Sunday Morning Opera: Celebrating the Greatest – Ever


Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 12.28.07 AMBeginning at midnight on January 10, I’ll be tweeting 24 hours of music honoring the greatest baritone there ever was.

There is a classic line in The Natural, where Roy Hobbs says that he wants to be the greatest there ever was, so people would watch him going down the street – and say just that.  There aren’t many of whom the claim ‘the greatest – ever’ can be made.  Then, those who have reached that august height rarely survive long enough to enjoy the accolades and honors placed upon them. History is littered with the shattered lives of men and women who were just that – or close to it.  Once in awhile, someone like a Mohammed Ali gets to bask in such glory, but not often.  There are times when it takes ages for someone to be recognized for their greatness, case in point is Hank Aaron.  The best home run hitter the game has ever known was pushed into the shadows by a pumped up steroid swilling fake, but, fortunately, Hammerin’ Hank has managed to emerge, as – the greatest.  Barry Bonds should have been an instant and automatic elect to the Hall of Fame this week, but forget that.  In many ways, his fake feat has been forgotten, but Henry Aaron is standing tall.

Arguably, one of the greatest tragedies in literature is the fact that the top selling female writer – of all time – and one of the greatest – ever – was never allowed to receive any glory for what she wrote.  Her talent was kept hidden from view, with the great reveal of just who wrote her wonderful books was made – after she died.  As a writer, I can’t think of anything sadder.  Jane Austen was never allowed any sort of praise.

In literature there are so many people who never survive long enough to learn the longevity or the scope of their work.  Today, there are authors who are heralded as the next second coming, yet will not remembered for their literary greatness.  I was recently reading that Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.  One might think Tesla would cringe at that honor.  His greatness, genius is still unfulfilled.

In a way, the ‘term’ is a joke.  If you Google ‘greatest ever’ there is page after page of songs, movies, games, even margarita recipes. ESPN even named BO Jackson the greatest athlete of all time, which is a little over the top.  It is a given that Winston Churchill may be the UK’s greatest wartime leader ever – or was Lord Nelson – or was Wellington? (My vote goes to Wellington).  British scholars don’t even put Churchill on the list.  Hannibal is considered by many to be among the greatest military strategists to ever live.  The Romans were terrified of him.

The greatest mother-daughter one-two science punch in history is obviously Marie Curie and Irene Joliot Curie.  Who was greater – daVinci or Michelangelo?   It is said that St. Leo I is the greatest pope in history.  Some say that Jack Nicholson is the greatest actor – ever.  Newton or Hawking?  J. S. Bach, Mozart or Beethoven?

When you get to opera, it’s quite interesting.  Dame Joan is on everyone’s list, but for the life of me, I can’t see why.  And, yes, I was able to see her a couple times later in life. Nah.  Callas was a diva.  We all know Caruso was the greatest tenor, ever, but Bjorling.  It’s just so much fun, because no matter who you list, it’s going to start a knock-down-drag-out fight.  There’s no real challenge here.  Bubbles was the greatest soprano ever.  Price comes in second. Period.  Hvorostovsky is considered arguably the greatest voice Russia has produced.  But, when you see a list of the great singers, you may find 1 or 2 baritones on the list, but that’s it.  When you see the ‘all-time’ list of singers, don’t even bother looking for a baritone.  There is a tremendous prejudice which allows for only tenors and sopranos.

I love baritones.  I am a baritone junkie.  I stalk baritones.  I barely tolerate tenors, and have a great affection for bases, but baritones turn my crank.  Let’s face it.  Bing was a baritone, so was Elvis, and even Robert Goulet and Dean Martin.  Frank Sinatra was a baritone as was Nat King Cole and Perry Como – and yes, I like those old crooners.

Then – there is the greatest of them all – Sherrill Milnes.

He put the hunk in Barihunk!  He also turns 80 tomorrow, which is unbelievable.  He has survived long enough to overcome the critics and to be hailed as one of the greatest – ever.

In a 2008 Opera News article:

“…For the generation of fans lucky enough to have come of age, operatically speaking, during the Sherrill Milnes era, the bar for baritones was set permanently at an all but unattainable height. Milnes was an American idol in the most admirable sense of the term – a “complete package” long before the expression came into vogue – and for many of us he left an indelible mark on every role we heard him sing….”

Let’s be honest, I pouted for well over a decade after he retired.  There would never be another great baritone, why bother even listening to opera.  Where I was living had horrid reception, so forget Saturday Met broadcasts.  But then, I quit pouting and am now living in a daze dominated by a golden age of baritones, so darn many of them obviously trying to live up to the amazing legacy of the greatest ever.  The one who comes closest is Hvorostovsky.

Okay, so I’m a baritone junkie.  Deal with it.  My all-time baritone ranking is as follows:

  1. Sherrill Milnes
  2. Dmitri Hvorostovsky
  3. Bing Crosby
  4. Elvis
  5. Robert Goulet

Yes, I have a problem.  At least I can admit it.

If you haven’t bothered listening to a recording of Bing Crosby, lately, do it.  The man had a voice!

Maybe I do stalk baritones, but not badly.  They’re baritones.  All we really need in this world are baritones.