BD: Is there an entertainment value along
with this tremendous artistic achievement?
SM: [Thinks a moment] If the audience
is applauding there was an entertainment value, but we are speaking
in a bigger sense, not as a laugh return from a comedian
— although there’s probably a similarity in those two things.
We tend to think of ‘entertainment’
as a laugh, but ‘entertainment’
can also be an elevating experience of your soul and your mind and your
BD: I was trying to balance of the heaviness
of the artistic achievement with something which is entertaining.
SM: It’s true. Opera can be serious
and ‘seriouser’ and ‘seriousest’,
but there are lots of fun things, too. If you’re doing Rheingold,
Götterdämmerung, or Tristan and Isolde, they
are more serious, whereas Barber, L’Elisir, or Don Pasquale
are lighter. Even Don Giovanni is a very serious piece,
but there is Mozart’s bubbling genius that runs through it.
BD: Sure, it’s a ‘drama giocoso’.
SM: Yes. So there’s entertainment
value on all levels.
* * *
BD: Your voice range dictated a lot
of what you would sing. How else did you decide which roles
you would accept and which roles you would not accept?
SM: First, one has to be asked!
[Both laugh] That’s not a sarcastic answer, but a flip answer,
and yet there’s some truth to that. Some of it is common sense.
I would ask myself if I could I sing it. Can I sing the range?
If you can’t sing Gs or A-flats, then there are certain roles as a baritone
you can’t do.
BD: You were blessed with the Gs and A-flats,
and even a B-flat occasionally!
SM: They grew! I was blessed with
the growing. I wasn’t blessed with opening my mouth and just
having them come out.
BD: You had to find them and work at them?
SM: Yes. They had to grow and develop,
but they did. So roles come along, although sometimes it’s by
accident. You can’t always pick and choose at the beginning of
a career. You want the next date. Almost regardless, sometimes
you just sing things that will come along, and soon you won’t do them
anymore. You’ll let things go. I’ve done a lot of Beethoven
Ninths, but one can’t pretend that a Verdi baritone is the exact
right voice for the bass part, even though it’s a very satisfying piece.
The Missa Solemnis of Beethoven is just as powerful a work, and
I’ve done it several times, but it’s a bass part. I was pleased to
taste the profundity of the work, though never did I think this is perfect
for my voice range and category. These symphonic works are more often
written for a bass. Elijah might be a notable exception.
Mendelssohn seemed to write well for baritones, and Elijah isn’t quite
a Verdi baritone part, but it’s certainly good for me. The Brahms Requiem
is also a higher part, as is the Fauré Requiem. All
the Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios are really bass parts. They
didn’t have the baritone voice category in that time. Mozart, as
well, did not have the baritone. That came in the bel canto
and Verdi and Puccini times later on. Also pitches were lower.
BD: Right, so now, as the pitch goes up, the
bass parts become a little more acceptable for you?
SM: They are a little higher, but even
though Papageno is a light baritone part, you can’t think of him as
a Verdi baritone. Guglielmo is a lyric, lighter baritone part.
Giovanni is one of those Mozart parts that instead of a voice category
can be sung by a bass, a bass-baritone, or a baritone — if
the baritone has enough meat to make the sound and to make the role important.
If he’s too light, then the Giovanni comes off too light weight, and
the things that he does in it are not serious enough to warrant the dire
ending that happens — his going to hell.
Some guy who plays practical jokes on people, or screws around a little
bit with women, doesn’t deserve to be condemned to eternal hell.
It’s far more serious. I think it’s a morality play —
good against evil. He’s not a fraternity jock who screws
around and cheats his friends. Remember, Giovanni does kill the Commendatore.
BD: Has Giovanni killed anyone besides the
Commendatore, or is he the only one?
SM: That’s pure speculation. All those
operas took place in a twenty-four-hour period at that time, so Giovanni
has to show the audience that he is a dangerous human being. He
must seek a whole variety of faces — charming,
sexy, smooth, liar, cheat, amoral — or at least
that he operates by his own set of rules, not the normal given set
of the day. He has a mean streak that can immediately turn to
see this other face, and in that mean streak is the guy who could pull
a sword and kill you.
BD: So he’s got to be ready for anything?
SM: Oh, yes!
BD: A lot of your characters seem to be guys that have to
be ready for anything.
SM: With some exceptions, baritone characters
tend to be more interesting as human beings — Otello
being an obvious exception for a tenor. The tenor is generally
the lover, and the music of the tenor and soprano — together
or separately — is gorgeous. But they’re
either in love, or they’re jealous about their love. The baritone
is the ‘trois’ in the ‘ménage à trois’! He loves the
soprano, the tenor loves the soprano, the soprano loves the tenor, and
doesn’t care about the baritone, so he’s angry!
