My 25th Anniversary is in 2009. I was asked to compile a few of the reviews I particularly liked over my career, and interviews and when time permits continue to add to it.
OTELLO with Corneliu Murgu in Sao’ Paulo, Brazil in 1989 Eugene Kohn, pianoLuisa Miller in Rome at the Teatro dell’Opera 1990In Recital with Eugene Kohn, piano. “Tu che di gel sei cinta” Liu from Puccini’s TurandotImogene’s final aria di pazzia from Bellini’s “Il Pirata” Excerpts from a concert in Rio or Sao Paulo from 87-88 “Salce , salce…” recitativo and aria from Otello. The “Ave Maria” from Otello. “Ernani, involami!” from Verdi’s Ernani. and finally Rossini “Selva opaca” from William Tell. “La mamma morta” from a concert in Sao Paulo-1989
Fernando Bicudo writes of these concerts he produced,
“The most important opera critic of Brazil wrote in his newspaper that Aprile Millo in “Andrea Chenier” was one of the three best performance in 80 years of history of the Teatro Municipal de São Paulo, an opera house that has received from Caruso to Callas !!!”
VERDI HAS A NEW VOICE IN OPERA’S APRILE MILLO
Published: April 4, 1986
Opera lovers will have more opportunities than expected to see and hear Aprile Millo, the young soprano who won rave reviews as Elizabeth in ”Don Carlo” the other night at the Met. Miss Millo was originally scheduled to sing four performances of the Verdi opera, but she has picked up four more since Mara Zampieri bowed out for health reasons.
Miss Millo, wrote Donal Henahan in The New York Times after Monday’s performance of ”Don Carlo,” ”sounds more and more like the Verdi soprano we’ve been waiting for.” It is not just the range and timbre that has so impressed her listeners but the size, carrying power and dramatic ring of her voice – qualities necessary to the great dramatic soprano roles but very hard to find among this generation of singers.
The list of other roles Miss Millo has sung or plans to sing is fairly short and narrow, centered on Verdi. Aida will serve for several European debuts in the coming season. Except for Liu in ”Turandot,” she has no current plans for Puccini heroines, but she has sung Santuzza in ”Cavalleria Rusticana” and Mathilde in ”William Tell.” She plans eventually to take on ”La Gioconda,” Spontini’s ”Vestale,” and perhaps Rachel in ”La Juive” by Halevy. Operatic historians will recognize a strong resemblance to the repertory of Rosa Ponselle, who burst upon the Met in 1918 with ”La Forza del Destino” – an opera Miss Millo has sung in concert and will do soon on stage.
Ponselle is indeed one of the young soprano’s idols. ”I hope,” she says, ”to build through ‘Gioconda’ and ‘Vestale’ toward ‘Norma’ eventually,” she says. She envisions her career as aimed at a gradual assault on that testing role, which was the pinnacle of Ponselle’s career.
The simple laws of supply and demand ensure that Miss Millo will have more offers than she can possibly accept for the foreseeable future. The big Verdi roles demand a special combination of steel and velvet, of surging power and caressing tenderness, of thrusting declamation and delicate tracery. It’s a perilous balance, and more than two or three promising sopranos have burned themselves out in the last few decades on precisely the roles Miss Millo is singing. How does the new Verdian intend to ward off the temptation?
Discussing her plans after a rehearsal Wednesday, Miss Millo had a clear and unhesitating answer: ”By accepting cover work at the Metropolitan.” In opera, a ”cover” is the approximate equivilent of an understudy – a singer who prepares, rehearses and stands by in case the scheduled singer falls ill. At the level of the Metropolitan, covers are usually soloists in their own right, as well.
But it is highly unusual for a singer on the brink of stardom to commit herself to extended periods of cover work. ”After my debut in ‘Boccanegra,’ last season,” the soprano recalls, ”they came to me with three years of contracts. My agents looked at me cross-eyed, but I signed them.” The contracts call for an increasing number of performances, among them appearances as Aida and Liu next season. But she will also cover roles that she will not perform until later – which she has been doing during the current season as well.
Miss Millo will appear again in the role tonight, and on April 9, 12, 15, 18, 22 and 26. Tonight’s performance of ”Don Carlo” is at 7 at the Metropolitan Opera; tickets range from $14 to $65. Information: 362-6000.
OPERA: NEW VERDI STAR
By DONAL HENAHAN
Published: March 21, 1985
WHAT would persuade any music lover to pay a return visit to the Metropolitan Opera’s current version of ”Ernani”? Nothing less than the hope of hearing a young singer at the threshold of a major career. The singer’s name is Aprile Millo, a young Californian who might just be the next important Verdi soprano. While it would be premature to burden her with the crown of stardom just yet, her performance as Elvira on Tuesday night more than justified my own decision to put up once again with the Metropolitan’s heavy-handed, indifferently sung and flabbily conducted production of Verdi’s rough-cut fifth opera.
Miss Millo, a Californian who appeared in the same role at La Scala in 1983, sang a concert performance of ”Ernani” with the Metropolitan last summer in the parks. Currently a member of the company’s Young Artist Development Program, she made her debut in the big house earlier this season as Amelia in ”Simon Boccanegra.” Considering how often we are forced to complain about the Met’s time lag in engaging rising artists, it is pleasant to find the pattern being broken.
The assets Miss Millo brings to her work at this comparatively early stage of her career are impressive. She seemed nervous at first and had to fight to control a severe tremolo in ”Ernani! Ernani, involami,” which vies with Norma’s ”Casta diva” for the honor of being opera’s most intimidating way to begin a soprano’s evening. However, once past an uncertainly paced performance of this famous aria, Miss Millo’s voice began to show its quality clearly, particularly in big ensembles where it could be let out with abandon. It is an evenly produced, well-controlled instrument with range, quality and purity of intonation, qualifications that should be basic for anyone wishing to stand on the Metropolitan stage.
More to the immediate point, Miss Millo’s voice is robust in the style required of genuine Verdi sopranos, with the thrust and squillo , or ”ring” that such parts as Elvira and Amelia demand. It is pliable enough to manage, if not yet to conquer with total ease, the strenuously florid line of a Verdi cabaletta. It can dominate a Verdian ensemble. What more could one ask?
Well, without undervaluing what Miss Millo already has to offer, I must say that what I missed was the spark of personality or individuality that in a great singer’s work can vividly illuminate a musical moment. I am not speaking here of the superficial sort of ”temperament” that divas naturally acquire with age the way a whale acquires barnacles but of the ability that certain artists have to send a thrill through the listener by the simple curving of a phrase or the startlingly right articulation of an expressive marking. This talent for ”acting with the voice” is what sets great singers apart from the great vocal athletes and is the key point about singing that is frequently missed by people whose orientation is the legitimate theater.
Elvira, however, is not a role that forces a soprano to exercise her powers of characterization. ”Ernani” is chiefly about big voices thrillingly brought to bear like howitzers being wheeled into action. With that limitation in mind, Miss Millo’s performance fit the formula nicely. With so bright a beginning, her progress should be fascinating to follow.
Another major addition to the cast was Dimitri Kavrakos, as Silva. Physically imposing, he has the voice to match, a dark, resonant bass of the Commendatore type, in case anyone is thinking of casting a ”Don Giovanni.”
OPERA: ‘I LOMBARDI,’ BY VERDI, AT CARNEGIE HALL
By DONAL HENAHAN
Published: January 21, 1986
IT is a bitter irony that just at the moment when all of Verdi’s operas, early and late, have acquired an audience, the reservoir of Verdi singers has fallen to drought levels. So it is that a young soprano such as Aprile Millo, who sang in a concert version of ”I Lombardi” Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, commands unusually close attention and hopeful scrutiny. Miss Millo, who was born in New York and reared in California, made the ears of Verdi fanciers perk up at her Metropolitan Opera debut last season in ”Simon Boccanegra.” It is pleasant to report, based on this ”Lombardi” performance with Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York, that the promise is being fulfilled.
”I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata,” to give it the full title, is not top-drawer Verdi, or even middle-drawer. There is a pervasive crudeness in both score and libretto that is impossible to overlook – the last act’s battle music, for instance, is certainly one of Verdi’s career lows. But there are marvelously effective numbers sprinkled along the way, and several members of Miss Queler’s cast were equipped to take advantage of them. Carlo Bergonzi, as Oronte, a Moslem caught between two cultures, struck sparks from beginning to end. Although his voice has lost a bit of its velvet over the years, he still turns every phrase in the noble, tasteful style that has set him apart for so many years from the run of Italian tenors. There was some strain at the top, especially at the close of his first aria, but that was a reasonable price to pay for singing of such polish and intelligence. Paul Plishka, despite an odd tremulant buzz that appeared from time to time, brought ardor and brilliant high notes to the role of Pagano, the warmongering hermit. He had taken the same part in Eve Queler’s previous performance of ”I Lombardi,” at Carnegie in 1972.
As for Miss Millo, she simply sounded like a prime candidate for the next important Verdi soprano, even though it was announced from the stage beforehand that she would be singing through a cold. If so, the Metropolitan, where she is taking on more Verdi this season, should bottle her germs and distribute them to other sopranos. Quite possibly the cold marginally brightened her head tones and cost some strength and quality in the lower register, but unless one had seen Miss Millo coughing into her hand and hitting her chest apologetically, those supposed flaws probably would have gone unnoticed.
After a good if somewhat careful beginning with the first of Giselda’s two prayers to the Virgin, which sounded like a study for Desdemona’s ”Ave Maria,” Miss Millo let the voice soar. A penetrating rather than overpowering soprano, it nonetheless could sail above the big ensembles thrillingly. Light passages were treated with great agility, delicacy and an even scale, but power and dramatic thrust also were there when needed. A nice high pianissimo topped off an Act III duet with Mr. Bergonzi.
Miss Queler conducted with her usual verve and sensitivity. Though she and the orchestra did not give much quarter to the thin voice of Kevin Maynor in his brief turn as the Antioch tyrant Acciano, that seemed an aberration. Among the other soloists, solid competence was the rule, seldom more. However, the combined forces of the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society and the Schola Cantorum of New York contributed importantly, notably in the ”Gerusalemme, Gerusalemme” chorus that opens Act III. Christopher Lee, the concertmaster, gave a splendid account of the long violin solo in the same act, a strange interlude amounting almost to a concerto movement. It suggests Verdi might have become as famous an instrumental composer as an operatic one, if the Italian marketplace of his day had required it. The Cast I LOMBARDI ALLA PRIMA CROCIATA, opera in four acts, in concert form, by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Temistocle Solera, from the epic poem by Tomasso Grassi; performed by the Opera Orchestra of New York, Eve Queler, conductor; with the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society, William Parberry, director, and Schola Cantorum of New York, Hugh Ross, conductor. At Carnegie Hall. GiseldaAprile Millo OronteCarlo Bergonzi PaganoPaul Plishka ArvinoDino Di Domenico ViclindaRita Mazurowski PirroPeter Loehle AccianoKevin Maynor SofiaFrances Ginsberg PrioreRobert Guarino
OPERA: VERDI’S ‘AIDA’ IN CENTRAL PARK CONCERT
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: June 18, 1986
GIVEN halfway decent weather, the first free Metropolitan Opera concert performance each year in Central Park is always an event, and last night’s ”Aida,” opening the company’s 20th parks season, was no exception. The weather was beautifully clear and crisp, not to say downright chilly, and between 75,000 and 100,000 opera lovers turned out for the occasion, complete with picnics, balloons and a raucous blend of cheers and boos for Mayor Koch, who made a shorter address than usual to his assembled constituents.
