From Music in Cincinnati

Sherrill Milnes, A Voice That Still Rings

Posted in: 2015
By Laura A. Hobson
May 11, 2015 - 6:36:47 PM

Sherrill Milnes

At age 80, Sherrill Milnes, an internationally known operatic baritone, is still active in his career.  He sang over 650 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1965 to 1997 with such singers as Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland.  Winner of three Grammy Awards and the most recorded American singer of his time, Milnes received the Opera News Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2008.

In an appearance entitled “An Evening with Sherrill Milnes” on May 4 at Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Rap at Music Hall, Milnes talked about his career and current projects.  Although there was not time for a master class, Milnes attended a dinner with opera patrons in his honor the previous night and took time to talk with this reporter in the Art Deco Palm Court bar at the Netherland Hilton Hotel.

Although retired from performing, Milnes gives master classes, judges competitions and mentors new generations of singers.  With his wife singer Maria Zouves, he co-founded and runs the Sherrill Milnes VOICE Programs:  VOICEExperience Foundation and the Savannah VOICE Festival.  VOICEExperience is a nonprofit designed to train and mentor young singers.  Milnes and Zouves established Savannah VOICE Festival in 2013 bringing concerts, operas, educational presentations and community outreach to the Georgia city.  Today, his passion is to pass on his musical knowledge to the next generation of singers.

Milnes’ ancestral lineage goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century.  He had humble beginnings:  he grew up on a small dairy farm in Downers Grove, Illinois.  His mother was the choir director at the local First Congregational Church.  Brought up with hymns, Milnes learned to play various instruments such as piano, violin, viola, double bass, clarinet and tuba.

Initially interested in pre-med in college, Milnes turned to vocal music at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he studied with Andrew White, later a professor at College-Conservatory of Music, and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education. Working his way through college, he played in jazz bands at small clubs in Iowa as well as at local service organizations, such as the Elks and Rotarians.

Originally planning to teach music, Milnes prepared for a career of performance, pursuing graduate studies under the guidance of Hermanus Baer at Northwestern University.  He auditioned and was accepted by the Boris Goldovsky Opera Company, for which he sang over 300 performances of more than a dozen roles.

        He listened to the Met on the radio.  “I would hear the greats – Richard Tucker and Leontyne Price,” he added.  Milnes recalls singing ten operas at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.  He particularly remembers singing Beethoven’s Misse Solemnis conducted by Leonard Bernstein, “one of the true geniuses of the 20th century."

        The singer’s international career began with Macbeth at the Vienna Staatsoper and went on to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; La Scala in Milan; Berlin’s Deutsche Oper; and the Paris Opera, among others.  In the United States, he appeared with New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, in addition to other opera houses.

           With studying, he got better every year and performed leading roles around the United States.  Maestro and impresario Julius Rudel of New York City Opera (1957 – 1979) made him an offer to join his opera, which Milnes accepted.

        “I was a good stealer,” said Milnes meaning he looked at other singers from whom he learned.  Busy with a career and family, Milnes managed school, children and performing.  Because of the time commitments, he looked at new productions carefully.  “Careers are more difficult for females,” said Milnes.  “Still, a mother is central to the family.”  And there are many more male roles in opera.

        It was not his dream to go to the Met, but it eventually happened.  Milnes made his Met debut with the role of Valentin in Gounod’s Faust in 1965.  His trip to stardom was launched in 1968 when he performed Miller in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at the Met.   One of his most challenging roles was Verdi’s Falstaff in which the lead performer wears a fat suit and sweats profusely.  “It’s a long role in costume.  It’s tough,” said Milnes, who eventually became principal artist at the Met.

        He tells young singers, particularly those who sing in Europe with short rehearsals, to come prepared “with a toolbox.”  Milnes stresses the importance of being ready at any time.  He also advises singers not to tell anyone about an audition, unless it’s your mother.  “Keep your mouth shut,” he says. 

        Milnes particularly enjoyed Verdi, who wrote operas with lead baritone roles such as Otello, Don Carlo, Aida and La Traviata.  He also performed for all the United States Presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.  Not only did he sing, he conducted and recorded. 

        Retired from the stage in 2002, Milnes still maintains an active life.  He met his third wife Maria Zouves, a singer, at a summer program and together they have one child, Theo, 15.  From other marriages, Milnes has three additional children, Eric, Shawn and Erin.  Tracing Milnes’ history and career, he published an autobiography “America Aria:  Encore.”   

        In recognition of his work, he received many honors, including seven honorary doctoral degrees and receiving the Commendatore of the Italian Republic distinction for his long commitment to Italian opera.  In 1996, the French government honored Milnes with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.  By 2003, he came a member of the Lincoln Academy, the highest honor awarded by Illinois.

        He has held master classes at Julliard and Manhattan Schools in New York City, the Met Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program and the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center.   Milnes has also served on the faculty of Yale School of Music and at Northwestern University, where he is the John Evans Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus.   

        A voice that rang true; a voice that still resonates.

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