BD: The baritone never — or
rarely — gets the soprano.
SM: He rarely gets the soprano, or he
kills her! The baritone is traditionally the bad guy, and within
that bad guy there’s far more faces that you can look for. The
exception is Rodrigo in Don Carlo. He is an idealist.
BD: Is he too much of an idealist?
SM: One has to find other dimensions for Rodrigo
so that he doesn’t come off as a bit of a goodie-goodie... although
the music is so noble that he doesn’t come off vocally that way.
But he is the guy who’s always trying to be in the middle, mitigating
all bad circumstances and being the buffer.
BD: And he pays for it!
SM: Oh, yes! He gets it in the
back! You always have to be careful, depending on the staging.
Sometimes the soldiers creep in from the back, and if you get
shot in the back half-way through the prison scene, your hand automatically
would go to your back. If you’re standing up and put your hand
on your back, the viewers can’t see what I’m doing. It looks a
little like you’ve had a backache or lumbago, and it can look funny.
I have seen it with some fine singers who just look ludicrous, like they
need a chiropractor. [Laughs] Instead, what you need to do
is find a timing and a motivation for Rodrigo. He has talked
to Don Carlo. He doesn’t know he’s going to be shot. As
far as he knows, the scene is over. He said he has the ‘folio’,
so the papers are in his possession. He’s protecting Carlo.
You have to turn to start to go just before the rifle shot, which means
you are making the timing for the shooters, even though they know where
it comes in the music and the audience knows where it comes in the music.
You have to turn and are about to go, so that you get shot in the front,
not the side. When you get shot in the front, it loses any dramatic
possibility. They shoot him for these things he’s just talked about,
and he could die... and of course he does.
BD: It then makes an easier collapse going
forwards than backward?
SM: Yes. Whenever you’re hurt
— and this applies to all roles — you
really have to get wounded in the front somehow. If something
hurts, even your hand gets cut, you clamp your other hand on it.
You hide it; you squeeze the wound; you’re afraid to look at it.
When you open it, is it bleeding like crazy? If it is, you cover
it up again. It’s the same with the body. In fact, I will
grab whatever flesh is above or below the ribs and squeeze there.
I make my own pain with the flesh that’s there. I make it hurt so
that I don’t have to fake the reaction, although it’s a mechanical thing.
I squeeze it and hold on.
BD: Then the grimace in your face is real!
SM: Right! You could look at it
as a way of cheating, and yet it isn’t cheating. It’s a device
that is creating more than a mild discomfort, and it makes it more believable
for the audience, and not the, “Oh, my aching
BD: So you make some real discomfort for yourself,
but you have to make sure that you don’t discomfort yourself enough
that the throat tightens up, and you can’t sing what you have left.
SM: Well, he’s shot, and there are these
intermittent lines of recitative. Then the trumpet, which is the
tune from the first act, and you have time to sort out your staging.
Then you’re going to fall all the way down and come up on an arm, or
go to your knees. You have time to work that out and get your
singing voice set because then you have those two verses of Il morrò,
which is a beautiful aria. That scene is timed very well by
Verdi in the way it progresses. At the end of it, what I like
to do is a dead fall from a full standing position. Again, it’s
a mechanical device to know how to fall, but it’s very effective.
I usually will sink to one knee, or down to both knees, and do the whole
first verse down. Then, maybe holding on to an arm around Don Carlo’s
shoulders, I will show the pain, and then gradually become a little stronger.
It is medical fact, and it’s not uncommon for someone who is about to
die to gain some strength near the end of his life.
BD: Sure! Violetta does exactly that
as she expires.
SM: Exactly. So at some point the second
verse I get up, even holding on to Carlo or having him help me up.
Then at the very end, when I am pushing him away, I say, “I’m
going to be okay. To die for you... is... a privilege.”
It is the same with Boccanegra when the poison finally takes
BD: In Boccanegra you’re being poisoned,
so it’s very slow and insidious, and he’s not really not aware of
it till the very end, whereas with Rodrigo you’re shot and it happens
SM: It’s a long time, so Boccanegra’s a harder
thing. I do a full-body fall. You really have to ration
out the discomfort. What is going through his mind is, “What
is this I feel like in my throat? It’s so dry. In fact,
even the water tastes bitter to the mouth of a ruler with these kinds of
weights and responsibilities when his people are fighting back and forth.”
That’s all he thinks it is. I try to relate it to what’s happening
in life now, with the emotional and political turmoil in the Middle-East.
Things are going awry in Genoa for Boccanegra, and while drinking the
water it never occurred to him that somebody in the palace would poison
him. In a production by Tito Capobianco, just to lock in the idea
of poison, I drink some at the end of the Trio, which comes soon after
the tenor tries to kill him, and Amelia, the daughter, stops him. Then
later, he’s kind of sunk down on the throne, but he only thinks that
he’s tired, and he just needs to sleep because he’s been up so long.
