Happy Birthday to the Greatest of Them All


Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 1.57.11 AMOpera and baseball go together.  Don’t ask me why, there is no rational explanation.  Then again, that’s what both of them are to those of us who wallow in it.  It isn’t rational.  To play in the Majors a person must be disciplined, strong, and have their head on straight, if they want to survive.  It’s a game for the long-term.  Like Barry Bonds discovered, there are short-cuts to fame and fortune, but in the end, they don’t get you anywhere.  Opera is the same thing. A person must be disciplined, strong, and have their head on straight (usually).  There are no short-cuts.  Unlike baseball, where pure, raw talent will get you a chance at the Majors, pure, raw talent is enough with opera.  To be a great pitcher, one must practice.  To be a great hitter, a person needs brains, and practice.  To be even a mediocre singer requires brains, practice and dogged determination. Then there are the elites, the super-stars, the Hall of Famers, the guys you can watch and tell where they will end up – if they stay healthy. In many ways it’s the same with opera.  I’m currently watching the career of a young baritone,Jonathan Estabrooks.  He’s good, he’s very smart, creative, hustles, and has a shot, not because of just raw and natural talent, but because he knows how to play the head game.

The truly extraordinary opera singers, the truly great ones, know how to take their voice, and do something else with it, besides opera.  That’s why I’m interested in watching Estabrooks.  He can’t be contained by opera.  To achieve fame beyond even the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (the Major Leagues of opera) a person must be able to translate his/her voice into something besides opera.  Very few singers have been able to achieve this.  Estabrooks will.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky does – thank goodness!  Erwin Schrott does some incredible cross-over. So did Bubbles.  Larger than life, Beverly Sills was a force of nature.  I have a cat named after her.  Bubbles likes sopranos, BTW.  Placido Domingo went beyond opera.  So did the amazing Pavarotti. The late Peter Hofmann was another.  So was Robert Merrill.

Then there are the matinee idols.  There have been very few in opera, the great Caruso being the first.  Pavarotti and Bubbles were.  Today, Hvorostovsky is the hunkiest of Barihunks, but – Sherrill Milnes is the one who put the hunk in Barihunk!  The man could buckle a swash like Errol Flynn, sailing across the stage as his Giovanni escaped at the end of the first act.  I swear it was the cape – it had to be the cape.  In order to project a more heroic presence, a man needs a cape, and maybe a sword.

It’s hard to believe the greatest baritone in the history of opera turns 80 today.  I was absolutely thrilled to see that, on his FB page, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, today’s ruling baritone, is honoring the greatest of them all!  It just makes me want to cry to see how today’s super-stars treat the man.  He is honored and respected.  To me, he is the Ted Williams of opera.  Frankly, I can’t think of a greater complement.  Ted Williams was the best there ever was, and ever will be.  That’s like Sherrill Milnes.


Okay, so I am acting like a star-struck groupie, stalker, fanatic – guilty as charged!  When he retired I sulked, for years.

“...Milnes’s voice – lean, muscular, powerful, yet somehow richly lyrical too, and capable of the utmost tenderness – seemed a perfect fit for a vast range of sharply drawn characterizations of imposing strength and seething passion. His instrument was flexible not only in terms of technique and style but in its ability to reflect in sound the variegated emotional landscape of roles ranging from heartless villains to conflicted father figures to angry rivals to impetuous ideologues. Paradoxically, this chameleonic vocal quality remained instantly recognizable and distinct. The last in a line of great American Verdi baritones, he admired his predecessors Lawrence Tibbett, Robert Merrill and Leonard Warren and shared certain of their musical virtues, but no one could ever have mistaken him for any of them. His upper extension was sui generis: the way he soared into the vocal stratosphere was a mind-boggling feat of aerial derring-do.

Listening to Milnes in his prime, one heard a seemingly effortless outpouring of stunning range and volume, but in fact, that memorable Milnes sound did not come easy. The term “spinto” might have been invented for him: the energy and drive required to create that rock-solid column of sound produced a thrilling tension of line that made every phrase sound inevitable and right. While he excelled at the sadistic villains of the operatic lexicon (Iago, Scarpia) there was compassion, humor and nobility aplenty for more sympathetic figures such as his deeply human Simon Boccanegra, his buoyant Barbiere Figaro, his impassioned Rodrigo – and it was as the more three-dimensional antagonists of the canon that his artistry reached its peak. The self-lacerating reflections of Carlo Gérard had the ring of passion and truth – a heroic soul tormented by the awful recognition of his sins; his Rigoletto, twisted and deformed, overflowed with naïve, uncomplicated devotion when he was alone with his child; his definitive Jack Rance, snarly, surly and hard as nails, was somehow vulnerable beneath the Wild West veneer; and it was the conflicted anguish and palpable regret of assumptions such as his searing Ballo Renato or his wounded Michele in Il Tabarro, both generous hearts crushed by the weight of jealous despair, that made them so memorable….”

For an excellent profile, try this.

Classical Singer Magazine
Classical Singer Magazine

My favorites were his Giovanni, Scarpia, and his Iago, who was deliciously evil.  His Scarpia was hunky enough to root for Tosca not to be a dope and just let Scarpia…. oh well.  And then there was his Giovanni!  Oh my!

In full disclosure, he eventually stopped signing photos for me.  He told me I had enough of them to wall paper my bathroom!  I guess I do.  They need to be re-framed.  At least my best friend owns a frame shop, so that works.  I suspect, when I get around do doing the new place, they just might go in the powder room!

Happy Birthday!