Sherrill Milnes

Sherrill Milnes was born into a farming family. Despite household and farm duties, he took voice lessons and studied piano, violin, viola, double bass, clarinet and tuba. At college, seeing no future in music, he decided to pursue pre-medical studies with the intention of becoming an anaesthesiologist; but soon realising that music was his preference, he entered Drake University and studied with Andrew White, gaining both bachelor’s and master’s degrees with the intention of teaching. He also studied with Hermanus Baer at Northwestern University. To support himself during this period he played in local jazz groups and sang wherever he could: with local opera groups, in churches and synagogues, and for television and radio commercials. He was also an apprentice at the Santa Fe opera for one summer, studying briefly with Rosa Ponselle and making the decision to pursue a career as an opera singer.

A major opportunity occurred in 1960, when Milnes auditioned successfully for the Boris Goldovsky Opera Company, making his debut as Masetto / Don Giovanni. He stayed with the company for five years, touring with it throughout the USA and singing in over 300 performances of more than a dozen roles, including several of the major Verdi baritone roles as well as the title part in Don Giovanni.

In 1961 Milnes also first appeared with Ponselle’s Baltimore Opera (as Gérard / Andrea Chénier) and was signed by the agent Herbert Barrett. He made his debut with the New York City Opera as Valentin / Faust opposite Norman Treigle in 1964 and in the same year gave his first European performance, as Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia, at the Teatro Nuovo, Milan.

Milnes made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1965, once again as Valentin; but his breakthrough came in 1968, when his performance at the Met as Miller / Luisa Miller catapulted him to international attention. Before this however he had already taken many leading baritone roles with the company: for example Yeletsky / The Queen of Spades, Jack Rance / La fanciulla del West, Amonasro / Aida, Renato / Un ballo in maschera, Enrico / Lucia di Lammermoor, High Priest / Samson et Dalila, Escamillo / Carmen, Germont père / La traviata, Barnaba / La Gioconda and Don Carlo / La forza del destino, as well as creating the role of Captain Brant in Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra in 1967.

At the Vienna State Opera Milnes’s debut occurred in 1970, in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth opposite Christa Ludwig with Karl Böhm conducting; and in 1971 he appeared for the first time at the Royal Opera House, London (as Renato) and with the Chicago Lyric Opera as Posa / Don Carlo. While Milnes returned frequently to all these companies, he sang at the Met consistently throughout the 1970s and 1980s: new roles there included the title parts in Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra; Monforte / I vespri siciliani, Alfonso / La favorita, Don Carlo / Ernani, Iago / Otello, Tonio / Pagliacci, Riccardo / I puritani, Scarpia / Tosca, di Luna / Il trovatore and Athanaël / Thaïs.

Throughout his career Milnes was also active as a guest at major opera houses in Europe and North and South America, for instance singing at the Verona Arena in 1981 and 1985. Having overcome vocal problems in the early 1980s, his later roles included the title parts in Thomas’s Hamlet (New York City Opera, 1980), Falstaff (Miami, 1991) and de Siriex / Fedora (Buenos Aires, 1998).

Milnes’s farewell appearance at the Met took place in 1997, as Amonasro; in 2001 he and his wife created VOICExperience to assist young singers.

With a rich and even voice of great range, allied to a handsome and powerful stage presence, Milnes was ideally suited to the heroic baritone repertoire. He stands in direct line with the other great post-war American baritones Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill, and like them he recorded extensively.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).