So he drinks again, a long draft of the water to really put more poison
in his body. The audience really sees the two times he’s had the drink,
so you can’t miss the poison. You do it to yourself. You put
down the empty goblet, and little by little you have to show the audience
something in my throat is burning.
BD: So you really have to understand each
character. You were talking before about speculation, so how
much of this is in the libretto and the music, and how much is speculation
and understanding of the human characters that you’re playing?
SM: The timings and the rationing out of what
you show to the audience is almost never in the score. Roles
vary greatly in their difficulty. Father Germont is just a gorgeous
singing part, and if you can move as the old man a little slower and
not vigorous and so muscular, you can do it. You can sing it beautifully
and find a few other character things to have a success. But that’s
not nearly enough for Boccanegra. It doesn’t even begin to touch
it. Scarpia is a whole other discussion. You have to find
those ideas by yourself, or with stage directors, or by watching other
great performers from the past. Now that we’re in the age of more
and more video and films of operas, you have the option, the possibility
of looking at other people doing these parts.
BD: We’re also in the age of more non-operatic films
and television. Is the audience expecting more of you each
night because they’ve been watching television regularly?
SM: I think that film and television
has forced the singers of today to be more believable in their parts,
in the opera roles, and for the most part we’ve done it. We are
more believable on stage now than fifty years ago without any question...
even more than just thirty years ago. For the Old School singers
— who were great singers, and maybe in some cases better than
the singers we have today — the time constraints
and travel possibilities were so much less. You couldn’t book yourself
three nights in a row in three cities that were more than a hundred
miles apart. Caruso couldn’t sing in New York, San Francisco, and
Buenos Aires in one week — not that we always do
that every week, but you do have that possibility — even
if they were greedy. We all have a bit of greed in us, and in modern
times, with transportation the way it is with charter planes and people
to pick you up, you’re off somewhere else too fast. It’s a big trap.
Back then they couldn’t book those things. It was a physical impossibility,
so nobody thought about it.
BD: Did that slower pace help to keep the
voice and the body healthy?
Sherrill Milnes at Lyric
Opera of Chicago
1971 - Don Carlo (Rodrigo) with Cossutta, Lorengar, Cossotto, Ghiaurov,
1972 - Ballo in Maschera (Renato) with Arroyo, Tagliavini, Koszut,
1979 - Simon Boccanegra (Simon) with Shade, Cossutta, Morris,
Stone, Toliver; Bartoletti, Frisell, Schuler (lights)
, Luciano Pavarotti, Sir Georg Solti
Cossutta, Sherrill Milnes, and Giuseppe di Stefano (l-r)
at the Lyric Opera of Chicago 25th Anniversary Gala, October 14, 1979.
[Among the many others who participated were Jon Vickers
, Alfredo Kraus
, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni
and Maria Tallchief
The emcee was Sam
1985-86 [Opening Night] - Otello (Iago) with Domingo/Johns, M. Price, McCauley, Redmon, Plishka;
1987-88 - Tosca (Scarpia) with Scotto, Ciannella, Patterson,
Gobbi (orig prod)/Kellner
1989-90 - Hamlet (Hamlet) with Welting, Kunde, Palmer;
SM: Oh, yes! Some of it was simply the
way it was, so they didn’t have the trap and they couldn’t have over-booked.
We do have those travel traps now of time-zones and jet lag. The
body’s there, but you’ve left the voice behind. Those are tissues
in our voices, a set of muscles, and just like an athlete, nobody arrives
the night before a big contest and expects to be in top shape.
You can’t do that. The body won’t function. [Pauses a moment]
Coming back to Boccanegra, that’s a special problem because you
have to ration the dying over a long period of time. This poison,
we’re assuming, acts slowly. Three scenes go by where he’s feeling
this, and you must fail little by little, without looking as though you’re
going to die when you’ve still got twenty minutes. It’s got to
be added on, rationed out. First of all, it has to be
discomfort without weakness, then more discomfort which is pulling his body
down, and is tingling in his extremities. In the midst
of it all, he has a duet with Fiesco, one of the greatest duets between
a baritone and a bass. It is a wonderful scene, and he has
to recover a bit to have the power to sing the phrases that he has in that.
Then, you use the breaths that you take to show that
they’re labored. There your vocal technique has to be in such automatic
set that you can do things that aren’t necessarily so good for your voice.
[Makes unvocal noises] You make noises exhaling and inhaling
so that the audience can believe more and more that pain is weakening
him and taking him his life.
BD: So how do you make sure that you don’t cross the
line to become a ham-actor?