The ritual may have been familiar, but the new regime at the Met seems to be investing more casting muscle into these parks concerts than has sometimes been the case. Last night brought the first New York performance of Aida by the much-talked-about American soprano, Aprile Millo. Others in the strong cast were Grace Bumbry as Amneris, James McCracken as Radames, Louis Quilico as Amonasro, Paul Plishka as Ramfis, Richard Vernon as the King, Robert Nagy as the Messenger and Nello Santi conducting.
Next summer, the general manager Bruce Crawford announced from the stage, the parks opener will be ”Tosca” with Marilyn Zschau, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. And in the 1988 the plan is for ”L’Elisir d’Amore” with Kathleen Battle and the other superstar tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.
Even though you wouldn’t know it from the Met’s current staged production, ”Aida” depends on a lot on spectacle and scenic atmosphere. And the music is not all martial bravado, either: There are lots of intimate moments that don’t carry all that well into the distant reaches of Central Park’s Great Lawn. Last night the problems were compounded by a sound system that seemed erratic and faint at first, although the acousticians got things smoothed out by the second half.
The opera was flecked with cuts taken to fulfill self-imposed union obligations to end by 10:30 P.M. (self-imposed because if the Met chose to pay for the overtime, the not-all-that-extensive cutting wouldn’t have been necessary). Gone, in any case, was the off-stage Priestess in the second scene, both ballets and part of the penultimate Judgment Scene.
This was a strongly sung performance all down the line, conducted by Mr. Santi with sure sympathy, if not much intensity or fervor. Mr. Quilico sounded dull and worn, although he settled down a bit in the third act. Mr. McCracken likewise makes a dull sound, offering neither the bright trumpet nor the soft caress that this music ideally demands, but still declaiming with rugged authority.
Miss Bumbry, conversely, was in pretty good voice, booming out Amneris’s music with flamboyant relish. Oddly – given that she still sings soprano roles and is a sometime Aida herself – her only troubles came at the very top.
But this was a performance that understandably focused on Miss Millo. She will be singing Aida in several major European opera theaters soon, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera House next season. A real assessment of her command of the part will have to await a fully staged production without amplification.
But Miss Millo has a real Verdi sound. This is not a ”perfect” soprano, whatever that word may mean. There is a slight but pronounced beat to the voice under pressure, and she had to struggle with a couple of sustained high notes last night. But her darkly yet delicately colored lower voice, full of urgency in the phrasing, and her overall mastery of this role from a technical and interpretive standpoint, are already very moving. Her performance reached its high point just where it must, in the third act, when Aida grows from a supplicating ingenue into a woman torn by her conflicts.
With singing like this, nothing could dull the intensity of Verdi’s drama. The concert formality, the populist setting, the amplification, all fell away in the face of real operatic drama embodied in song. If Mr. Domingo and Mr. Pavarotti can match that in the next two parks openers, the Met and its fans will be fortunate indeed.
‘Aida” will be repeated Friday in Brooklyn’s Marine Park, next Wednesday in the Bronx’s New York Botanical Garden (with Lucine Amara in the title role) and June 28 in Eisenhower Park, Nassau County. Gounod’s ”Romeo et Juliette” is tonight in Snug Harbor, Staten Island; Saturday in Cunningham Park, Queens; Monday on the Great Lawn, and June 27 on the Green Way in Co-op City, the Bronx.
November 6, 1986
MUSIC: APRILE MILLO, SOPRANO, IN RECITAL
By WILL CRUTCHFIELD
PEOPLE are excited about Aprile Millo not just because she has a voice, but because she seems to have some idea of what she wants to say with it. In a field where many young singers seem either passive and cautious or blandly ”bright” and energetic, she has the kind of positive utterance that can give a Verdi or a verismo aria its proper weight not so much of vocal tone as of thought.
Miss Millo sang a recital Sunday afternoon at Brooklyn College, and gave a sample of her very best work in the second encore, ”La Mamma Morta” from ”Andrea Chenier.” It is a narrative culminating in a rhapsody, and she built it slowly, without hurry – setting up the situation, letting the story unfold, patiently, but with passion, reliving the emotional buildup that explodes in the climactic section.
One may feel she underlines the grandeur with her individual, almost gladiatorial stage demeanor; if so, it is no less real for that. She has an unashamed idea of grandeur, and the goods to put it across convincingly. Not everything was quite as exciting as the ”Chenier,” but some things were superb. Miss Millo can float the serene lines of Schubert’s ”Nacht und Traume” and Strauss’s ”Morgen,” and even within the context of beautiful pianissimo all around she can reach some extra dimension of beauty and softness for a special thought. The final entreaty of the Schubert (”kehre wieder”) was piercing. The arching lines of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon (Dvorak) had a glow to them.
If the question is whether Miss Millo has, in addition to her manifest vocal gifts, the particular qualities that make a fine recitalist, it may have to be left in abeyance for the moment. Most of the music here was fairly grand, overt and (the above examples notwithstanding) general in reference.
One opportunity to create on a different scale, Rossini’s ”La Regata Veneziana,” was not quite grasped. This is a delightful little three-part cycle in which Anzoleta gives her boyfriend encouraging words before the regatta, watches him anxiously through the contest, and showers him with kisses at the end – but though most of the singing was fine, the words and figurations didn’t sparkle and the girl didn’t come to life. Was she happy or disappointed, for instance, to spy him in second place? The piece seemed not yet to have settled into place for Miss Millo – or perhaps it just isn’t her thing; future performances will tell.
For now, at any rate, she was more in her element with Beethoven’s ”Ah, Perfido!” – some beautifully tender pleading here, too, and commanding denunciation – and Verdi’s ”Pace, pace, mio Dio,” which closed the program. (A group of ”arie antiche” opened the program, but a traffic snarl kept this listener from hearing them.) Both had breadth, shape and shining tone. There is, much as one would like to say otherwise, a certain tendency to hit hard in continuous forte passages, and Miss Millo’s topmost notes are not her most confident ones. But the concert on the whole tended to justify rather than to call into question the enthusiasm she has aroused.
Eugene Kohn was the pianist.
OPERA: APRILE MILLO IN ‘BOCCANEGRA’
By WILL CRUTCHFIELD
Published: December 24, 1984
A fine new Verdi soprano has arrived at the Metropolitan. Aprile Millo, who sang ”Ernani” in the parks last summer and who stepped into a ”Simon Boccanegra” performance on short notice earlier this month, made her originally scheduled house debut Saturday night in the latter opera. She is reportedly still in her 20’s. The audience that cheered her at the Met will be expecting much from her in the future. The guess from this corner is that she will deliver.
Miss Millo has a warm Italianate sound, secure right up to the generous top C that sailed through the house in the second-act trio. At the bottom of the range there is no apparent shift into a distinct chest-voice sound, but the notes are firm and audible. It is in the crucial middle voice that she stands in greatest contrast to the over-extended sopranos who have so proliferated in recent years: she can give it tonal weight and sharpness of attack. An excellently unified instrument, then: that bodes well for its durability. So does the fact that she rarely seemed to be reaching to make it bigger than it is (big enough, though not a force of nature like Tebaldi). And so does its impressive evenness: no bumps in the line, no sudden irregularities of vibrato, rarely even the slightest awkwardness.
Miss Millo also has the elusive quality of command. Not perhaps the regal, riveting command that marks the greatest actresses of the operatic stage, but a simple clarity of intention that bespeaks and inspires confidence. She knows the musical dramatic language of the Verdian heroine and speaks it with assurance. Her great outburst before the Council Chamber ensemble (”Ah, v’ e un pi u nefando”) had a thrilling, razor- sharp attack, a breadth and a shining ring that would have won her a midscene ovation in any Italian opera house not too many generations ago.
All this is not to say that she is a perfect singer. Her trill is unremarkable. There were occasional melismatic phrases through which she moved note by note. One would have liked more tenderness, more light and shade in the dynamics.
But there were other phrases that she took in a grand sweep, and when she did sing softly, as far as one could judge, she did so with technical security, as part of a unified sound rather than a tricked-sounding special effect.
Operatic history is littered with the ruins of careers that have begun early in the grand roles, and on this basis one feels a certain trepidation for Miss Millo. But if she takes care of herself and doesn’t let the hungry opera world eat her talent alive, she will at the least have a rewarding contribution to make in the part of the repertory that needs it badly. If in addition she grows and flourishes in her art, she may very well become one of the great singers of her generation.
Also new to the ”Boccanegra” cast was Richard J. Clark, who brought a strong, meaty vocal presence to the secondary baritone role of Paolo.
OPERA: MILLO AND VERRETT IN THE MET’S ‘DON CARLO’
By DONAL HENAHAN
Published: April 2, 1986
IT is not often that a Metropolitan Opera cast falls apart at a late hour with enormously satisfying results, but that happened with the season’s first performance Monday night of ”Don Carlo.” Aprile Millo, who sounds more and more like the young Verdi soprano we have been waiting for, stepped in as Elizabeth of Valois and gave the performance the firm cornerstone of vocal respectability that evenings at the Met have so frequently lacked of late. Mara Zampieri, who was to have made her debut in the role, was summarily dropped from the cast – kidney ailment being the official reason – at the dress rehearsal. Luckily, Miss Millo, scheduled to sing Elizabeth in the opera’s last four performances, will now appear in all eight.
A single impressive contribution, however, would not add up to much in this gargantuan work, which in the Met’s conscientiously uncut version inches close to the five-hour mark. Luckily, again, the company’s long-range casting of Princess Eboli had broken down, which provided Shirley Verrett the opportunity to give what must rank as one of the season’s most stirring performances. Whether in the Flamenco-tinged deep song of the ”Canzone del Velo” or the dramatic and lyric fluctuations of ”O don fatale,” Miss Verrett made a powerful impact. Many Metropolitan regulars must have spent the night wondering where in the world she has been keeping herself while the company has been giving mediocrities the run of the place. Yes, ”O don fatale” should bring down the house, but Miss Verrett’s did, and that is news these days on the west end of Lincoln Center’s plaza.
If the two women were most worth singing about on this night, the male contingent held up its end respectably under the capable baton of David Stivender, who was leading his first ”Don Carlo” here. Mr. Stivender, the company’s chorus master, was another late addition to the cast, replacing Bruno Bartoletti for unstated reasons. Leo Nucci, perhaps not the stuff of legend as Rodrigo, was invariably sonorous. His ”O Carlo ascolta,” directed in the old-fashioned style to the Family Circle instead of to his jailed comrade, stirred a lively response. It can be said of Giuliano Ciannella, the Carlo, that he looked handsome and sounded all right so long as the music stayed in his middle range. Even moderately high notes, however, were squeezed and effortful.
