By Francisco Salazar
What do you do after you’ve taught, formed a young artist program and had a legendary career as a singer and conductor?
The answer? Direct opera.
That is exactly what famed baritone Sherrill Milnes has embarked on alongside his wife, Maria Zouves. In collaboration with the Prague Summer Nights, presented by Classical Movements, the duo has already directed two Mozart masterpieces with the festival and have garnered rave reviews.
Passing On Tradition
When the Prague Summer Nights Festival was started Artistic Director John Nardolillo contacted Milnes and Zouves with the idea of bringing them to the program and having them work as directors. It was the opportunity to not only bring their knowledge to young artists but it was also a new opportunity for Milnes.
“I’m post-career and the idea of passing on to younger singers ideas is important,” Milnes noted in a recent interview with OperaWire.
Part of those ideas is passing down musical history. “I go back to the Bernstein, Solti, Giuliani and Karajan and all these giants. And I sang under Fritz Reiner, who was a great maestro in the old style. He was scary. I often categorize the old conductors as ‘Fear conductors’ and now from James Levine to now, I call the ‘Love conductors,'” Milnes joked.
The baritone recalled working with Reiner noting that he was part of the generation where conductors were more like enemies and often times scary to work with. However, that trend changed while he was singing. “When you look at Jim Levine or Jim Conlon, you feel like, ‘Let’s do this together.’ Psychologically you feel like you can give more. I don’t know if you actually do, But you feel like you give more when you see a face that is bright and wanting you to succeed,” he noted.
For Milnes, it is crucial that younger generations understand this newer conducting philosophy and its impact on music, as well as the tradition and style of the old masters.
But it also goes beyond passing down history. While Milnes sang he learned a lot about languages and realized that the English language could be an obstacle when singing in Italian or French. And that is something Milnes is constantly looking to improve.
“In America, we tend to be mathematically correct, tah-tah eighth notes, 3/4 bar or whatever it is. But every language has its own contours. For example in Italian, you don’t say ‘Am-mo-re’ accenting the ‘Re’ but you say ‘amore’ smoothly. It’s mathematically precise but with a flow.
“You have to be correct, but beyond correct, there is a whole musical level. There has to be intention and meaning. Correct doesn’t make good music,” Milnes noted.
The Dynamic Directing Duo
The second opportunity that the program allowed was for Milnes and his wife Maria Zouves to collaborate as directors. Milnes would make his directorial debut, expanding his artistic horizons and also furthering his artistic relationship with Zouves.
“Maria is the stage director,” Milnes revealed. “She has the ideas. If I have a bunch of people on stage, I don’t know what to with them. She is very imaginative. She really does the staging. However, if you show me a staging, I can make it better.”
And Zouves agrees that Milnes always goes back to his experience and it is really helpful. “He is the eyeballs. I look at him and he goes, ‘This isn’t working.’ And then he says, ‘When I did it with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle or Tito Capobianco, we did it that way.’ So the partnership works.”
Milnes has another forte while they are directing together. “I know how to cheat on stage. Audiences can judge left and right but they can not judge depth at all. Well, you never walk straight stage across for many reasons and that is important.”
As for how they approach the directing, Zouves is extremely diligent with going back to the original text as is Milnes who is always looking for meaning and intention. So before going into blocking or stage direction, they both sit down with their cast members and do what Zouves calls a “Script reading.”
But there is a twist. Zouves describes it as a Babel reading because everyone reads it in their first language. So in one reading, there could be Korean, Spanish and German.
“It’s always about reacting. In opera, we’re in a different language and we generally only speak English and you have to sing most of the time for a language which is not their language. That is tough and we’re supposed to be as good as the native speaker,” Zouves noted.
The result is that singers react more naturally in their own language, allowing them to discover the character and, as Milnes notes, “the intention becomes real.”
Zouves recalls one of the first readings she did with this technique and notes that it really created the drama. “We had a ‘Don Giovanni’ in Korean and the Leporello repeated it back in what he heard of the Korean. And he just repeated it that way as an impulse. We saw the humor in the scene and those are the responses you get when you use that gut level translation.”
She finds that this technique eventually leads to great listening when the young singers are finally on stage getting ready to perform.
The Advantages of Prague
Beyond their artistic rewards and the teaching experience they both bring to young singers, Milnes and Zouves feel a great reward seeing them grow.