SM: You work with good people, and you
have people out front in performances — usually
a wife or a husband — in my case a wife who was
a singer, and has very good eyes and ears. Also, you know that what
you feel up close is not going out in the house. It’s only important
what’s going out into the house. You may feel fantastic up there,
but if the impression in the house is not the same, that’s when you’ve
got to use your monitor. What’s reading in these big houses,
three blocks away at the back of the theater may also be too much, but
at a long distance. It is not like a Victorian drawing room soirée,
not at all!
* * *
BD: Do you adjust your vocal and physical activity
to accommodate smaller halls as opposed to great big ones?
SM: For very small houses you are advised
to bring it down, yes. But it’s only a little bit in size.
BD: What about performances that are televised, where
the camera immediately makes it a very tiny space?
SM: It depends. There’s two kinds of television.
There’s what I call, the look-in performance, which is in an opera
house, and the audience who eventually sees this performance has to realize
that television is allowing them, sitting at home, to look in and watch
a performance going on for the audience. There’s less adjustment
for that. You can get a director that says, “When
you’re very, very close to her, can you be even a few more inches closer
because I want to do a two-shot, and I want to get both your heads in.”
Okay, that’s fair, and we rehearse a little bit, or just keep it in
mind. Or he might say, “Where you’re at arms’
length I’m doing a couple of different shots. Can you be more
than at arms’ length so that we can cut back and forth and not get a
bit of the other body?” Okay. Those
are pure film mechanics, and generally the singers are now savvy enough
to lock that in mind and remember. The other kind is doing an
opera for film on location. Then it is very much smaller.
It’s like a Hollywood movie, so a little shift of an eye makes an impact.
My face hasn’t moved, and on the operatic stage, it’s nothing.
Nobody sees that. It has to be reinforced with some kind of
body movement because it’s lost. But with a camera, that’s a huge
BD: You can just raise an eyebrow,
and it reads on the screen.
SM: Raise an eyebrow, grit your teeth,
you see this muscle slightly ripple. In an opera house it’s
nothing; it doesn’t exist. But for a camera it’s a big reaction.
When it’s totally for the camera, you might have a situation where the
director will say, “Okay, cut! Now let’s go
back to where you say O vin, dissipe la tristesse. I’m going
to come across with a camera over her shoulder. Okay, rolling!”
[Mutters and sings the line] Then, if the singing was good
— which is also another problem and another skill
— you’ll probably do it again. Then he’ll say, “Okay,
now I want to do it again, and I want to come over from the baritone’s
shoulder shooting the soprano. Okay? Got this?”
Then they look and see and decide on a good intercut... “No,
no, this is better. Just stay right there and get her face.”
Then it becomes a much more artificial thing, and much more like movies
where the editing is of great importance. The Otello film
that Plácido did with Justino Diaz and Zeffirelli had huge cinematographic
effects with swirls. They must have been on one of those hydraulic
lifts. We’ve all seen the movie cameras on high, way up above where
they can spin around. The effects are good, but I’ve thought maybe
in that particular film Franco went a little bit nutsy. There
were so many swirls and fast pans back and forth that you almost got
dizzy watching it, and it took a little bit from the music and a little
bit from the strength of the character of the people, because they were
all very good in it.
BD: They were taking advantage of every
cinematographic technique, which can’t be duplicated when you get
back into the live theater.
No, although Giancarlo del Monaco [son of the famous tenor]
made his stage directing début at the Met last on Fanciulla
del West with Barbara Daniels and Plácido and me, and it’s
made like a movie. I don’t mean they filmed it as a movie, but
the set is so real. The bar in the first scene is the whole Met
stage, which is huge, and it’s like any Old Western
saloon that you see in a John Wayne movie. The second scene is
her little cabin with trees and mountains behind. You really believe
that it’s just stuck down in a little ravine between huge mountain peaks,
and the snow storm was absolutely real. It’s not snow, but it is
coming down, so when we come in we have to bang off our hats because there’s
stuff all over them. People feel that it’s cold. Then
for the posse in the third act, he didn’t do it at the traditional
hanging tree. In fact, he took a bit of a beating from some of
the critics because of it. That’s a bit silly. It’s in a
ghost town, with blown-out windows, and there’s a bar and a two by
six sticking out that was broken-off, and that becomes the hanging place.
The posse is there, having been on his trail for a couple of months. We
all change — whatever our costumes were for the
first two acts, we had duplicates, but all torn and tattered, and sprayed
down and muddy, and you believe it! You think that you could walk
in and there would be Central City. You could take a ride to one street
and there’d be another bar. It is a sensational set. It’s
played like a movie, and the film version is really sensational.
BD: Is it at all schizophrenic to have this
very American idea of being out in the Old West, yet with the Italianate
music of Puccini?