”Don Carlo,” in no matter which of its several editions or versions, is an opera of confrontations. Certainly the most gripping is, or should be, the scene in which the Grand Inquisitor and King Philip II engage in a classic struggle between church and state. James Morris, as the Spanish ruler, and Dimitri Kavrakos as the blind old defender of the faith, produced suitably profound tones. Mr. Morris, though never quite suggesting the tortured, brooding presence of a Christoff or Siepi, two of his well-remembered predecessors as Philip, certainly has the vocal equipment and the stage sense to grow into this psychologically complex role. Right now, his interpretation is quite promising though without much dramatic resonance, perhaps in part because John Dexter’s staging confines him to the standard operatic basso’s glowering, stalking and cape-twirling.
The John Dexter production, with its gloomy David Reppa sets looming as menacingly as the Inquisition itself, dates from 1979 and last appeared two seasons ago. It remains serviceable, even if the auto-da-fe scene is as clumsily managed as the triumphal march in any backwoods ”Aida.”
A note about Miss Millo, who perked up our ears last season in ”Simon Boccanegra” and ”Ernani.” The Metropolitan has her down next year for the title role in Aida and Liu in ”Turandot.” Keep her in mind when shopping for tickets. The Cast DON CARLO, opera in three acts, by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by J. Mery and C. du Locle, after Schiller. David Stivender, conductor; production by John Dexter; sets designed by David Reppa; costumes designed by Ray Diffen; lighting designed by Gil Wechsler; stage director, Paul Mills. At the Metropolitan Opera. Elisabetta Aprile Millo EboliShirley Verrett Don CarloGiuliano Ciannella RodrigoLeo Nucci King PhilipJames Morris Grand InquisitorDimitri Kavrakos FriarJulien Robbins TebaldoBetsy Norden LermaRobert Nagy HeraldCharles Anthony Celestial VoiceHei-Kyung Hong ForesterMerle Schmidt
Reviews/Opera; ‘Il Trovatore’ With Millo
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: November 2, 1988
LEAD: The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of ”Il Trovatore” on Monday night looked uncomfortably like the night of the living dead, and Halloween wasn’t entirely to blame. Verdi’s static opera itself, along with Ezio Frigerio’s handsome but marmoreal set and, above all, Fabrizio Melano’s stilted non-direction were the real culprits.
The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of ”Il Trovatore” on Monday night looked uncomfortably like the night of the living dead, and Halloween wasn’t entirely to blame. Verdi’s static opera itself, along with Ezio Frigerio’s handsome but marmoreal set and, above all, Fabrizio Melano’s stilted non-direction were the real culprits. The Met seems to be making an effort to revert to its traditional, and unlamented in some quarters, role of a ”singers’ house,” meaning ill-rehearsed vocalists of varying talent standing about stiffly and belting out their music.
With attempts to convey the opera in truly dramatic terms seemingly abandoned, the evening could be judged on the basis of individual vocal accomplishments. Monday had been intended as Aprile Millo’s first Leonora with the company in New York, although she had sung it during the Met tour of Japan last spring. As it happened, Miss Millo had already filled in four times for Eva Marton this season.
Still, her Leonora is a major accomplishment, a mixture of idiomatic spinto timbre and phrasing and technical control (those lovely soft high notes!) not often heard in this role, or in comparable Italian repertory, at the Met in recent years.
One regretted her omission of the fourth-act cabaletta (Miss Marton had dropped it, too, after assaying it a couple of times), and one was slightly troubled by Miss Millo’s characteristically wide vibrato here and there. Her acting, too, was part of bad old Met tradition: a few stock poses and an imperious flourish of her hankie at a climactic top note. But this was still an important performance, the only one on Monday greeted with (and deserving of) genuine cheers, as opposed to tepid applause punctuated by lonely bravos from partisans.
Others not yet reviewed in their roles this season were Giorgio Lamberti, who has a pleasant, modestly sized tenor but whose Manrico sounded passive, small-scaled and intonationally insecure, and Terry Cook, a nicely sonorous Ferrando. Arthur Fagen, an American based in West Germany, conducted an efficient but stiff and unsubtle performance, and other principal parts were taken by Fiorenza Cossotto and Sherrill Milnes.
Review/Music; Giordano’s ‘Chenier’ In Concert
By WILL CRUTCHFIELD
Published: March 18, 1988
Giordano’s ”Andrea Chenier” is not likely to return anytime soon to its status as a beloved potboiler in the standard repertory. The plausible candidates for its leading roles are just too few, and verismo opera does not thrive in unidiomatic performances. But it is not a good idea to give up hope; just a few years ago, it seemed as though there were not one single international-class soprano who was vocally and temperamentally right for Maddalena de Coigny, and now there is at least one, as Aprile Millo showed in a Carnegie Hall concert performance on Giordano’s ”Andrea Chenier” is not likely to return anytime soon to its status as a beloved potboiler in the standard repertory.
The plausible candidates for its leading roles are just too few, and verismo opera does not thrive in unidiomatic performances. But it is not a good idea to give up hope; just a few years ago, it seemed as though there were not one single international-class soprano who was vocally and temperamentally right for Maddalena de Coigny, and now there is at least one, as Aprile Millo showed in a Carnegie Hall concert performance on Sunday evening.
She had a great success, and was a beacon of style and certainty in the gloom. When Ms. Millo begins a line, she knows where it is going, and it is going somewhere right. She brought to the performance a generous helping of the idiomatic conviction that once belonged to Italian singers as a birthright and to dozens of splendid non-Italians as a model for emulation.
She also brought a voice that is superbly suited to the part, able to ride the big orchestra not so much through force (though she has a good deal of that) as through a gleaming, penetrating focus of sound. The climaxes were full-bodied and the floated pianissimo phrases were ravishing.
She acted her part, in this concert staging, with dignity and simple gestures. Her Maddalena bore herself with pride even in extreme situations, but her anxious, imploring looks during the trial of Chenier, while she relied on her ambivalent ally Gerard for support, were most touching.
The rest of the cast assembled by the Opera Orchestra of New York on Sunday was a demonstration of honest good intentions that did not add up to sufficiency. Vyacheslav M. Polozov (Chenier) has ringing top notes, but he pushed most of them quite sharp. He sounds like a promising tenor who needs several years of concentrated study and then an apprenticeship in the smaller Italian houses – but the tenor-hungry opera world has already denied him that. Antonio Salvadori as Gerard had a stronger sense of the idiom that Mr. Polozov, but his personality was not commanding and his voice seems to have been meant by nature for considerably lighter assignments. All three of the mezzo-soprano soloists – Jane Shaulis, Gweneth Bean and Dubravka Zubovic -seemed out of place in Italian and murky of tone. In the smaller male parts, only Anthony Laciura as the spy distinguished himself.
Eve Queler is far more decisive in her choice of operas than in her conducting, and there were many slack and tentative moments that held the drama in check.
‘TOSCA’ (Monday and Thursday) For some, the draw is Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish and historically authentic production. For others, the main attraction comes on Thursday, when the soprano Aprile Millo makes one of her now-rare Metropolitan Opera appearances in the title role. 8 p.m., Metropolitan Opera House (see above), $26 to $170. (Midgette)
MUSIC NOTES; A SOPRANO WHO REFUSES TO JOIN THE JET SET
By TIM PAGE
Published: January 19, 1986
”I turned down a lot of roles when I was beginning my career,” the young American soprano Aprile Millo said in an interview last week. ”In the world of Italian opera, you don’t make a debut in anything but a leading role if that is where you want to be. So I waited for the right moment.”
That moment came, for Miss Millo, one evening at the Metropolitan Opera in late 1984, when, on short notice, she was asked to fill in for an ailing Anna Tomowa-Sintow in the role of Amelia in Verdi’s ”Simon Boccanegra.” Since then, Miss Millo has appeared in Verdi’s ”Ernani” at both the Metropolitan and at La Scala. And, tonight she will add another important Verdi character to her credentials, when she will sing the role of Giselda in a concert performance of ”I Lombardi” with the Opera Orchestra of New York, under the direction of Eve Queler, at Carnegie Hall. The cast will also include Carlo Bergonzi, Paul Plishka, and Dino di Dolmenico.
”It’s difficult to sing an opera in concert form,” Miss Millo said. ”When you are acting out a role, you can forget yourself and actually become the character you are playing. In concert, it’s just you and the music. And ‘Lombardi’ is a very visual, very dramatic opera. I think that Giselda is a forerunner of Aida and Amelia. She loves her God and her people, but loses her heart to a foreign prince. The music combines beautiful melodic writing with coloratura fireworks.”
Miss Millo was born in New York and grew up in Italy and Los Angeles. She was the daughter of two professional singers, Giovanni Millo and Margherita Ghirosi, who were her first and most important teachers.
”Opera became part of my blood, by heritage and osmosis,” Miss Millo said, ”and I learned a great deal from recordings. Renata Tebaldi, Rosa Ponselle, Claudia Muzio – these were my teachers. The old school of opera. I listen to a recording of Magda Olivero singing Tosca, and I am inspired. I want to bring that sort of dimension to a role. I can’t understand those singers who don’t make recordings an important part of their study, but they exist. I was speaking to a singer the other day who didn’t know Muzio. Incredible!”
Miss Millo, still in her 20’s, says that she plans to build her career slowly and deliberately. ”Forty, maybe 50 appearances a year will be fine. I refuse to become part of the jet set. I believe in a singer’s responsibility to the art of music, and the almighty dollar is not the most important thing for me. With the amount of money that singers are paid, and the increasing price of tickets, the audience is entitled to ask for a magical performance. And you can’t provide that if you’re just off a plane, and waiting to catch another after the show.”
‘TOSCA’ (Monday and Thursday) For some, the draw is Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish and historically authentic production. For others, the main attraction comes on Thursday, when the soprano Aprile Millo makes one of her now-rare Metropolitan Opera appearances in the title role. 8 p.m., Metropolitan Opera House (see above), $26 to $170. (Midgette)
This is the text of the prestigious Sunday New York Times Magazine story. I personally hated this story, was grateful for the attention and very aware of it’s prestige, but it caught nothing of who I was. It was superficial and arrogant and I was not. Taught me a very big lesson. “Dream merchant” indeed. Nightmare.
AMERICAN DIVA ITALIAN STYLE
By LISA SCHWARZBAUM; LISA SCHWARZBAUM OFTEN WRITES ON CULTURAL SUBJECTS.
Published: December 25, 1988
LEAD: Onstage at the Metropolitan Opera house, her short, chunky figure is encased in the kind of trompe l’oeil drapery that opera couturiers use to flatter a soprano’s waist while letting her big ribcage heave. Her red-brown hair is pinned back, hidden under a wig of pale yellow, intricately arranged curls.
Onstage at the Metropolitan Opera house, her short, chunky figure is encased in the kind of trompe l’oeil drapery that opera couturiers use to flatter a soprano’s waist while letting her big ribcage heave. Her red-brown hair is pinned back, hidden under a wig of pale yellow, intricately arranged curls. The Bette Midler-ish face is not plain, not beautiful, not young, not old; its mutable expressions shade from tragic nobility to haute glamour.
