TARPON SPRINGS — The soprano sang an aria from The Marriage of Figaro about lost love, but she could have been asking the devil not to steal her soul. A couple dozen opera fans watched, including a silver-haired man with leonine features leaning back in his chair.
It was impossible to tell whether Sherrill Milnes was happy, annoyed or made indifferent by what he heard from 12 singers on opening night of the Florida Voice Project's summer festival. Mariana Carnovali, who had come from Argentina, attacked the aria of lost love with ardor.
Milnes leaned forward, the elbows of his sport coat resting on his jeans, and frowned.
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For nearly 40 years, he was one of the world's best known opera singers. If Luciano Pavarotti was the tenor, Milnes was the baritone.
He and his wife have lived in Palm Harbor since 2005, when family and opera projects brought them. He's a teacher now, content to guide young singers toward the kind of finesse he has honed. He'll host an event tonight in Tarpon Springs, An Evening With Sherrill Milnes and the Ghosts of the Savannah. His festival wraps up Sunday.
Here, Milnes moves about without the glamor of his former life. He and his wife do crossword puzzles and take cruises. They sing Christmas songs at an annual pageant.
But people who know opera know Milnes.
His forcefulness, vocal embodiment of roles and ability to hit the stratosphere gave him an unparalleled reputation in operas by Giuseppe Verdi. He electrified audiences as a devious Iago, a brooding Macbeth, a heartbreaking Rigoletto. He performed in the most storied opera halls, dined with presidents and movie stars, and sang duets at Lincoln Center with Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills.
"He has had one of the most beautiful, God-given voices," Domingo said of Milnes in 1994. "The timbre is superb; the easiness, the legato — absolutely beautiful."
A vocal injury in the 1980s nearly derailed his career. In his book, American Aria, he called the period a "decade of panic." It started in 1981, when Milnes awoke after a grueling dress rehearsal and concert the day before, unable to speak.
Doctors diagnosed a burst capillary in one vocal cord. The problem recurred, even after surgery. Another surgery fixed it. In between, he sang more carefully and sparingly, reluctantly giving up some of the Verdi roles that demanded he sing for more than an hour. Still, he performed at the Metropolitan Opera until 1997.
With the death in January of Roberta Peters, Milnes, 82, is among the oldest legends of his generation, second only to Leontyne Price, 90. With his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, he founded the Florida Voice Project, also known as VOICExperience.
Now, he says this quieter life is what he was meant to do.
"I consider myself a teacher who took a detour for 40 years to sing around the world," he said.
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On Monday, opera singers from around the world gathered for a modern take on a centuries-old artform.
Organizers of the weeklong Summer Voice Festival billed Monday's event at the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum as "Opera Voice," a competition loosely modeled on The Voice.
Singers performed short arias and sought advice from coaches. Carnovali, 29, a professional opera singer in Buenos Aires, found Milnes a fount of information on music, pronunciation and breath control.
"He's Sherrill Milnes," she said. "What can you say?"
His former students include Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini, now one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading lights.
"We didn't take him from zero to being great," Milnes said of his and Zouves' work with Ballerini. "He was never a zero. But we did make him great."
There is a certain cadence to Milnes' speech, as if he is thinking about tone and inflection in virtually every sentence. When autographing photos after concerts, he makes a point of saying "thank you" in slightly different ways to each fan. Doing so, he wrote in his autobiography, is "part of the performance."
Milnes tries to layer stories sparingly in his workshops. He thinks singers can do too much of that, and not talk enough about the tricky mechanics of singing or of acting, a discipline he said opera singers have neglected for far too long.
He talks about motivation, of knowing why they're on stage at every moment.
"So often, they'll politely wait until it's their turn," he said. "That's wrong. It is always everybody's turn."
He tells a story about a well known Italian tenor, playing the title role in Otello, who collapsed during the death scene and mimicked convulsions, complete with foaming at the mouth.
It was so overdone, the audience laughed. Milnes warns opera singers that they must learn to act if they want to get work in today's competitive environment.
Some of the singers will go on to the Savannah Voice Festival, VOICExperience's biggest event. At all events, they're teaching purity of sound, not stardom. While some will sing professionally, others may teach or become section leaders in the church choir.
"What we share is our passion for singers and our passion for the music being done correctly," said Zouves, 52. "We're not here to find stars. We're here to pass along information."
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Singers as young as 17 could choose one of four coaches to evaluate their performances Monday. Most chose Zouves or Stella Zambalis, a Clearwater voice teacher. Carnovali picked Milnes.
Her aria, the Porgi amor from Figaro, is a searing lamentation by a countess whose husband has lost interest. Carnovali had shown all that, including gestures and facial expressions.
"I thought it was a little too much," he said. "Maybe it looks too pained."
He rose slowly to his feet, then made his way to her side. He talked about the difference between a character, who can be in distress, and the actor, who is always in control.
"There's a fine line, and I think you crossed it a little bit," he said. She tried it again, this time settling into the crook in the piano as he suggested and keeping her hands at her side. The sound flowed more smoothly.
"For me, that was better," Milnes said. "It doesn't look like you're in personal difficulty." He returned to his chair, his gait a tad arthritic but still regal, ready for the next singer.
Clarification: While Milnes is hosting An Evening with Sherrill Milnes and the Ghosts of the Savannah, he will not also be talking about his life. This story has been updated to clarify his role.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.