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
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
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
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
Raimondi, and James
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
BD: Are there some of your recordings that
you feel are outstanding examples of your vocal artistry and/or
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
BD: What about this new gimmick of supertitles?
[Note that at the time of this conversation, they were just beginning
to be used in theaters. Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at left, see my interview with Richard Van Allan.]
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
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
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 completed work.
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 be there.
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
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 of
‘entertainment’ 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
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
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 right
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
, Carlo 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,
Tilson Thomas, Gobbi
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 reaction.
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 Harold
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, Gwynne Howell, 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
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
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.