SM: Opera’s a stylized medium! [Both laugh]
Some people do make fun of Fanciulla for that reason. Jake
Wallis, one guy in the first act comes in and says, Io voglio mia
mama [I want my Mama], and somebody else’s wife has just written him
a ‘Dear John letter’, and he’s crying. Okay, it’s already artificial
because it’s music. In the real West, people spoke, they didn’t
sing. In opera, singing is the talking, so it’s already bigger
than life. So there’s an Italian aspect. So what?
It works when you have real actor-singers who are relating. Rance,
the Sheriff, would be an American singer’s dream because every kid in grade
school loves to quick draw a Forty-Four Peacemaker with a long barrel.
That was Rance’s gun, and I shoot Dick Johnson in the second act
while hiding behind the tree smoking a cigar. I had to smoke a
cigar and spit! The smoking took some doing because I don’t like
smoke, and cigar smoke is even more fowl! [This is ironic, because
in his very early days as a professional singer, Milnes did the vocals
for the Marlboro cigarette commercials!] But there was an odd
phenomenon... Once I would get the cigar and roll the end and get it
wet and light it, I got into a dirtier, more rough and tumble, less
refined, less comfortable mindset. Fortunately, the vocalisms were
automatic enough that it didn’t affect them, because you did go into another
whole psychological set to do that particular production.
BD: Could you insist that they have a tiny
little fan to blow the smoke away from you, rather than back into your
SM: That’s not a problem because you blow up.
It’s the mechanics. You have to look as
if you’re inhaling, although not everybody inhales cigars. You
pull it in and you hold the smoke in your mouth while you breathe through
your nose and blow the smoke up. But you have to do as if you’re
enjoying it, otherwise you look silly, like a kid with a first cigarette.
[Both laugh as he imitates a first-smoke cough] The end of the
cigar comes wet and messy, but you use it as punctuation. Some lines
I even sang with the cigar in my mouth if it was a three or four-word phrase
and it seemed right and wasn’t so important. There’s a
lot of little lines in that first bit.
BD: And then let the cigar wiggle up and down
as you sing?
SM: Yeah! You don’t have to make
tremendous diction for some little throw-away line. [In
a coarse, Old West accent] “Hey, what are you doing there?
Cool it!” Leaving the cigar in the mouth is
exactly right. Other times you take it out and you punctuate with
it. You use it to point because Rance is a tough guy. He’s a
gambler, but he is the Sheriff. He is the law.
BD: Is he good law, or is he his own law?
SM: [Wistfully] That’s a long discussion.
He’s the law that’s happening there. He does love Minnie.
Giancarlo did something at the end that’s never been done. When
we first started to rehearse, he told me he had an idea for the end. Do
you know the opera at all?
BD: We just had it here not long ago, in a
production by Hal Prince.
SM: Good. So Minnie and Dick Johnson
go off at the end, and Rance usually just fades away. He’s been
disarmed because they’ve all gone in favor of the tenor and the soprano.
They’re going to go off to Sacramento, I guess.
BD: They walk off into the sunset!
SM: [Smiles] Yes, and the music
eases them off while he’s steaming. He’s also very depressed,
and feels as if his life is over because he truly loves Minnie.
I have no doubt about that, although his psyche, his emotions, are so
closed and a bit twisted and obtuse. He’s an
unclear kind of guy.
BD: But deep down he’s frustrated that she’s
not Mrs. Jack Rance? [Vis-à-vis the (audio) recording
shown at left, see my Interviews with Robert Lloyd, Robin Leggate, and Zubin Mehta.]
SM: Exactly, and in a real way he would love her
and cherish her, not rape her, and if someone laid a hand on her
wrong, he would bust them. I don’t mean in jail, I mean take ’em
apart! So he stands there, leaning on a broken down piece, and
she comes over to him. He senses her presence, and he kind of
turns away. So she sticks her hand out as if to say, “Come
on, let’s part friends. Shake hands. Even if you wanted more,
it’s not meant to be. This is my guy, and we’re going away.”
So she’s standing there, and Barbara was sensational in it.
She had the timing. She was vocally fine, but also had the physical
timings. I didn’t want to say good-bye. I wanted to touch
her. I wanted to hold her and love her, and cherish her.
Finally, she kind of insists and he takes her hand. He feels the
warmth of her body, her skin, her hand, and in a split second what passes
through his mind is all that might have. One can have huge thoughts
in a very short space of time, and he senses how different it would have
been had they gotten together. She starts to pull away and goes back
to Johnson. There isn’t really a coda. They’re all singing
to the end, and Rance starts to follow. He’s been disarmed.
His gun was thrown off to the side, and he starts to follow them with
his eyes. As they’re disappearing, he goes over and picks up his
Forty-Four Peacemaker, and wipes the dust off it because this is his friend.