The duo noted that some of the singers enter the program without having ever performed an opera and seeing them develop into their characters and learning the process is incredibly important.
“One of the Figaros this year had never been in an opera scene before. He had no operatic experience whatsoever. He came here and he had no idea what to do. Everything was new. But he got through the title character and he did a wonderful job and he feels really good now and excited. It is a huge deal. There are other singers who are a little more seasoned so it’s a little more mileage. For others, it’s a huge arch,” Zuoves revealed.
And the other important aspect is learning from each other and their environment.
“They are also able to experience a foreign language,” Milnes noted. “They are also working with international students and they are learning from each other. We have Korea, Poland, America, France, Canada, Germany, China and much more represented here. It’s the United Nations and that is very good for all.”
Milnes and Zouves also feel that working in Prague opens the possibilities for general growth.
“These types of programs where they go to another country, they also absorb what our art form has intrinsically in it, which is the international scope and they are learning how to manage their way through this. For some of them, it is the first time out of the U.S and out of their home. So they are learning how to experience foreign currency and culture and sometimes it’s not as comfortable. But they are also learning about audiences. Here in Prague, they love music. It’s part of the culture. To have that type of audience, that’s important for a singer. When the work is done they want to have someone to perform for,” noted Zouves.
And the other aspect that makes Prague so enriching is the history. This year, for example, when the Estates Theater was closed, the festival found a venue where Mozart and Hayden gave recitals. That made the experience even more exciting for them.
“We all throw around Mozart but he was here. In fact, I was the first American to sing ‘Don Giovanni’ in the theater where it was premiered. And there is a plaque. They have redone it several times but Mozart walked there and that is awesome.”
A Changing Landscape
With the Prague Summer Festival having ended Zouves and Milnes will go back to their development program in Savannah and continue to enrich and develop new singers. And most of the young singers at Prague will not be going back with them. Some will go back to auditions while others will be back to college having learned and garnered an international performance on their resume. But some of them will face new obstacles.
In the operatic landscape, singers today are crashing and burning quickly with many promising voices faltering after a few years. And that is something that Milnes and Zouves have tried to avoid as they develop singers.
“Part of the problem is today’s culture. Today everything is instant and it’s all an app. You can’t download an app in opera. It’s a slow process and today’s instant life gets in the way of that slow process,” said Zouves.
Milnes goes back to his 42-year career and has two words of advice for young singers, “Common Sense.”
“You have to have enough rest. Sleep and the voice are very friendly. When I didn’t have to get up at 7 a.m. to do a 10 a.m. audition I was better. That means the day of a performance you better be careful. There wasn’t really a conscientious effort but it was all about being smart. One of the worst things in performing is going to a noisy nightclub after singing because you have already used your voice and then the music is so loud you have to yell. Then you really beat up the throat,” Milnes joked.
But Zouves also thinks it was due to her husband’s discipline and learning to say no when he felt uncomfortable.
“He was very disciplined. He was very good at performing and it had to do with his musicianship. There are singers who were great artistically which he was but there are also good musicians. Singers that are just singers who make beautiful sounds. When those beautiful sounds no longer work there is nothing else to do. Sherrill is a wonderful conductor and teacher and great masterclass giver. He could, as a result, take projects not just with opera. He did a lot of concerts, recitals and oratorio work. His roles diminished in terms of what he could take on. But those roles like Scarpia, Germont and all of these guys stayed constant. He was doing Scarpia up to the end and Falstaff was a defacto. Sherrill was also smart and he said no to things.”
One such thing that he did not sing,despite the insistence of Karl Böhm, was “The Flying Dutchman.”
“It wasn’t the right fach and the center of my baritone was a little higher than what Wagner requires,” Milnes recalled.
But with the operatic world changing so quickly, both Zouves and Milnes do have faith in the future. With their Voice Experience program, both are giving singers an opportunity to perform and learn their craft as well as engage with audiences.
And the other thing that Zouves is excited about are the new initiatives and the new opera companies coming up.
“I see a lot of singers starting their own companies to start their opportunities and I think that is great. Organizations like Opera America give them more resources and that is a different idea. You have to create and that has changed.”
“It’s about the longevity of the art form. Opera is not dead because it is ingrained in our history and culture.”