sideNotes: Sherill Milnes on the subtle art of getting stabbed on stage

By Florian Riem

Visiting the Ningbo International Vocal Competition in China last autumn, I was surprised to find one of my opera idols from 30 years ago on the jury: American baritone Sherrill Milnes. According to the programme, he was supposed to be 88. In reality, he looked exactly how I had remembered him: tall, slender, with a captivating face and that certain bad guy look in his eyes.   

One of his favourite roles was Scarpia – the Chief of Police who gets stabbed by Tosca. I particularly remembered Mirella Freni in that role, but Milnes sang the opera with such sopranos as Renata Scotto, Leontyne Price, Katia Ricciarelli and many others. One of his most famous moments was in the second act, when Tosca, terrified and in a state of panic, picks up a knife from the beautifully set dinner table, hides it behind her back and then stabs Scarpia in cold blood and tells him to die.

For this scene, Milnes developed a way to fall backwards onto a large armchair which would then trip over, shocking the audience and making it look like an accident. “I couldn’t give you a number, but I probably did about 150 performances,” says Milnes. “Not every theatre in the world has the right chair, but probably about half the time I made it work. The problem with it: it must not look like a trick, like an athletic peak of some sort. It has to look like it was an accident, and that’s much harder to do. I would check the chair several times and I would try it. Falling backwards in a chair with a big back, you have to tuck your head and know that there are certain mechanical issues, so you don’t really get hurt. Sometimes you get a bit banged up, but if you’re willing to take a little discomfort or pain, it can be very effective!”

Leontyne Price was one of Milnes´s partners in crime, not only in Tosca, but also in quite a few other works, namely La Forza del Destino. “I remember one night where, of course, she’s my sister and I kill her. I stab her at the end. I’m way upstage, having been wounded by the tenor in a sword fight. I’m almost dying. And then she came up with her back to the audience, looked straight into my eyes and said to me, ‘You sound like a million bucks!’

“After that I had to stab her; I had to kill her, and I felt terrible! She just paid me a huge compliment and then I had to kill her!”