He is the law man and has the code of the West.
BD: Is the gun his only friend?
SM: At that moment it is because all of the minors
are going with them. They don’t want to have anything to do with
Rance. They’ve really thrown him out emotionally, and he looks down
at the gun, and is looking out as the curtain is starting down. The
camera did a close-up of his face, and I did a knee-drop, just straight
down. My life is over. You could see his agony, his pain.
That is powerful. It is gang-busters, and nobody’s ever done
that before. It was altogether Giancarlo’s idea. Some people
said to me that it looked as though I was going to commit suicide with
the gun because I do it with such affection. That’s fine if they think
that because those ideas are part of what he’s thinking, and it makes
the Rance character much more important. The music fits it, and
it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else, but it’s a whole added
dimension. It just isn’t a love duet that ends when the curtain closes,
and everyone lives happily ever after.
BD: Do you often think about what happens in the act
after the final curtain, or do you just let the character go?
SM: No. [Both laugh] I
am taking my make-up off, and the wig if there’s a wig.
BD: As you’re preparing the last act, do you
look forward to the non-existent next act?
SM: [Thinks a moment] Usually in my mind
I have figured it out, either made it up if there’s no material from
which to get information, or looked at other sources to find out what happens
to the character. Iago isn’t dealt with. He escapes. It
looks as though he escapes, but in the play he’s hung up by his feet or
some horrible thing. It’s referred to once, but the opera doesn’t
deal with it. What happens to Amonasro?
BD: As I remember, he winds up getting killed
in between the acts. That’s partly why Aïda has nothing left
to live for, and so she goes to die with Radamès.
SM: I will have to look at the fourth act since
I don’t sing in it. I don’t pay attention to things I don’t sing!
[Both laugh] But you do need to think a little bit about what happens
next. It could also affect how you do your last appearance.
BD: This is why I ask. You’re pointing
some place when you’re going off — unless you’re
killed, and in many of your roles you wind up dead.
SM: I’m a big die-er. Scarpia is a fantastic
part when I do that. Rigoletto is a very interesting case because
of all the psychological stuff. He is a true Italian because he
doesn’t say, “Poor Gilda” at
the end, he says, “Poor me. What’s
going to happen to me?” The emphasis is on
me, not that she’s been suffering. But the music is so profound...
BD: [Pretending to be cynical] But
she’s dead and there’s nothing more he can do for her.
SM: Even when he’s singing, it is not, “My
poor Gilda,” but, “Woe
is me.” There is that sense to it, but it’s
a masterpiece of an opera. Actually, I don’t do Rigoletto anymore.
The problem is with my back. It always hurt, partly because I’m tall
for Rigoletto. He cannot be taller than the tenor. In the look
of their scenes together you can’t tower above the tenor. While it’s
easier with Plácido or Luciano, or some of these taller guys, with
a short tenor it’s a big problem for me. My back always hurt almost
from the beginning, and it gradually got so much that it was so uncomfortable
I had to let it go.
* * *
BD: You’re here in Chicago to do some masterclasses,
and are dealing with students. Do you find the next generation
of voices are good and solid?
SM: There’s a lot of talent around the world.
I do classes, not on a regular basis, but it comes out that way. When
I sing a concert, I might do an aria or two with orchestra, and four
days of classes. I have done that in Moscow and Prague and London,
and so forth. There is talent around the world. One thing
that has happened is that the university singer pool of talent from
which they can draw has diminished somewhat. There are a lot
of programs out there, and communication being what it is these days,
there’s almost no such thing as keeping something under wraps.
You can’t remain undiscovered while your instrument’s maturing and becoming
more and more solid, so that at the end of it a certain period of time
— two years, five years, whatever, depending on the age
— you can’t remain undiscovered and then come out at the
far end really ready.
BD: Someone will have picked you up too soon?
SM: They will have picked you up in some
cases too soon, though not always, of course. But in some cases
you’re discovered prematurely just because there is somebody in every
performance in the world who has the conduit, the possibility of opening
up your career.
BD: “Guess who I heard
SM: That kind of thing, exactly. Often they
can be plucked right out of a university setting, or they get their
bachelors, and then they get ideas about a career and glamor, and the
pull of singing professionally gets them before they do their two years
as a master’s candidate somewhere.
BD: To borrow a sports metaphor, how can you
advise these students to make sure they use all of their years of
SM: You almost can’t. I’m a big proponent
of formal education. Learn about your voice, study with the
best person, go somewhere to find the best people. There are good
teachers around, but the best teaching situation finally comes down to
the student. How good a student are you? How good a sponge
are you? All the best information in the world isn’t going to cut
it if you they can’t convert it, commit to it, and keep it in their minds.