The singer pauses, one hand extended – molto operatically. It is a gesture of supplication often seen in silent movies, in old photographs, in summer stock. This time, the gesture is performed by the singer playing Leonora, the leading female role in Giuseppe Verdi’s ”Il Trovatore.” The Italian plot uncoils. It has love in it, death, heroism.
The opera also has arias that soar and swell, and from the throat of Aprile Millo comes a notably large, rich sound of sued tained power. Her spinto soprano voice – spinto is Italian for ”pushed,” describing a voice’s ability to push through heavy orchestration and be heard by the audience – easily fills the 3,800-seat house, makes it vibrate. In addition to having the vocal muscle to override an orchestra, Millo possesses another quality Verdi demanded of his sopranos: the ability to float and sustain gossamer-light high notes. The final ingredient of a Verdi soprano is passion, and by now Met patrons know that, for Millo, songs of love and death are all that matter on this earth.
Critics know it, too; they also know how rare it is to find the three Verdian requisites in one soprano. When John Rockwell reviewed this performance of ”Trovatore” in The New York Times recently, he noted that the rest of the cast had had an off night. Millo alone drew praise: ”Her Leonora is a major accomplishment, a mixture of idiomatic spinto timbre and phrasing and technical control (those lovely soft high notes!) not often heard in this role, or in comparable Italian repertory, at the Met in recent years . . . an important performance, the only one . . . greeted with (and deserving of) genuine cheers.”
Other critics have noted that it is not just the range and timbre that is so impressive but the size, carrying power and dramatic ring of her voice. To be sure, some observers have wondered whether the young singer is being annointed prematurely. Thor Eckert Jr., music critic of The Christian Science Monitor, wrote in 1986: ”It is something like a county fair judge looking at a newborn bird and declaring it to be a prize-winning turkey.”
However, that same year, Donal Henahan, chief music critic of The Times, said that in Verdi’s ”Don Carlo,” she ”sounds more and more like the Verdi soprano we’ve been waiting for.”
Moreover, at the Met – a major company facing major criticism about its casting decisions, its repertory, its fee structure and its overall artistic direction – Aprile Millo may be one of the few major success stories these days.
Operagoers, not just the critics and the Met, have been waiting for a true Verdi soprano. As Rodolfo Celletti, music critic of the Italian weekly Epoca and contributor to Opera, has written, such a woman must spin through arias that are ”vocally extremely difficult not merely because they are very high, but above all because of the way in which phrases of articulated song, fragments of vocalized melody, rapid trills and staccato notes, sudden upward leaps and unexpected drops to the lowest register follow one another with bewildering rapidity.”
Verdi sopranos of the past half-century who have successfully run this heroic gantlet included Rosa Ponselle, Claudia Muzio, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. It is to these legendary predecessors that Millo turns when working on a part.
”Before I sing,” she says in rounded diva-tones, discussing her habit of listening to their records, ”I must be an audience for the piece.” Then she explains that she does not so much borrow phrases from soprano A or B, but listens for ”the inner message.”
It comes naturally to Millo to turn to the past. ”I am of another time,” says the 30-year-old soprano, brushing the air with nails lacquered a 1940’s-red.
MILLO IS A GENUINE throwback to the turn-of-the-century operatic age, when divas -literally, ”goddesses” -joined an opera company and committed to it on a kind of tenure track, a time before the lure of lucrative freelance fees and before jet travel. To those ladies of grandeur and legendary tempers, commitment to one opera house was an asset, not a financial impediment.
The young soprano has shaped her career with an anachronistic patience, turning down small parts, biding her time until the appropriate moment to appear in the big role, in a big house, to big acclaim. Even before joining the Met in 1981, she always knew she wanted her entrance into big-league opera to be as sudden and forceful as a sforzando or nothing.
”In the world of Italian opera,” Millo said in an interview two years ago, ”you don’t make a debut in anything but a leading role if that is where you want to be. So I waited for the right moment.”
Having chosen to work as a ”cover” singer for big roles – prepared and ready to cover as needed for various leading ladies – rather than edge her way up the company ladder, Millo waited in the wings for seven years before becoming a star in her own right.
In the meantime, her last-moment substitutions worked to dramatic effect. She won critical raves as she traversed the whole range of Verdi’s vocal writing, including: Amelia in ”Simon Boccanegra” in place of Anna Tomowa-Sintow, in 1984; Elvira in ”Ernani” for Montserrat Caballe, in 1985; Elizabetta in ”Don Carlo” for Mara Zampieri, in 1986, and an 11th-hour Desdemona in ”Otello” for Kiri Te Kanawa, in 1987. This year, Millo followed up a last-minute Leonora in ”Il Trovatore,” in place of Eva Marton, by headlining the second cast.
ALL THAT IS ABOUT to change.
On New Year’s Eve, Met audiences will hear Millo sing the title role in the new Sonja Frisell staging of ”Aida.” Those who decide Met casting tried to abate any intra-company rivalries by delicately dividing the honors between the soprano Leona Mitchell, who sang the premiere (earning a pleasant review for it; Millo commented on her performance, ”Her Italian has improved.”) and seven other performances, and Millo, who will be following with five.
And, come next season’s opening night, Sept. 25, 1989, Aprile Millo will take the stage a proclaimed star, gesturing in the spotlight as Aida to the Radames of Placido Domingo. She’ll play an Ethiopian slave, a woman torn between love of a man and love of her country. She’ll do a big death scene. And at the beginning of Act III, she’ll sing ”O patria mia,” an aria of career-destroying difficulty that climbs the scale to a translucent, utterly exposed high C. Indeed, this one note has such power to terrify divas that Ponselle and Tebaldi dropped the opera in the latter part of their careers.
As various commentators have noted, the role of Aida is difficult in still another respect: her singing is mostly dramatic until the last scene, when, her struggle ended, she turns lyric. It is a rare soprano who does both things well, but Millo makes it all sound easy.
As Ethan Mordden wrote in ”Demented,” his juicy book on opera: ”We demand that the singer take dares and turn on her if she slips. Why do it, then? Why not play safe? Because there is no safety in opera.”
Millo relishes danger; ”Aida” is her opera. She sang it as a girl; she won awards for singing its arias in competitions; she sang it at her debut with the Utah Opera in 1979. She has even sung it outdoors: with the Met in New York’s Central Park in 1986, and last summer both at Rome’s Baths of Caracalla Opera and at the Verona Arena.
”I’M AN AMERICAN, BUT my style is Italian,” says Millo, who was born in New York City and grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, where she fell under the spell of old movies and the latest television shows. The spell lives on. She says she ”loves” ”Stage Door,” ”The Women” and Frank Capra movies, and is a frequent visitor to her local video store.
Millo edges her voice toward a Roman accent and makes dramatic hands as she sits in a restaurant anticipating shrimp scampi; later in the meal, her appetite also extends to rich sauces and Champagne. ”There’s a tradition, a long arc, based on the Italian principles of singing and principles of Italian opera,” she says. ”I think I get it from my heritage, from listening to my mother and father sing as a child, and even more so from records.”
The hint of a sob, the use of rubato – that musical elasticity which frees the melody from the strict metronomic beat – and legato phrasing that strings the notes together in a smooth, unbroken chain: all of these make up the emotional and very Italian torrent in which Millo loves to swim. It’s what one Juilliard voice teacher calls ”the pasta quality.”
Millo’s musicality took root in a family where the air was filled with the sounds of old opera recordings – and where life itself was lived like an Italian opera.
Aprile Elizabeth Millo, born on April 14, 1958, was called ”April” all through high school, until she began receiving singing awards and a judge sang out ”ah-PREE-lay!” She liked the effect and kept it, her first attempt at self-invention. ” ‘Aprile’ lets me dream,” she says. Her younger sister, Grace, an actress, calls her ”April” to keep her down to earth.
Aprile’s father, John Hammill of Pittsburgh, a tenor, took his mother’s surname for a brief singing career as Giovanni Millo before heart problems forced his early retirement. Her mother sang under the name of Margarita Girosi and later supported the family as a nurse. Millo says her mother was born in Naples.
With her older brother, Rick, a rock musician turned actor in Los Angeles, and with Grace, the future soprano led a vagabond existence as the family moved from New York to Italy to California. Aprile didn’t attend school until the sixth grade.
With her mother and father as her only voice teachers, the young girl absorbed, sang and emoted, graduating from Hollywood High School as la regina, the queen of all things dramatic and operatic – and Italian. Indeed, the thrill of self-invention had turned her into an Italian.
MILLO WAS NOT AT all sure about going to the Met, even with its heavily Italian repertory, when, at the suggestion of Lawrence F. Stayer, who runs the company’s Young Artist Development Program, she auditioned for artistic director James Levine.
”I was the first person to hear her,” and it was the voice we all hear today,” says Stayer, whose program Millo joined in 1981 and who remains a friend and mentor. ”Her mother said, ‘Listen to this man.’ ”
Millo said she’d listen, so long as she had a contract to cover. And she raised some hell, driving Met administrators crazy about what roles she would and would not do.
”She’s wonderful, and I love her as a human being,” says Stayer, ”although I’d be lying if I said it was an easy relationship.”
As Millo recalls it, ”If it were not for James Levine and Larry Stayer, I would have been dust there . . . because I antagonized everybody.”
For Millo, meeting her voice teacher Rita Patane, in 1983 was another turning point. A born-and-bred Italian and the wife of Giuseppe Patane, who conducted Millo’s 1986 Angel recording of Verdi arias, the teacher took the young singer’s voice -essentially untutored except by her parents and old Tebaldi and Milanov recordings – and began the unglamorous work of refinement.
”I work to give her freedom of sound, and to get an even sound from bottom to top, so that the pianissimo is relative to the loud,” says Patane, who still sees her student, on a flexible schedule. ”She’s got a very warm sound, intense. There’s power, and that beautiful softness and delicacy. You can’t teach that.” Millo made another important musical connection with the conductor Eve Queler, whose Opera Orchestra of New York concert performances are particularly singer-friendly. Encouraged by Queler to tackle some lesser-known repertory, Millo first drew attention in a concert version of Verdi’s ”I Lombardi” in Queler’s 1985-86 season and became a box-office draw in subsequent concert performances.
”She’s got a gorgeous instrument; she can get every color out of it. And she has achieved a wonderful agility in the past few years,” says Queler, who will conduct Millo this March at Carnegie Hall in Bellini’s ”Il Pirata.” This is a bel canto role, from the Italian for ”beautiful song,” that stresses beauty, flexibility and brilliance of performance over dramatic expression, and shows off technique and vocal athleticism.
DRAMATIC EXPRESSION is a Millovian contradiction: the soprano is known for her rapt vocal immersion in a role and for her ability to cut right through to the audience with the lushness and urgency of her pliable voice. But she’s not known for her acting.
