Last winter during an SRO performance of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, the evening's lago, baritone Cornell MacNeil, suddenly huffed offstage at the end of Act I complaining of smoke pollution. He refused to return. The audience waited for an hour and a half and then responded with a thrilling roar when the management announced that Sherrill Milnes would take over. Although Milnes had already sung two performances that week, was scheduled for another the following night and was suffering from a cold, he agreed to pinch-hit in a role he hadn't even glanced at in over a year. "What could I do?" he shrugged. "Opera is like a ball game: You have to go four and a half innings or refund tickets. In this case it would have been a $70,000 disaster." Would that baseball, much less opera, had more stars as selfless as Milnes.
The one star quality that Sherrill lacks is the expected temperament. When his wife, Nancy, a singer herself, chided him for risking what is America's most-recorded baritone voice and—in the Italian repertoire anyway—the world's best, he just grinned: "I could always sing commercials again. 'You get a lot to like with a Marlboro' and 'When you're out of Schlitz you're out of beer' made me a lot of money."
At 43, Milnes has, aside from all his jingles, waxed his way into history (with more than 50 albums) and is booked in opera houses well into 1984. His rise has not followed the traditional route: He was born, trained and established in America before he ever sang in Europe. Though still something of a Midwestern rustic, he performs with marvelous clarity onstage in four languages (Italian, German, French and Russian) and with ever-increasing grace. The 210-lb., 6'2" ex-Illinois farm boy underrates his acting skill and its importance. "If you don't have the voice for these roles," he says, "it doesn't matter how you put on your gloves."
Sherrill grew up pitching hay on his father's dairy farm in Downers Grove, Ill. and listening to old Caruso records. His mother, a piano teacher and church choirmaster, started him on piano, then violin. By high school he had stopped singing boy soprano and could play 14 instruments. After one unhappy semester as a premed student, Milnes switched to music education at Drake University in Des Moines, graduating with an M.A. and planning to teach. He married his hometown sweetheart in college and began to draw attention singing with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Santa Fe Opera, then crisscrossing the U.S. with Boris Goldovsky's and other small companies. In 1965 he made a breakthrough debut at the Met.
From there Milnes conquered the Continent and renewed an old acquaintance with Nancy Stokes, a Fulbright scholar and former choirloft colleague at Drake. When their romance flourished, he got a divorce. "We were recording Traviata in Rome," he recalls, "and I would ride Nancy on my motorcycle to the recording studio. One day a tire blew, the bike flipped and Nancy was thrown backward. I guess when I saw her lying unconscious I realized the relationship was no longer casual."
The couple and son Shawn, 6, make their home in an "embarrassingly large" 14-room Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River. One of the rooms is a mini-gym. ("You have a bigger career," he believes, "if you keep your figure.") Not that he overemphasizes business. "I try to limit opera performances to 60 a year now that Shawn is in school," says Milnes. The relationship between him and his first wife is friendly, and she often brings son Eric, 19, and daughter Erin, 13, to their father's performances.
Professional and family responsibilities notwithstanding, Milnes seems unable to give up the motorcycle. "In Iowa," admits opera's most valuable baritone, "where you don't have to wear a helmet and there's little traffic, I still love to ride. After my accident in Rome some of the managers and record executives asked me if I couldn't cool the motorcycle bit. I promised that I wouldn't own one but not that I wouldn't ride one."
He once sang other classics—Marlboro and Schlitz jingles