Opera in Savannah: Operagasm Exclusive Interview with Sherril Milnes and Maria Zouves
Bringing you the Best of 2014! Celebrating 2014 and beyond!!!!
by Vindhya Khare
It’s 8:30 am and I’m sitting in the Westin Savannah Harbor hotel where the office of the Savannah Voice Festival overlooks the beloved historic city. The entire third floor of this luxury hotel has been transformed so it can serve as a music conservatory for three weeks in August. Beds have been moved out and replaced with pianos and music stands. Quite an awesome feat and so thrilling to walk down the corridor filled with the sounds of operatic voices from all over the country and the world. Enter Sherrill Milnes and his wife, Maria Zouves. Milnes, arguably the most celebrated American baritone, is the Artistic Director of the festival, and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, is the Executive Director. He is still the dashing strong presence revered by the operatic world and she is a drop-dead gorgeous Greek beauty with an infectious “can-do” spirit. Together they are the dynamic power-couple behind the Savannah Voice Festival. They graciously agreed to meet with me to talk about the voice festival and about bringing Don Giovanni to Savannah’s oldest church as an “installation opera.”
MZ: There have been operatic performances here but the main thing is that there is no opera company and I think that’s because opera is thought of as this grand initiative and only now are we changing that concept where we’re thinking of opera in more boutique settings. If we’re talking about opera in a traditional form, Savannah didn’t have the space or capacity to do it and with a city of 150,000 people I would venture to say support is difficult to garner the budgets that an opera company would demand – besides the fact there’s no performing arts center or a theater that can hold it.
SM: And also Savannah has festivals of almost every kind— jazz, film, literary…but no opera. There was a longing for this art form which we are excited to bring here.
VK: For your first opera you chose Don Giovanni. Was that an obvious choice being one of your legendary roles or were there other options?
MZ: Well, it is one of the greatest operas ever written. I think the story speaks to a lot of people and it’s a very popular title. Also it’s the first opera I touched in my youth as a singer both as a student and professionally and I think it made sense to have it be the first opera that I produced.
SM: You love it…
MZ: I love it!
SM: I know it well. I did it a lot. We also in our heads had a cast, or at least part of a cast, in mind right away with people that had been in our program before. It also fit in the church [Christ Church] because there is a sense of good and evil – Giovanni being evil, although very simpatico, but evil in his morals. In a church setting it set itself up that the forces of good, God, Jesus, and that beautiful stained glass window with his [Jesus] arms outstretched – was a good image for the Giovanni. Good and evil, and evil finally loses.
VK: Edwin Cahill’s staging concept put so much of Savannah in the opera referencing historic figures and having the characters wander through the church as ghosts before the show – was that a request you had made?
MZ: No, actually that was Edwin’s amazing creativity. We knew that we had this opera set in Christ Church which was built in the mid-1800s and we knew that we wanted to make the opera relevant to Savannah because this is where we are. Our new normal is that opera has to have relevance. We can’t just put up archaic productions and expect people to come. As he called it an “installation” it just made sense to drop it into a moment in time in Savannah…and because Savannah is so proud and steeped in its history I thought it was a brilliant way to engage the community in the story of Don Juan.
SM: …and the ghost rumors all about and around Savannah – they even have ghost tours – well there’s a ghost, the Commendatore who comes back and eventually takes Giovanni down.
MZ: We didn’t expect it to fit that well, but it did.
SM: Right. Exactly right.
MZ: Well, when you have talented people on board, one of the things that’s great about producing is that you have an opportunity to bring talent together to create something – to curate something – and in this case we feel very fortunate that the extraordinary talent that we brought to the table with Andrew Bisantz [conductor] and Edwin Cahill and Christopher Cano at the piano and our wonderful orchestra and Mark Walters [who sang Giovanni] and that amazing cast – we sort of put all of the ingredients together and expected to get a very delicious gourmet meal but it went a step beyond that. The group melded and they enhanced each other in such a way that it was just extra special and that doesn’t happen very often, nor as a producer can you predict it. It just evolved that way and it showed in the product.
VK: And the response of the audience?
MZ: Fantastic response.
SM: They were thrilled.
VK: One of the obvious challenges of setting the opera in a historic church is the lack of titles for the audience to follow. Did you feel they were following the story?