Fabrizio Melano, who directed Millo in Verdi’s ”Otello” and ”Il Trovatore” puts a positive spin on the situation. ”Millo is not afraid of the scale of the music, which is larger than realistic life,” he says. ”You have to play up to it. I tell her let the music go through her, even physically. I encourage an amplitude of gesture. I tell her to hold the gesture longer, make it bigger. People are so used to playing a verismo character” – ”realistic,” as in an opera based on everyday life – ”that they’re afraid of being corny. It’s not corny. It’s the ‘operatic dimension.’ ”
Millo may be the leading Verdi soprano today, but she is not the only contender for that title. Her closest competitor is Susan Dunn. Some critics say that Dunn’s voice, while as beautiful as Millo’s, lacks the ethereal high notes and the intangible quality of living the music. Leona Mitchell, who is sharing the role of Aida with Millo this season, has a lighter voice with high overtones, but her interpretations are regarded by critics as less interesting artistically. Eva Marton and Ghena Dimitrova, who have also sung their share of Verdi roles, don’t sing such parts as often since their voices have grown heavier.
More than the challenge of her contemporaries, Aprile Millo must face the challenge of history, as critics point out between enthusiastic reviews. She may stand out because she is one of very few today who are capable of singing – or even attempting – the Verdi repertory. Her real rivals are on those old recordings she keeps playing while learning a role. Singers like that just don’t exist any more; tastes have changed, styles have changed. For that matter, conductors have changed.
”All those old conductors, who played with those singers, knew the voice so well,” says Daniel Ferro, a Juilliard voice teacher. ”They knew strong and weak spots, they breathed with the singers. They didn’t just beat time. Before they were conductors, they worked as coaches. Singers were treated with much more thought. Today, conductors are the divas.”
Millo agrees. ”The young singer has to face bigger orchestras and conductors out to make reputations for themselves,” she says, adding that she needs a conductor who can make her feel secure. ”I want him to understand,” she explains, ”that what we’re doing is not mortal work.”
WITH ”AIDA,” MIL-lo enters a period marked by new conditions and questions:
O No longer a cover singer, she will not have the benefit of the automatic good will extended to most last-minute replacements.
O How much exposure is good for her and, for that matter, for her tonsils, which are a continuing source of inflamation and concern?
O How much will she travel? While the Met remains her home base, she has been well received in Austria, Italy and Japan; she’ll return to Japan in May for another series of concerts.
O How much will she expand her repertory?
”When I was younger,” she explains, ”I did all of the early bel canto literature – Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini. Now, coming back to it is vocally healthy because it keeps the high E in the voice. And normally, a spinto doesn’t have that.”
O She and her high E’s also have a longer-term goal. ”Within the next seven years,” she says, ”I would like to sing a Norma that is not just thought of as a comparison to the past, but as an example for this century of good singing.” The diva is booked through 1994; no Norma yet.
When Millo talks opera, she’s all business. But she’s just as likely to be talking about Oprah Winfrey: ”Sixty-seven pounds! How did she do it?” Or muse about the ”Tonight” show: ”Sure, I’d love to appear there with Johnny, but only when I’m thinner -I don’t want to be a representative of opera that’s a cliche.”
The soprano has enviously watched her sister -who will appear in the non-singing role of Ida in the Met’s ”Die Fledermaus” – take up ”body sculpting” and lose inches.
Millo has a firm mental image of the soigne opera star she’d love to be. ”When I get on television, I want people to recognize an extraordinarily committed, very kind-of-like spooky spiritual woman who also – for the young people watching – has her hair done in a beautiful sort of rock-star way,” she muses.
Emerging from her cocoon of cover roles, whittling away at her extra pounds, the singer yearns for glamour. Not surprisingly, when Millo met Elizabeth Taylor while providing the singing voice for Taylor’s prima donna in Franco Zeffirelli’s new film ”The Young Toscanini,” the soprano glimpsed something of the woman she wants to be.
”We are the dream merchants,” she says, her crimson lips curling in a smile.
Millo also talks about the soul. She’d like to meet Mother Teresa. She goes to church Sundays on tatty 42d Street, near her Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Her sister is her best friend and until recently lived with her. Grace now lives a block away, and the two talk every day.
Millo dreams of an apartment in Rome, a house in the country, a man who knows what a diva needs and deserves, a football team’s worth of kids. She’d love a sexy car, a new fur stole – for which she’s saving, out of the $250,000 she’s earned this year in concert and Met fees.
She dreams on a silver-screen scale. ”What I pray to do someday is to become enough of a figure, enough of a personality to get the young people into the house,” she says. ”I don’t know if they’ll be ”Millo-ites” or ”Aprile-ites” or whatever you want to call it. But I would like to have that kind of an effect on people. I don’t know if I’m that kind of an original yet. We’ll see – as long as I don’t lose sight.”
Goal in sight, Millo frequently looses her performer’s love of mimicry. Bending toward a visitor’s tape recorder, she tries out a sultry, night-time radio-announcer’s voice: ”We are sitting here and Miss Millo has just shown her interviewer a letter from an admirer in India.” The letter, in a fine handwriting, delights her.
”We’ll be back,” she continues, all throaty, ”after this pause.”
But there’s no pausing for Aprile Millo now. She’s said ciao and adieu to apprenticeship. Now what she has to do is sing, in that Verdian voice of hers, while audiences and critics and photographers and talk-show hosts swirl around her like the Egyptian army in ”Aida.”
As her spiritual countryman Giuseppe Verdi once said, ”Three things are required in the art of operatic music: voice, voice and voice.”
GLITTER AND BOUQUETS: ‘TURANDOT’ CLOSES AT THE MET
By JOHN ROCKWELL
Published: April 11, 1987
LEAD: It was a night of unadulterated star power, operatic and otherwise, that had veterans of the Metropolitan Opera shaking their heads to remember the like.
It was a night of unadulterated star power, operatic and otherwise, that had veterans of the Metropolitan Opera shaking their heads to remember the like.
The evening included an ovation even before the opera began for a soprano in the audience – Birgit Nilsson – and ended with the prima donna of the night, Eva Marton, tossing Miss Nilsson a bouquet from the stage. Elizabeth Taylor was also in the audience, along with more ancillary celebrities than at any Met gala or opening night within memory.
There was also, almost as an afterthought, a pretty terrific performance of Puccini’s ”Turandot.”
To start with, Thursday night’s performance was the last at the Metropolitan Opera this season of Franco Zeffirelli’s spectacular new production of ”Turandot,” which has not pleased most of the critics but has proven an enormous hit with the public. In addition to the regular cast members – Miss Marton as Turandot and Placido Domingo as Calaf, with James Levine conducting – Thursday night’s performance marked the first time the heralded young American soprano Aprile Millo had sung the lyric role of Liu at the Met. A Tough Ticket
The house had been sold out for a long time, and the pressure for tickets was intense.
When this critic arrived, he found an ovation going on – before the performance had begun. The best and most famous Turandot (and Brunnhilde and Isolde) of our time, the retired Swedish soprano Miss Nilsson, had been spotted making her way down the left-center aisle.
When that hubbub subsided, one noted a gaggle of unashamed gawkers standing and staring at someone on the right-center aisle. That turned out to be Miss Taylor. Miss Taylor got fervent cheers of her own during the first intermission. Those were easily topped by an ovation for Miss Nilsson in the second intermission.
It was the kind of night when some celebrities found themselves almost anonymous. Rex Harrison was in the audience, as were Christa Ludwig, Leona Mitchell and Julius Rudel. So were Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Governor Kean of New Jersey, the brother-playwrights Peter and Anthony Shaffer and the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. A ‘Brilliant Fantasy’
At the curtain calls, Miss Millo elicited the loudest, most sustained applause, but Miss Marton’s admirers showered the auditorium floor with an ornate blend of streamers and confetti-like material.
At her final bow, Miss Marton tossed one of her bouquets to Miss Nilsson, who caught it on the fly.
Backstage after a Met performance has its quotient of hysteria under normal circumstances, and these circumstances were decidedly not normal. As hundreds of fans waited in outer hallways, the various stars complimented one another, signed autographs (mostly for the children in the cast) and posed for group photographs.
Asked what she felt about Mr. Zeffirelli’s production, Miss Taylor replied: ”I thought it was beautiful – it gave me goose bumps. It was the most brilliant fantasy.” Zeffirelli-Taylor Opera Film
Aside from her general operatic enthusiasms, Miss Taylor was there for a reason. In May she is scheduled to begin filming Mr. Zeffirelli’s next movie, tentatively entitled ”Preludes and Overtures.” It is about Arturo Toscanini’s conducting debut when he was a young cellist in a touring Italian opera troupe in Rio de Janeiro in 1886, and had to suddenly step in for an indisposed maestro to lead Verdi’s ”Aida.”
Miss Taylor, Mr. Zeffirelli said, plays the part of Nadina Bulishoff, a Russian soprano who had sung in Italy and had then gone to Brazil where, rumor had it, she was the mistress of the Brazilian emperor. By then, she was past her best days, and had to be coached back to confidence to sing Aida by the young Toscanini -with whom she may or may not have had a romantic dalliance.
For the singing portion of her role, Miss Taylor will lip-sync to the voice of Aprile Millo.
MILLO IN CONCERT
When Aprile Millo, the noted soprano, appears in concert, she brings along an entire orchestra. Saturday, when Ms. Millo comes to Tilles Center on the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University in Brookville, she will be backed by the Opera Orchestra of New York under the direction of Eve Queler.
Featuring selections from Verdi’s ”Trovatore” and ”Otello,” Tchaikovsky’s ”Maid of Orleans,” Catalani’s ”Wally,” Rossini’s ”William Tell” and Giordano’s ”Andrea Chenier,” the concert is at 8 P.M. Tickets: 626-3100. BARBARA DELATINER
One more shining moment? How about a vote for Eve Queler’s concert production of ”I Lombardi” at Carnegie Hall, a typically venturesome Queler project. Verdi’s opera certainly sags and creaks in places, but it provided a solid platform for the noble and sonorous Oronte of Carlo Bergonzi as well as the agile and powerful Giselda of Aprile Millo, one of several young Verdi sopranos who may break out into international recognition in the new year.
CONCERT: MUSICAL SALUTE TO STATUE OF LIBERTY
By DONAL HENAHAN
Published: April 13, 1985
The idea of a concert to celebrate the Statue of Liberty’s dedication a century ago seemed such a good one to Hugh Ross that the venerable conductor of the Schola Cantorum could not wait for next year, when the actual centennial of the statue will be marked. So, at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday evening, Mr. Ross marshaled his own 32-member mixed chorus, the Concert Choir from the New York All-City High School Chorus, an orchestra from the Manhattan School of Music and a pair of vocal soloists for a night entitled ”Liberte/Liberty.” The program concert was made up, in a sense, of torch songs.
Mr. Ross, who was born in England 86 years ago, did not bounce onto the stage as spryly as he formerly might have, but once in place at the conducting stand he led the program with a commanding vigor. Here and there, his rhythmic control over the musical line did tend to slacken, but he and his well-trained musicians did not allow momentum to flag for long.
The emphasis was on Franco- American works, all of them new or unfamiliar pieces by Ned Rorem, Francis Poulenc, Virgil Thomson, Richard Adler and Charles Gounod. The best and most haunting work was Poulenc’s ”Figure Humaine,” a grim catalogue of Nazi horrors composed at the depths of World War II to a Paul Eluard text. The a cappella chorus was supported by a piano, not always discreetly, although by 20th- century standards this score is not complex or highly dissonant.