One of the things I say is that your biggest responsibility
is to improve. In fact, your only responsibility is to get better.
Well, that’s a wide parameter. Sometimes they think that they
only need to win that contest, or get that grant money, not that they
need to be better six months or a year from now, so that in five years
they’re much better. Careers come as a result of being good, not of
accidentally winning the contest. If you were the best of that group,
fine, win that contest. Contests have a value, and they fit into
the bigger scheme of things. But that in itself isn’t necessarily
going to make you a career.
BD: I assume that there are a lot of people
who come in second and third, or even fifth in contests who have big
SM: That was me! I was a big contest loser
— not last in the sense of being eliminated right way, or
being asked why I was even here because I had such a terrible voice.
I wasn’t in that category, but I wasn’t a contest winner. The
best I ever did in any contest was second place in the Met auditions in
the Chicago region. So I did not go to New York, but I got $500 or
$800 dollars in ’60 or ’61, and I was thrilled. It paid some bills,
and I had the feeling that going to New York was not the next thing on
my agenda. That was not the most important thing. I was working
with Hermanus Baer at Northwestern at the time, and Andrew White at Drake
University where I did my degree work. I had half a dozen different
jobs singing things here in Chicago in my post-master’s time because
I’m from the area, Downers Grove. I had it in my mind that if I was
better in six months than I am now, that was where it was, and if things
were going to fall, they were going to fall as a result of improving
all the areas such as styles and stage techniques.
BD: You need time to ripen?
SM: Exactly. Time to ripen. Another
thing is the fast travel and instant communications. You can get
there and somebody will pick you up, and you can be in these various
places immediately. Another big trap for the first ten years of
a career is that every time you sing, it’s a first. You have no
mileage. You don’t have ten or fifteen Messiahs or Elijahs
or Traviatas or Bohèmes or lots of full recitals prepared.
You’re constantly hustling to learn the new music, and, as you said
before, there is no time to ripen. Every time you sing is green,
unripe. It’s just barely ready to sing, and not even ready to show
off. The hurry-up mentality also affects you, and it has to do with
this ripening. We don’t give enough time for pieces to settle in
our psyche or in our throat. I feel that once you have a piece memorized
and you can sing it somewhat comfortably without the score, that’s when
you really start to work on it, not ‘it’s ready for performance!’
BD: That’s the beginning not the end.
SM: Exactly! In my Chicago time
— post-masters and before I moved to New York — I
had a baritone colleague who had a Brahms Requiem somewhere.
I saw him the day after the performance and asked how it went.
“Wonderful piece,” he said.
“It was terrific, and I didn’t make a single
mistake!” For him, he was speaking the truth,
and relating what he felt was at the top of the list. The best
you could possibly do is not make a mistake. Not that I’m so profound,
but it did puzzle me, and I thought about it subsequently. There’s
something wrong if one’s idea of a good performance is, “I
sang it correctly.” That’s where you should
BD: That’s expected.
SM: Right. It should be a given. But this
is a hurry-up mentality, and everybody’s in on it. We don’t give
pieces enough time. For Giovanni in Italian I spent a year.
For Falstaff I spent a year. I had sung Giovanni in
English, nevertheless, my first Giovanni in Italian was at the Met, which
is not an undiscovered place to do it. So I worked very hard.
I remember speaking about it with Ruggero Raimondi, who is actually a
bit younger than I am, but as an Italian he didn’t do the role in English.
The first time he did it was in Italian, so his number of performances
was far greater than mine when I did my first one. He probably had
already done thirty or forty, and I had done thirty or forty, but in English.
He said to me that recitative-operas are tough. The memory of
recitatives is different than when there’s melody behind it. He said
that you have to have those recitatives so well in your mouth and your
mind that they’ll come out correctly if you fell asleep! [Laughs]
That means hundreds of repetitions. You have to develop what
is called ‘muscle memory’. That
is, you’ve done it so often that even if you can’t remember what that
next line is, the instant you sing it, your mouth makes the right word.
If you don’t have any muscle memory there’s no way that everyone will
remember every word of every part at the instant you have to sing it.
BD: Is this the beauty of the prompter —
that you hear the first word so you start off right, and
then it’s automatic? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at
left, see my Interviews with Peter Schreier, Walter Berry, John Macurdy, and Dale Duesing.]
SM: That is one of the values.
The function of a prompter is a fairly broad cut, and valuable especially
in bigger theaters where the distance to the conductor is great. He
is so far away that you can see the beat, but cues you almost don’t
see. If you sing a lot of different operas, and sing them in different
languages, the value of the prompter increases. You need to know
how to use the prompter, and how the prompter responds to the people.
Those are delicate balances how you use them.
BD: Is that something you can learn, or do
you have to just experience it? Can it be taught?