MZ: I did. I felt they were. This was a bit of a cut version as well – we kind of scaled the opera down. In the program notes we translated things that were needing translation and we were very careful about our program notes. But the talent, again going back the cast, Marco Nisticò was Leporello, he’s the one who really had to deliver the comic lines and the ironic lines and – he’s Italian – but his use of his body…music and language can transcend translation and I think the audience received the information whether or not they knew word for word what was going on. Many comments of the audience were, “Yes, I followed it all.” Supertitles would have destroyed what we were trying to create. Because it’s such an intimate setting the audience needed to be part of the transformation. We interacted with the audience throughout the show. If technology showed up in the middle of every line it would have broken that.
SM: That’s a good point. We used the aisles so that singers were in many cases right next to audience members singing in their face. Having a translation, they would have looked away from the singer and checked the translation, constantly going away from the focus of the music.
VK: Your production of Don Giovanni is just one of many events in the Savannah Voice Festival.
MZ: We’ve run the gamut from this production to a Sacred Song Concert, to a Lieder Concert, to a Teen Showcase including at-risk boys that would probably never think of listening to – let alone performing this kind of music. Then we had a trivia concert where audience members got to select the run of the show by answering questions out of a hat. We feel that access for all in a festival kind of a setting is really important – masterclasses that are free, opera movie nights with popcorn, to private salon events for our members where Gerald Martin Moore presented Opera Composers in Song in a gorgeous historic home truly the way it was done in its belle epoch time. We’ve presented beautiful singing in every way that is possible.
SM: There’s all types of music that we represent – Broadway, oratorio, opera of course, Zarzuela, operetta – lots of different kinds going on.
VK: Can you explain more about Voice Experience and the Sherrill Milnes Opera Studio?
MZ: Voice Experience is a 15 year old non-profit organization that was based on training singers and developing audiences in tandem. We know that singers go to higher institutions of learning but that real on-sight learning of what it is to be an opera singer doesn’t really happen until they leave their college or university and so that was the niche we were working with in the beginning. But it evolved even more so now we have younger singers that need to be trained and older singers that need to come back and so we ended up with all levels of singers with varying needs. What we have now includes a very high level of educators. In the very beginning it was called “Sherrill Milnes and Friends” and there was a reason for that. It was Sherrill and all of the people he associated with through the years that have lived the life of this genre and could pass it on to the next generation. Now the Sherrill Milnes Voice Studio really depicts that level of singer that is still trying to gather information who are talented and need and deserve our attention to try to realize their potential. Then we have the Festival Artists who are more of a Young Artist Program and perform throughout the community. The studio is a parallel to the Savannah Voice Festival and the festival artists and visiting artists in our opera.
VK: What’s coming up next season?
MZ: Next season we will collaborate with the Savannah Music Festival which has been around for 26 years and the Savannah Philharmonic who’s very new to this community. We’re producing Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. In March of 2015 we’re going to open the Savannah Music Festival season with this collaborative effort. This will be a full-scale production using virtual set design which is very appropriate for the Lucas Theater which is very historic and small. These three pillars in the community are collaborating to produce great opera. This speaks to what’s happening in opera in that we’re having to share resources to survive – then creating even better product.
VK: How can singers get involved?
MZ: They can check out our application process which goes on our website in October 2014, voicexperiencefoundation.com.
VK: One last fun question for Sherrill. Are you familiar with the term “Bari-hunk”?
SM: My answer is no.
VK: Bari-hunk as in “baritone and hunk”. I don’t know if you’re aware but people call you the original bari-hunk.
MZ: He was! He was the original bari-hunk…I agree. Before there was such a thing.
SM: Well there were other baritones.
MZ: I don’t think there was anybody prior to you or during your time that had that sex appeal the way that you did.
SM: Well there was Leonard Warren and Cornell MacNeill…
MZ: But they didn’t have that. You were the original…that matinee idol. Tenors had it. There was Mario Lanza…
SM: …and Corelli.
VK: There’s even a website for bari-hunks.
SM: Is that right? (laughs) I should look at it.
MZ: Many tried…but I would agree. I certainly think he is the original.
VK: I think everyone does.
SM: That’s a compliment.