Selections from Mr. Rorem’s ”American Oratorio” beginning with ”The New Colossus,” his setting for tenor, chorus, orchestra and organ of Emma Lazarus’s poem about the ”mighty woman with a torch,” established the evening’s statuesque, rhetorical tone. The Rorem pieces, which also included settings of Whitman and Melville, were cast in a much-diluted Ivesian style that lacked spine or distinctive profile.
The Lady Liberty theme was picked up subsequently with ”La Liberte Eclairant le Monde,” an obscure motet that Gounod seems to have composed in 1876 as a fund- raiser for the statue, and with the first performance of Richard Adler’s euphonious hymn to the same lady, ”Born to Liberty.” The Gounod, employing Mr. Ross’s chorus, the high school chorus, organ, timpani and brass ensemble, made aptly rousing sounds in a ceremonial if somewhat hollow style. All good composers turn out such pieces for great public occasions and once in a while they turn out to have lasting value. This piece did not strike one as a born survivor, but it rang out sonorously and served its celebratory purpose.
Two Virgil Thomson premieres, ”Fanfare for Peace” and ”Southern Hymns,” skirted the evening’s main theme, but were welcome anyway. Couched in Mr. Thomson’s famously homely manner, the Southern hymns seemed to have a squeezing harmonium always in the distant background and left a sweet, nostalgic af tertaste. The 88-year-old composer listened from the balcony and took a bow or two.
The solo triumph of the night came in a second Gounod offering, the cantata ”Gallia,” in which the robust voice of the young American soprano Aprile Millo soared cleanly over the ensemble. Miss Millo, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut earlier this season, took a while to find the flow of the music and take the measure of the hall, but by the end she was singing with both a ringing tone and subtlety of expression.
Aprile Millo’s first-rate recording debut, a collection of Verdi arias, justifiably attracted enormous attention (Angel-EMI CDC 747396).
For the reissue of my EMI debut album.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Presenting Aprile Millo – Verdi Arias
1. Sorta è la notte … Ernani, involami [5:05]
2. Tacea la notte [4:15]
3. Una macchia è qui tuttora! [7:32]
4. Mi parea … Piangea cantando … Ave Maria [17:28]
La forza del destino:
5. Pace, pace mio Dio [6:20]
Un ballo in maschera:
6. Morró, ma prima in grazia [4:52]
7. Tu che le vanità [11:53]
8. Ritorna vincitor … L’insana parola … I sacri nomi [6:48]
9. Qui Radames verrà … O patria mia [7:20]
Aprile Millo (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuseppe Patanè
rec. St. Barnabas Church, Woodside Park, London. publ. 1986
Texts and translations included.
EMI CLASSICS 47396 [71:41]
One of the finest Verdi recitals from the final quarter of the 20th century … should be in every opera collection. Super!
“Coming back to this recital after so long a time was like witnessing again a volcanic eruption. Here was a singer at the beginning of her career and already fully fledged. Hers was a true spinto voice with shining top notes and an ability to expand dynamics seemingly forever. When Maestro Patanè lets loose the London Philharmonic in this impressively recorded recital Ms Millo is still there, on top of the orchestra. It is not just a matter of volume and stamina. What is most stunning about her is her truthful obedience to Verdi’s dynamic markings. This is felt in every part of this taxing programme. Leonora’s act 1 aria from Il trovatore has some ravishing soft singing and a superb crescendo followed by a diminuendo in one long phrase. Lady Macbeth’s aria is even more sensational. She manages to wring every drop of emotion out of this bleak music and colours the voice impressively. The long scene from Otello is soft and inward but so intense that one sits glued to the chair. Her sudden outbreak of terror on Ah, Emilia, addio comes as an explosion straight out of nowhere. The arias from Forza, Ballo and Don Carlo are all superbly executed and she is not for a second hampered by Patanè’s rather measured tempos. Aida was one of her great roles and she sang it in Verona in 1989 when I was there but unfortunately not in the performance I saw; something I regretted even more when listening to her readings here. Her magical final note in O patria mia is something to return to over and over again.
It is a shame that this disc has been out of circulation for so long and lovers of great singing should be deeply grateful to ArkivCD for bringing it back to the catalogue. There are full texts and translations and moreover a short introduction to each aria, giving some historical background and placing the aria in its context. Super!
One of the finest Verdi recitals from the final quarter of the 20th century. It should be in every opera collection.”
I really enjoyed this interview with Christopher Purdy, which appeared on his blog which is wonderful.
Terrific mind, and great questions. I let him guide me, and it is one of the interviews that I like.
APRILE MILLO, SOPRANO
Aprile Millo performed Tosca in Cincinati recently to packed and enthusiastic houses. Since her debut in New York in 1984, Millo has sung 157 performances at the Metropolitan, always in the big girl Italian repertoire including: Aida, Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Andrea Chenier, Luisa Miller and Tosca. There was a falling off of appearances in the mid 1990s but lately Millo has triumphed at Carnegie Hall in concert performances of La Gioconda, Adriana Lecourvreur and The Girl of the Golden West. Twenty years ago she was resolutely touted by press and public as the new-last member of the old school style of Italian singing. Her Met performances are rare these days, but they always attract the full houses and the “buzz” one heard on nights Tebaldi was singing. We spoke on June 20, 2006
CP: I talked with some young people at your Tosca last week, and they hadn’t heard the Italian style before. They hadn’t heard capital R Real opera
AM: They heard exalted Broadway…
CP: They didn’t know Tebaldi…
AM: Oh, my God!
AM: And I told them, well she’s in heaven but you’ll hear Millo
AM: Oh, I’m so glad. Thank you for that. That’s so nice.
CP: When you open a score to Tosca or Trovatore and you look at this character, and you learn the words and the notes, then what?
AM: Well, that’s saying a mouthful, because the score is the blueprint for humanity. Not only of the composer but of the character that you’re singing. There was a wonderful interview years ago where the great Maria Callas said, you look at something with a straight jacket. That’s a wonderful expression. You do it exactly as it is written. In the hands of a great master, it generally is exactly the character’s state of mind. So you try it first very stiff, very …exactly as written. Then of course, inperceptively your own personality is going to find resonance with what you’re hearing and what you’re saying, and then it takes off from there.
CP: And that must happen, right? Your own personlity to some extent must get in there?
AM: Well, I think that’s the only salvation at all, because if you look at how many great singers have already sung this music, the best has already been done in my mind. All you can bring to it in all humility is your soul, and how it will color that partiuclar kind of music.
CP: And what about the pople to whom and with whom you are singing? The people on stage? What do you need from them?
AM: I wouldn’t dream of naming names! What I hope for on stage is a feeling of religiosity for the music. That it isn’t something where you wear leisure suits to come to rehearsal. I am sort of young enough to have been a bridge to the old school, like with Bergonzi, with Fiorenza Cossotto, and then with the younger older school, with Domingo and Pavarotti, and now of course the current stars. And you look at them and you say, My God, no one used to come to an opera house without being fully dressed suit and tie.
CP: It must be seen as being very important to you, what you are doing.
AM: ..what they are trying to reduce opera today to is exalted Broadway.
There’s absolutelty nothing wrong with Broadway. The kind of Broadway I would have preferred, I was too young to have seen was Mary Martin and Ethel Merman…Gertrude Lawrence, or something of subtlety and beauty that used the natural voice to project. What we’re finding in opera is that they want that same thing now. They want the body looking perfect. The don’t care if you can hear it, and I’m sure we’ll be into miking before the end of the next fifty years, which will then deprive us of the last bastion of real, authentic sound. The way the oboe, the viola, the clarinet sounds, that is how you hear it in the theater. When the body, which is the human Stradivarius, is singing without amplification on stage is the last true human experience in so grand a setting.
CP: Do you have to decide who Tosca is? She lives in a specific time and there are historical persons and events mentioned and it’s even supposed to take place at a specific date and place (Rome, June 15, 1800) Do you decide what kind of a person she is?
AM: I think Puccini decided it first. Then I try to wed myself as much as I can to what he asks for. But again, your own personality will peep through. I made sure that I was always backed by people who lived closer to the time when it was written, like Magda Olivero or Renata Tebladi. I made sure to speak to these people to say look, in your experience would this be acceptable? Direct from the line of the composer, especially with Madame Olivero who actually actually know most of these people.
CP: Do you remember the first time you heard operatic singing, live?
AM: It took my breath away. I remember exactly. It was listening to my mother and father singing the Cavalleria duet. And I kept thinking where did my mother and father go, because they were no longer themselves, they seemed to go into another world. My mother said oh,no that’s just opera. When you are singing opera you go to another world. Later on in life whenever she would hear a piece of music, her face would leave and she would be in a sort of exalted state, like a trance. It sounds stuffy, but if you’ve ever seen a parent look at something with a sense of transfiguration,
you want to know why.
And as I sing now I know exactly what my parents were talking about, I think it’s a direct line to another world. Some people want to call it heaven, or another dimension. However you call it, it is a better and more beautiful world, and so now because I just lost Mom in June of last year and my Dad a few years ago, now when I sing I’m talking to them. It’s my only time to be with them. Now, I’m truly gone!
CP: How do I get young singers to listen to the older recordings?
AM: I think you just have to expose them and I think the evening they’re exposed has to be incredibly fun. People come to my performances because they know it’s a free for all in the theater. People are cheering and stamping on walls..it’s very exciting. Whereas if you come into the theater and you’re taught like we are in the rest of life we’re taught to not make a sound, to be adult children…don’t speak unless you’re spoken to…don’t try to be original…but don’t be yourself. So in a theater it’s a victory in a way that a woman is singing over an eighty piece orchestra and you can hear her. Then, people go nuts! They’re screaming and it’s so exciting.
CP: Who are the singers who were your role models?
AM: No question, Claudia Muzio, a fabulous Italian soprano. No question Zinka Milanov. And of course my great friend Renata Tebaldi- and Rosa Ponselle without a doubt, an absolute God of vocality.
CP: What is your hope for opera in the future?
AM: That it doesn’t sell out.
CP: In what way?
AM: That it doesn’t try to be all things to all people. If you look at the Mona Lisa in a fantastic museum, she does not try to be The Last Supper. She does not try to be the Transfiguration in the Papal residence. She is what she is. You are ennobled by looking at her…there’s an enigma, blah blah blah. What opera does not need to do is to make itself over. It is already very timely, it is already very accessible. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s triumphant. It is a human being singing directly to you. And now they say thay have to look like movies stars. No, they don’t…What’s annoying is that several of the ballerinas who are singing today, there’s nothing wrong with it if you’re up close, and ah yes, it’s an intriguing smaller voice and how lovely and sometimes they do something with the text. Most times they don’t. And so you say okay, okay, okay. If you’re sitting further back what you notice is the annoyance in the audience that they can’t hear!
CP: And lastly, what is meant by style? The Italian style, the French style? Are these viable phraes today?