SM: Oh, sure, it could be taught. But from
the singer’s point of view, you must learn how you use the prompter
or not use the prompter. It’s terrible when you see a singer’s
eyes go down to the prompter’s box at every rest in the music. [Illustrates
by singing a couple of measures, then dropping his head repeats the effort
a few more times] That’s an exaggerated state, but certain Europeans
of the Old School still do that where they’re prompter-bound. That’s
not good. The prompter should be an added tool, not your tank
of gas that you can’t go without. It was always said that if
the prompter fed some of the older Italian singers a line from another opera,
they would sing the other opera. [Both laugh] But you can
get so stuck in recitatives. I remember doing a Giovanni
on tour with the Met. It was in Boston, and Donald Gramm was the
Leporello. I could kind of see the music on the page where I was,
but I didn’t remember it! He had a line, and nothing fed to me.
My memory tape stayed blank. He said something, and again
there was nothing. I must have sung the same line about five times,
and the prompter-communication wasn’t working because it seemed as though
the prompter talked when I sang, so of course I couldn’t hear what he
said. He should have waited for Leporello’s line and then fired
me my line, because when you’re singing you kind of block your ears from
receiving sound. I don’t know what happened, but I was embarrassed
because it was like the needle of the old record that stuck and just kept
repeating in the same groove and could not get beyond that. Eventually
I think I skipped about four lines and just banged in on something, and
then we went on. I was embarrassed!
BD: Did you ever have anything else weird happen
— like a piece of scenery fall on you?
SM: Oh, sure. Maybe the most serious was
also in the same Giovanni tour in Dallas. There was Donald,
and John Macurdy was singing the Commendatore. He was back in
kind of a crypt-tomb affair, with an archway over him singing the great
end scene, and a pipe dropped at the back of the stage from which all
kinds of canvasses were hanging. I don’t know why it broke lose, but
it fell from thirty feet and hit the floor. Of course, the audience
reacted emotionally with little screams, and worried what had happened.
Nobody was hurt, but they could have been! It could have
fallen on that crypt thing where John was standing downstage near where
we were. I don’t know why, but I pulled my sword out and looked
around to see what was going on. Mine was the next line, and somehow
I did remember the tonality. It was in the recitative, and dear John Pritchard was
conducting and playing the harpsichord as well. As Donald and I kept
the recitative going, a few seconds later the audience all started to
applaud. We just kept the thing going. There were a few seconds,
maybe five, six, seven seconds of pause with everyone looking
looking around. [As if listening to his subconscious] Nobody’s
hurt! What do we do? Oh, we can still function on the set,
so we went on with the recitative and the performance continued!
It could have been disastrous, but you don’t feel so badly if it’s not
your fault. If you go to a door, and you don’t know which way it
opens, and you guess wrong, those kinds of things make you feel foolish.
BD: All in all, is singing fun?
SM: I have a problem with the word ‘fun’ just
as it is. Eating a chocolate sundae is fun. Riding a roller
coaster, if you want those kinds of thrills, is fun. For me singing
is too hard. It takes too much concentration, and it’s physically
too hard to have the word ‘fun’ fit in. It also makes it seem like
it’s not a worthy endeavor. It’s not important enough of an endeavor
if it’s just fun. There are moments of fun, but if that word is
used as the over-riding idea — just go out there
and have fun — well, that may work for a night-club
act. That could be exactly the right thing to say, but the body tension
in a performance of Don Giovanni that’s necessary to show the
electricity in the ideas we talked about before — the
multi-faces he has to show, and the quick swings of mood —
that’s too hard to call fun! There is a satisfaction
that you get after something, that huge internal satisfaction when something
has gone well, or the powerful sound sweep when you are singing part of
a huge, gorgeous ensemble such as Boccanegra in the Council Chamber
Scene, or the famous Triumphal Scene in Aïda. Being one
voice in this huge sonority of sound is wonderful, but even that I don’t
call fun even though you can get chills up and down your spine.
There’s got to be a better word than ‘fun’!
It’s too light-weight. I don’t mean to beat it up because it’s a perfectly
good word. I just think that the whole ambiance, the whole industry,
the whole world of music is far more important and more profound,
and provides greater returns to the performer than ‘fun’.
BD: Thank you for all that you have given
in the opera world for all these years. I hope it continues for
a long time.
SM: Thank you. It was a pleasure
to do this interview.
© 1985 & 1993 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on October 9, 1985, and
February 9, 1993. Much of the first interview was published in the
Massenet Newsletter in January, 1990. Portions of both interviews
were broadcast on WNIB in 1986, 1988, 1990, and 1995. The transcription
of the second interview was made in 2017, and both were posted on this
website at that time. My thanks to British soprano
Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97
in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various
magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus
a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather, who
was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You
may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.