Sherrill Milnes is a universally acclaimed operatic baritone known for his powerful voice and commanding stage presence. Milnes has performed in opera houses all over the world including The Metropolitan Opera in New York and Moscow’s Bolshoi. He has won three Grammy awards and is among the most recorded American singers of his time. Throughout his illustrious musical career, he has performed with some of the best musicians and composers in the world. Milnes’ exceptional talents have taken him very far, and now he uses his wealth of knowledge and experience to train up the next generation of singers through the VOICExperience foundation, which he and his wife, Maria Zouves, founded in 2000.
Milnes’ extraordinary career arose from humble beginnings. He was raised on a small dairy farm in Northern Illinois, and he remembers music being a part of his life from the start.
“My mother was a piano teacher and a church choir director, so I was brought up in church music. . . Church taught me the great Protestant hymns, of course. But then we’re talking Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn, the giants of the past. That was her kind of music, so I was brought up singing in choirs constantly,” Milnes recalled.
From childhood, the seed for music was planted, and Milnes aspired to teach music, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education. But his career ended up taking a different direction.
“I took out 42 years to sing around the world in opera . . . and I was lucky in my career. I don’t think there’s any major or minor opera houses in the world where I didn’t sing,” said Milnes.
Milnes’ career is filled with many highlights that he looks back upon fondly. Among them are his debut at The Met and his European debut at The Vienna. He also recalls performing the opera “Luisa Miller” early in his Met career.
“The rest of the cast were acknowledged big stars at the time and I was ‘the kid.’ I was the young one in the cast, and I succeeded in doing what needed to be done. It was a big boost in my career,” he recounted.
Milnes spent 32 years at The Met in total, also performing internationally throughout his career. He recalls gracing the front cover of Hamburg, Germany’s Abendblatt, which was the local evening paper, when he debuted there.
“Was that a thrill? Duh! Of course,” he laughed. “It was great! I wanted to yell out, ‘hey folks! Take a look!’ but I didn’t. It was very exciting,” he continued.
Another international performance Milnes remembers with pride was when he performed in Russia.
“I sang at the Bolshoi in Moscow way back when it was still the USSR. . . I walked up the stage and I had a big success. A little piece of me was saying, ‘hey folks! This is what the United States can produce! Take that, boom!’ . . . I had pride in being American and singing for the Russians at the Bolshoi. . . . I had great pride in being the only American in the cast. . . Those experiences are wonderful,” he recalled.
With so many noteworthy performances under his belt, Milnes has cultivated a deep passion and appreciation for the art of performing.
“[I love] the sensation of singing, the resonance, the buzz. . . It’s really resonance, that feel. And of course, I love the applause. If you do well, you get great applause and in general, I did that well,” he expressed.
Tantamount to his love for performing is his love for teaching, and through his foundation, Milnes has been able to fulfill his initial dream of music education.
“Now I’m doing what I trained to do. Teaching. And I love that. Coaching, as we say. . . It’s styles and better sound, breathing and the physicality of singing. All of that. So I dreamed to do what I’m doing now,” he said.
What he loves most about coaching is “feeling, seeing and hearing improvement.” For Milnes, he enjoys being able to develop talent and train up and coming vocalists. Something he harps on when working with singers is ‘turn on.’
“My wife and I and other coaches that we hire are very big about turn on. You can’t sing a Schubert song or a Bowles song or Brahms or Mozart and stand there and just make good sounds. You have to interpret. You have to make poetry out of it. . . If somebody just stands there and makes sounds, unfortunately, for most people, that’s boring. You’ve got to turn on. The audience has to think you know exactly what you are saying, and you are telling a story,” he explained.
For Milnes, audience perception is of utmost importance. He trains vocalists to emote effectively and use appropriate body language to turn on and deliver an emotional and engaging performance. Vocal training is just one part of the work Milnes does via the VOICExperience Foundation. The other parts of it are audience building and legacy.
“I’ve trained to teach, and I don’t know if you have DNA for teaching. But my mother was a teacher. A lot of [the motivation] is legacy. We’re big on legacy. . . To keep names alive and to honor all the people that are working. But also . . . building audiences. Inviting them . . . to enjoy things that they didn’t know they would or could enjoy. That’s a big part of it,” said Milnes.
The VOICExperience Foundation is active in New York, Iowa, Florida and Savannah. The Hostess City is their major output, with Milnes and his wife having launched the Savannah VOICE Festival in 2013. The Savannah VOICE Festival is a two-week celebration of concerts, events and educational presentations, bringing classical voice excellence to the Savannah area. Milnes and his wife expanded into Savannah because they thought the city was well suited for their vision.
“Savannah had the music festival and they had the Philharmonic. . . They have music, but they didn’t have opera or Broadway training. You could do performances, but did you go away learning things? Hopefully, that’s what I do,” Milnes explained.
The Savannah VOICE Festival will take place August 6-20, 2023. Milnes encourages the community to come out and enjoy everything the festival has to offer.
“[People will] love it, even if they don’t think they will. They will find some part of their soul is reached. . . It fulfills them,” he stated.
The Savannah VOICE Festival is a while away, but Milnes and his wife hold events in Savannah regularly. They have an upcoming collaboration with the Historic Savannah Foundation called “Songs and Stories in the Squares.”
“We go to various squares . . . and somebody tells the story, the historic story of that square, and then we add music to that. We love doing that,” Milnes explained.
On Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 4 p.m., guests can enjoy a holiday installation of “Songs and Stories in the Squares” starting at Telfair Square. Presenters from the Historic Savannah Foundation will share about the history of Telfair and Ellis Squares before ending in City Market with a special collaboration between Savannah VOICE Festival artists and the Esther F. Garrison School Choir. Hot chocolate will be served by Wright Square Cafe at Telfair Square. This event is free and open to the public. To learn more about this event or Savannah VOICE Festival, visit savannahvoicefestival.org/.