AM: Yes…for me when you sing in the French style you sing as a French person would speak with music. If you sing in the Italain you’re singing an Italian thought which means you really have to know how they think…if it’s a good composer they are going to express it to you in a particular kind of line, or utterance that is exactly how they speak. If you listen to the real Italian literature, a true Bellini phrase is very differnet from Verdi and Mozart. There’s a longer, longer bow used in the bel canto; then it’s transferred into what I call verismatic bel canto, which is Verdi, and then of course Puccini takes it further and it becomes absolute conversation. Through it all there’s a sense of legato that is completely missing today. Completely missing! …I heard recently at a very highly touted evening in which we were to be unbelievably blown away by some piece…but it had to have a bel canto phrasing. And you heard two or three notes and you thought oh good, good, good, they’re going to go ..it’s going to be magnificent. And then all of a sudden it got chopped, or they used a consonant to destroy the line. It doesn’t have to be a robot, but it has to vibrate, like Fritz Krslier on a violin. It has to breathe , it has to be elastic, but it does have to have the legato, and I think that’s one of the great things missing today, is a sense of really beautiful expression within the sound.
We want an athlete on stage just throwing out high notes, but those notes are sometimes wed to emotion.
CP: And they’re connected to other notes
CP : There’s a whole string of pearls there in connecting the notes you want to go for. If anyone heard Callas sing Norma you know…
AM: And look..the conductor Tullio Serafin taught Rosa Ponselle. He then updated or adjusted it to the Callas Norma. He then updated and adjusted to Joan Sutherland. Those three giants he taught Norma. Yet they all have the absolute requisite legato and Bellini style. It proves it can be done.
The problem is that today we have many lovely voices who are used up by the recording companies. And they are also in the hands of maestri who want to be symphonic conductors. And there’s not enough symphonies for them. So they “settle.” That’s a key word, they “settle” on opera. And they know nothing about voice…so then you have these young babies in the hands of babies, and no one really understands the style. Or they think they’re going to “re write” it, as if they have a direct line. Tradition is important to observe.
Aprile Millo sings Tosca, La Gioconda and Maadalena in Andrea Chenier at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2006-2007 season.
“ The voice is a surprise, a real authentic voice in the rarest of forms, a Verdi soprano with a nobility of sound, the right Verdian attack, phraseology, she combines it all.” R. Celletti, La Musica Italy
“ Millo returned to Vienna in sublime form, perhaps even more beautiful than last recalled and gave an account of Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera that shall be remembered for years……
Millo’s performance are a must see….better yet, must hear” Kultur – Vienna
“ La Scala finally has something to cheer about…a real Tosca. Millo’s Tosca is the real thing and the audience cheered and threw flowers for the most authentic Tosca at La Scala in the last 25 years……”
Gazzetta di Parma
“ Sounding gorgeous and acting with more conviction and intensity, Millo brought a stunning Tosca of rich dynamic hues and surprising dramatic integrity…… What phrasing ! ” Berlin
“ Above them all reigns the splendid Aida, Aprile Millo. This young American singer, whose voice recalls the luxuriant and flashing timbre of Renata Tebaldi, offers in the garb of the Ethiopian princess, a
superlative performance for it’s beauty of sound, richness of shading and emotional involvement, and for the magnificent color of the voice. Together they make her, without fear of exaggeration, the best Verdi
soprano of today….. L’Opera Italia
“ Aprile Millo attracts the eye inexorably, as if by ocular magnet. There is something epic in her movements, an unabashed grandeur… The voice glows rich and red like a ruby…” The London Times
“ From her first aria the audience knew they were in the presence of an artist of the old school…..the beautiful timbre recalls Tebaldi, the seductive legato and richness of Ponselle and the floating soft notes of
the formidable Gencer……a charismatic and torrential artist” ABC Spain
“ Millo is all communication, immediate and intense……Her voice is an intriguing blend of the spiritual and the carnal….ravishing …” La Vanguardia Spain
As printed in the November 2008 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.
A Modern Exponent of a Timeless Tradition
A Candid Conversation with Aprile Millo
by Daniel Vasquez
Biting down on my right knuckle, I arrived for my meeting with Aprile Millo an hour ahead of schedule. I was about to meet one of the last champions of Italian opera and my nerves were getting the better of me. The idea of a crooked-toothed kid from Atlanta approaching one of the last of the prima donnas seemed laughable. Yet somehow, I had mustered the courage to meet this great lady.
It all began when I gathered my troops to attend Millo’s performance as Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in November of 2004. Those present will testify that we were all part of a wonderful case of mass dementia. To the critics and public, Millo has been a constant reminder of what the glory of Italian opera is all about, but in this performance she went beyond that. More than just providing a window to the glories of the past, she simultaneously delivered a message: “This is what is at stake, and we must protect it.” The sacred fire burned within her, and she set us all aflame.
The ovations, the loudest I have been a part of to date, served as confirmation that we had received the message—and if we needed further translation, Millo later told the New York Times, “Classical music and especially opera need to be defended. It is nothing to be apologized for.”
Needless to say, I made it my business to secure a meeting with this remarkable woman to help deliver her message to a new generation of singers. Thinking of this turn of events, I stumbled upon a flower stand and purchased a bouquet of flowers, which sat on my lap as I awaited Millo’s arrival.
Soon enough, I found myself sitting before one of the most charming, passionate, and down-to-earth human beings I have ever encountered, and our previously arranged 45-minute meeting quickly turned into four hours. I wish it had been longer, but I was attending a performance that night, and Millo practically shoved me into a cab so I would make it in time. As the cab drove away, I looked back and watched her in the early evening light as she became a part of the great miracle that is New York City. Sometimes they don’t know how good they have it.
What events led to your fairy tale debut as Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra on Dec. 3, 1984?
The night before, I received word that the singer I was covering wasn’t feeling well. I went to sleep thinking nothing of it, since she was a great and dependable artist. As events would have it, the next morning I was called to arms: The poor folks who took me to a quick rehearsal were crossing their fingers. At the time I was horrible, rehearsing. I shut down and gave nothing, so they thought me very green. I wasn’t, and I said to two of the directors: “It will be less than I want but much more than you expect!”
During my time at the Met, I had developed great friendships. They knew that I loved the “old school” and hoped to be a singer in that tradition. Nina Lawson outfitted parts of my dress from costumes of Tebaldi’s and Milanov’s, and getting the “bocca’l lupo” from my teacher, Rita Patane, and the “Absolutely, you are ready!” from David Stivender was all I needed to hear. I was where I was meant to be from the day I was born.
Sherrill Milnes had rehearsed with me, and he gave me the greatest look of surprise when he saw the confident performer I became that night. The audience too was excited and roared their approval. When the curtain came down, I was thrilled for having failed no one who had believed in me: especially, Jimmy [Levine]. After the formal round of curtain calls, he delayed leaving the stage until I reached him, and just closed the great gold curtain and let me stand there to the roars of the crowd. An unforgettable night!
Critics said your debut marked the return of a singing tradition not heard since the days of Tebaldi and Milanov.
When the first reviews compared me with Milanov, Ponselle, and Tebaldi I was honored. People don’t get reviews like that. I wasn’t copying, but I had been influenced by their great art. People used to go to the theater to hear great singing, style, and individual approaches to the music and roles. I couldn’t, so I went to the recordings of the old school and they put their mark on me from an early age. A large part of the audience expressed their happiness and support at hearing this rare quality and expression. This meant a lot, because my duty is to make the audience feel something.
We are bringing to life a blueprint of the composer, who left his soul in the notes. You must put your soul at its service, find the noblest sound, infuse a truth when possible, and go to a better world for the time you’re on stage. If everything goes well, it is a journey that can transfigure and alter a life forever.
I understand you come from a family of singers.
Yes. Both of my parents were great singers, and I studied exclusively with them. Looking back, I had a golden age in my own house. My father, Giovanni Millo, was a mixture of [Aureliano] Pertile and [Enrico] Caruso, and one of the first singers to appear in televised opera, on NBC. Meeting my mother, Margherita Girosi, brought him to Italy, where he worked with Victor De Sabata. Mom’s voice sounded like Claudia Muzio’s. A ballerina who got polio, she became a singer in Vienna studying with [Maria] Jeritza. The last role she taught me was Minnie in La fanciulla del West, and sadly, [it was] the last thing she heard me sing.
Other than my parents, I worked with Rita Patane (an expressive soprano who had studied with Maria Carbone), and David Stivender, the chorus master at the Met. Today, my vocal guardian is Bill Schuman, a brilliant teacher who studied with Luisa Franceschi-Verna, herself a student of [Arturo] Melocchi and [Luisa] Tetrazzini.
How did you transition from student to professional singer?
I was lucky to have sung for Larry Stayer, who convinced me at 23 to be a part of the Young Artist Program at the Met. In the meantime, I auditioned for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who took me to Von Karajan. After hearing me, he literally put his head in his hands and snapped: “You are not an apprentice!” With their help, I made my European debut in Karslruhe as Aida and at La Scala as Elvira in Ernani.
When I returned to the Met, I began to doubt if things were working out for me in the Young Artist Program, until Jimmy Levine asked to speak with me in his office. This proved to be the meeting that changed my life.
“You have a rare voice and you can put your stamp on a whole period of history here. Give me this period in your life to prepare for a big future, and I will make you the Verdi soprano of this house.”
I wasn’t stupid. James Levine is the salvation of Italian music and the closest thing we have today to Tullio Serafin. I trusted his incredible instinct and did as he instructed. I made my Met debut with him at 26, and 23 years later still represent the great traditions for the Italian Wing in that gorgeous historic house.
As a developing artist did you struggle to master any aspect of your voice?
The very early voice was a mezzo, with a warm and beautiful middle, if I may say. Not until seventh grade did I become interested in coloratura. I became very smitten with a handsome young man who loved Joan Sutherland, so we would sit for hours running scales, going up to high Ds and E-flats. In the process, I became enamored of the Bel Canto period.
Later on, I became good friends with Louise Caselotti, one of Callas’ great friends during her early career. I would spend a lot of time at her apartment in order to hear all the stories. In the process, Louise taught me all the coloratura tricks that Callas had learned in those early days. Skills like “the goat,” and how to make the transition for all the notes.
“The goat?” Like the animal?
Yes! It’s the coloratura technique that you hear when Callas sings, say, the chromatic scale at the end of “Casta Diva.” You can hear every single note on a puff of air but still within a legato gesture. It gives you a facility that is unheard of, which I used whenever I had the honor of singing Il trovatore, Luisa Miller, or Il pirata.
We’re not used to big voices singing florid music nowadays. Sadly, young singers find themselves being discouraged from developing a large sound.
People don’t know what to do with young dramatics, for the most part. The course here, and around the world, dictates that vocal conservation for young voices is in Mozart. This is one of the most difficult and exacting disciplines in music for the voice, and you must have a voice for Mozart. Most teachers will know what I mean by that.
So restricting a larger voice to adhere to Mozartian discipline in the early days may steer bigger voices the wrong way?
It all depends on the kind of voice. Mozart is for a master. Bel Canto is what should be everyone’s first association with music. Singing the even lines and legato, pure tones, and homogenous quality required for Bel Canto is medicine for the voice. I find this best for keeping baby spintos and tenors in a discipline that allows them to grow without breaking their spirits or taxing their young throats.
This allows for a beautiful transition, a healthy sense of line and legato, and encourages “on the breath” singing, which is nowadays asked for—but what I hear in some is a lazy vowel. The young ones rely on using the muscle to “push” it out, and when their youth ebbs they literally cannot sing. So “on the breath” singing is the salvation, and allows the voice to grow along normal lines for a future in Verdi and possibly even Wagner.
