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Voice recognition
Opera legend Sherrill Milnes brings rising stars to Savannah

WITH ONE of the most commanding and unforgettable baritone voices in modern history, Sherrill Milnes spent more than four decades at the top of the operatic mountain. Beloved for his dramatic interpretations of Verdi, Milnes in fact made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Valentin in Gonoud’s Faust in 1965. He stayed with the Met for 32 years.

He’s a teacher now, imparting his great wisdom and professional insights — not to mention his tremendous class — into all things to a new generation of opera singers.

“I had a 42–year career,” Milnes says. “I don’t sing any more.” Then he laughs: “It’s all rust.”

He continues: “That’s 42 years of earning a living from singing, but that doesn’t include 10 or 15 years before that in my mother’s church choirs, and other church choirs around the Chicago area.

“So we’re really talking upwards of 60 years of singing and vocalizing and memorizing. And singing in the shower and in the car and whatever. And studying music all the time. I don’t mind not doing it.”

With his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, Milnes runs V.O.I.C.Experience, a not–for–profit organization dedicated, he explains, to vocal arts education, outreach and performance, to “helping the college graduate get to ‘the next level’ professionally. We’re not a placement agency, but in an indirect way: We make singers better so that we can be placed because they’re good!”

The company is based in Florida, but has begun expanding and now has direct connections in Statesboro and Savannah.

On Thursday, June 7, the group’s second local concert will be held at Christ Church Episcopal. Like its predecessor in March, the concert is called Beautiful Voices, because that’s what it’s all about: Eight young singers, all graduates of V.O.I.C.Experience and all now working with various opera companies around the world, will perform with piano and organ accompaniment.

Milnes will deliver the opening remarks, and conduct several pieces.

“It’s a mixed bag of opera, operetta and Broadway, staged,” he explains. “My wife is very clever about staging. We think it’s old–fashioned that somebody walks out, people applaud, they sing a piece. People applaud, they walk off. Next person walks on.

“Well, that’s not terrible, but it’s old–fashioned. My wife is very clever at staging things so it seems natural rather than a quote–unquote formal setting.”

Crossover is an important element of today’s vocal arts recital.

“Broadway is an American musical form,” Milnes says. “Most opera isn’t, of course, but today singers have to sing Bach, Beethoven, Puccini and Sondheim. You have to sing everything.”

With regard to opera, Milnes believes, “We Americans still have a cultural inferiority complex. We tend to think of breastplates and horns. Well, that’s a hundred years ago, it’s not the case any more. You have females that you could put on the cover of Playboy or whatever. It’s a very different situation than even when I started, let’s say 50 years ago.”

Thursday’s performance will also include select singers from the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus, and several high school vocalists from a recent V.O.I.C.Experience Savannah master class.

Milnes and Zouves are quite smitten with Savannah. And once they discovered a void in the city’s performance calendar, they began to get ideas.

“It turned out there was no opera going on,” says Milnes. “Peter Shannon with the orchestra has done some semi–staged things, but nothing in the way that we do it. He’s not there to teach people to be better performers — he puts on performances, and that’s great.

“But we felt, when we were in Statesboro and Savannah, that a lot of the citizens picked up on the fact that hey, this program could be wonderful in Savannah. There are performing venues, and the people love it.

“And we saw a need in Savannah, and a place where we would do our work with love and support. Support, of course, is very important — we don’t have a pot of gold sitting off somewhere that G.E. or GM or whoever has endowed us. We’re totally tributary.”

As for Milnes, the things he can impart to students — especially the subtle things — are invaluable. “A song recital, to some degree, is still the same as it has always been — it’s not about staging. There is a greater formality. But still, your eyes, your face, your body English, appropriate gestures for the piece — all of that is very important.

“And so in a recital, we train people to stand still. You can interpret, and not move your feet. Because it’s not about dance. It’s not about footwork. It’s about making meaning out of the words. So that the audience believes that the singer knows what they’re doing, and the audience gets a sense of the emotion.”

Beautiful Voices

Where: Christ Church Episcopal, 28 Bull St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 7

Tickets: $42.50

Patron tickets: $80 (reserved seating, pre–performance cocktail reception with musical entertainment, artist meet–and–greet)