What does the term Bel Canto mean to you?
It developed in Italy in the late 16th century. Castrati and later all voices had to adhere to an expectation and display of technique. More athletic to begin with, Marchesi and Garcia aimed to find how the freest sound could be emitted from a human throat, producing a perfectly homogenous sound with no visible interruptions in color or fluidity. The training began as vocal scales meant to encourage a type of “beautiful singing,” and evolved into a total expectation from the composers who wrote with this criterion in mind.
The music written by Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti managed the informed and emotional approach to the music—a display of prowess wed to a melancholy. The search was for beauty and technical display rather than volume, all bound by recitativo, cavatina, da capo with invention, and then cabaletta. This evolved into what I like to call the veristic Bel Canto of Verdi.
The early Verdi operas are models of true Bel Canto. Lower voices existed in the Bel Canto period . . . [they] were even lower and considered mezzo, but subdivided into alto, contralto, and contraltino (usually considered the tenor). Today, the schools are confused and sometimes make bad decisions for their students.
Along with Bel Canto, the term “Verdi soprano” is sometimes overused. Is there such a thing?
Verdi requires a Bel Canto voice capable of thrusting past a more layered orchestra and encompasses a complete, lyrico-spinto soprano with agility, adept at handling the very contrasting requests of his declamatory phrases and cantilenas, while wed to moments of the most lyric and piano of expressions.
My teacher, Bill Schuman, tells me that his teacher, Luisa Franceschi-Verna, had a student who possessed a wonderful, dark-quality voice, the type one would think perfect for Trovatore. She started singing Trovatore, and Luisa comes screaming out of the back room: “What’s the matter with you? You don’t have the right-colored voice to sing this!” The old school took it all very literally: “You don’t sing Verdi if you don’t have a Verdi voice.” Some young singers darken their sounds unnaturally, which is disaster. Sing with your voice!
You developed strong friendships with Renata Tebaldi and Magda Olivero. Did you also study roles with them?
Yes. With Magda, I discussed Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, and hopefully, soon Manon Lescaut. Magda is very special. The voice is very unique, with a soul and expression that were admired even by the composers who heard her sing their music. Her ability to go from the very piano and take it to forte, married with the understanding of the word, is riveting. She is an amazing artist and a lovely friend.
I met Renata briefly before my debut in Europe by introduction of Carl Battaglia and later with Eugene Kohn. She agreed to work with me, and I was greatly honored to be the first person she ever trained. I worked with her first on Andrea Chénier, then Otello, and later “Forza.” The last conversation I had with her was regarding “Fanciulla.” She enjoyed singing that role tremendously, and thought that I would be splendid in it.
I agree! I was part of the audience that night at Carnegie Hall when you revealed your Minnie to the world. It remains among the great nights at the opera for me.
Thank you so much. That night, I was singing for my mother, who was in the final stages of her brave battle with cancer. She had always wanted me to sing this role, and used to say: “You are Minnie. You have this warmth and this sweetness. You don’t know how pretty and special you are!” I wanted to sing it for her, and as fate would have it, “Fanciulla” was the last opera she would hear me sing.
She sat in the third row, dressed like Lohengrin in a beautiful complé [ensemble] of silver, and thinking only of her I became completely unafraid and put my heart into everything I sang. And then, after the orchestra signaled the end of the second act, following the “Tre assi e un paio,” the roof came off. It was one of the most exciting things, because, you know, when you give your all, then, to hear the public go crazy.
At the end of the night, I threw my flowers to her, and the audience gave her a big ovation. To have my mother meet the applause for the last time marks that as a legendary show for me. There was a friend of mine in the audience yelling so loudly he subsequently lost his voice for about two months. Afterwards he told me: “We can’t thank you enough for what you did that night. You have the courage to release everything that you were feeling, all the emotions that you had, with that beautiful Italian sound.”
He’s right: The world is always telling us to not make sound, that we have to look a certain way, that we cannot do this or that, to not stand out. But that night, the audience felt the great emotions of Puccini’s girl, felt the rapture of great music, and they erupted. They felt great joy, and unafraid, responded to my emotion. It was such a victory.
The operatic atmosphere we’re living in today focuses too much on pushing visual innovation towards the forefront, frequently to the detriment of the work at hand. How do you handle yourself when faced with productions of this nature?
I leave or I make them change it, if possible. I recently took part in a production in France where the stage was made of rubber. The smell of petroleum was so unbearable that it literally took your voice away.
The famous tenor scheduled for the entire run of 16 performances sang only 7 and complained bitterly about the scent. I spoke loudly in rehearsal about the idiocy of having a staging rank [as] more important than the health of the singers, and I’m sure made myself very unpopular. I succumbed to the smell after only one performance.
I worry that directors are using opera as a means of getting any work at all and they inflict on these masterpieces their unique “visions.” Nothing is allowed to be what it is. The big, unwashed masses are supposedly bored and will come only if motorcycles ride alongside the Nile for Aida. Opera will survive these rampant egos run amok, but it will take some time.
The other concern nowadays centers around a singer’s girth.
It is a real dilemma today. People are casting more for the look than the quality and correctness of the instrument. They want a Stradivarius in the body of a ukulele. One doesn’t have to be obese, but it does take a bit of weight to support the larger repertoire. Opera must go forward but remain authentic, and ultimately, my loyalty is to the composer, not the camera or the recording mic. One prays that the people doing the casting remember the core audience, otherwise you will find voices ruined because they deceived themselves into the wrong repertoire. Looking the part doesn’t provide protection, and there’s no getting past roles being sung by voices too small to fill them.
I understand the move to encourage people to attend opera by filming and broadcasting the great art to places unable to enjoy it first-hand. I tend to think of it as a sample of what it would be like to experience it live in the theater. That is where opera is at its full seduction, the victory of a human being standing on stage with 100 or more people singing over an 80-piece orchestra in front of 4,000 people, all without a mic. It remains the last bastion of unplugged human communication.
How has your voice changed throughout your career?
The voice is larger now but has stayed fresh, thanks to having spaced my performances well. The natural progression of my kind of voice at my age is to branch off into verismo. It isn’t that the Verdi is not there. I just want to sing verismo with a fresh, young voice. I hope that, like Milanov’s, my voice retains its natural height as I grow old. Even she said, “I think you’re going to sing for a very long time because you sing very well and you don’t go outside your box. Where you will have trouble is emotionally.” She was right. Because of a little less stage time, nerves come into play more than before, and have made the piani for which I am famous not as easy to do. You need to be on stage in front of the beast with all your courage intact, because fear is the worst thing for a singer.
Take Callas. She said nothing she ever did was without nerves. She felt every performance was a very noble battle. I saw one of those comeback recitals she did, and I’ve never seen that kind of a power and charisma from an artist trying to seduce a very divided audience. Yet her desire to express something to you from within her was so great, you forgot the earthly things around you, and you didn’t want to move until she had finished her expression. The piano would finish, she would stop singing, but her hands would still be moving to extend the impact of her final gesture. No one moved. It became a journey, something bigger than the opera experience altogether, and she won. I loved her.
A similar thing happened when Leonie Rysanek was on stage. She sang, in the first Wagner experience that I had, as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and when she came out to sing “Dich, teure Halle,” it was no longer an aria. This was a woman exulting in a memory of her lover’s voice in that room, a room that had held the man she adored.
I had always thought that Wagner was very layered and magnificent music that I didn’t necessarily understand, until she started singing it. And at the end of the “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” she began to exit upstage, yet instead of getting smaller, she got bigger as she walked away because she was depicting the growth in stature of the soul of Elisabeth, her transfiguration, portrayed in this optical illusion brought off by total commitment, acting even with her back. The audience was aware of what was happening, and was drenched with emotion by the time she left.
Would you say that this sort of magic is missing today?
That, and a sense that singers should be unafraid of the spotlight. Everyone today is taught not to want it: “I’m singing, don’t look!” Diva is now an earthly term, signifying no mantle of divinity but an ordinary person singing. They become media stars with scandals and controversy, yet little music is ever discussed. Stars used to know their worth and make you feel special just by hearing the amazing gifts they had.
In 2001, I was part of a memorial gala dedicated to one of my first agents, the legendary Nelly Walter. I have enough of a sense of grandness when I sing, and I believe God is present in the gift I am able to share, but that afternoon the best example of humble but assured knowledge of one’s gift was given by the great Leontyne Price. She walked on stage knowing that she had the most gorgeous instrument to share with you—and there was this unabashed sense of: “I am presenting to you the very precious and rare. Be present and receive.” And it’s not arrogance at all. She knew her blessing, and you knew that you were in the presence of greatness. She brought it all, in memory of Nelly, who had been her first and greatest champion, and she had not forgotten. There she was, everything that she represented, still glowing in her throat like a ruby. That’s what’s missing today.
You have established a great career in this difficult profession. With success, however, come sacrifices and compromises. Do you regret anything?
My only great sadness so far is not having had children. I assume for now, turning 50 this year, my children will have to be the operas I have served. They are my lovers, too. I literally went from high school to the stage, and so I missed having a private life. New York has watched me grow up.
My early press lauded me as a rare and great voice that would be of significantly important service to the Italian repertoire all over the world. I [will] have been [singing] for 25 years in 2009. I even took time away from the stage to find out what it was all about to have a private life, but found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Life is an adventure. People are divinity. Not everything is rose-colored glasses. We are at war, yet people say opera plots don’t make sense. Art itself must compromise to exist, which makes me very afraid. Yet in every dark corner there is hope. The master painter gives us dark to see the light and light to see the dark in a painting.
A person’s heart and soul is sacred. Their pursuit of what makes them “ring” and “sing” is their divine right. My acceptance of them rests in the brilliance of their smile or the gleam in their eye, not how much money or power they have. My service to this tapestry is to give it some extra color, nuance, and a sense of magic. That is what opera has brought to my life: a sense of magic. I will be forever humble to God for that blessing.
Daniel Vasquez is a freelance writer specializing in operatic interpretation and voice production. He currently resides in Atlanta, Ga. with his feline companion, Pugsley, who only likes Baroque music.
From Mundoclasico.com Mr. Tomalino of Gioconda, 2007
“Todo lo contrario sucedió con Aprile Millo, quien tuvo a su cargo sólo una de las representaciones programadas por el coliseo neoyorquino. A estas alturas de su carrera la diva neoyorquina esta mas allá del bien y del mal, y si bien el complejo personaje le obliga a una vocalidad que no es la suya, ha querido debutar en la escena un rol que había cantado una sola vez en concierto. Contra todos los pronósticos, Millo demostró una extraordinaria capacidad para responder con dignidad a las exigencias de la cantante errante. La soprano americano no solo cantó con gusto, sino que hizo una interpretación de fuerte impacto dramático que terminó convirtiéndola en la verdadera triunfadora de esta reposición neoyorquina. En años no se ha oído un ‘E una Anatema…’ y un ultimo acto con la pasión y la entrega con la cual Millo concibió su personaje. Su ‘Suicidio’ incluso destacó por su línea melódica, su cuidadoso fraseo y una excelente proyección de la voz.”