John Bills

(1948-2020)

The Legacy of John Bills: The Voices of San Miguel

John Bills

“Mexican singers possess a rich ‘Latin’ quality and the passion to perform opera in a natural and uninhibited way. They are qualities that, for me, make Mexican singers unique in the world.”

John Louis Bills was born in Dunkirk, upstate New York, on the shores of Lake Erie, on November 14, 1948, and grew up in the town of Canandaigua, where he studied at the local Academy. At a young age he was inclined to the arts and music and in high school he decided to study singing. In 2011 he was honored as a “Graduate of Distinction” in a formal ceremony in their newly completed Theater for the Arts.

He enrolled in one of the leading music schools in the United States, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he studied under the guidance of Professor Charles Kullman (1903-1983), a lyric tenor who made a career in Europe and the United States (where he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1935).

During his academic training, for three seasons John participated in the summer workshops of the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists program, focused on training the most talented singers who plan to pursue an operatic career.

Upon graduation, John learned that there would be an audition to recruit new members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and he signed up. He auditioned along with 400 other young singers. But that year only one was chosen: John Bills.

 

The Met

“I have many memories of my time at the Met—said John—. First and foremost was the privilege of working with David Stivender, who was the most important influence on my musical life, and whose standards, dedication and work ethic challenged me as a musician and informed my understanding of what musical excellence could and should be.”

Stivender had been the director of the Met Chorus since 1973. As a choral director, his responsibility was to prepare the Chorus for the production of some two dozen operas each season. Starting in 1978, Stivender was also one of the Met's conductors specializing in the Verdi and verismo repertoires. From the podium he directed the Met's productions of Il trovatore, Aida, Rigoletto, Don Carlo, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Stivender died in 1990.

What John Bills liked best about his work were the intense musical rehearsals, without the distraction of staging and costumes. But the most memorable moments of his career were several: “I cherish the memory of sharing the stage with the great singers of my generation, and I especially miss the artistry and soul of Tatiana Troyanos, the voluptuous sound of Leontyne Price, the amazing technique of Joan Sutherland, and the searing intensity of Jon Vickers.

“I was proud to appear as a soloist in the videos of Il Trovatore with Luciano Pavarotti, and Francesca de Rimini with Renata Scotto, and as soloist on the Met’s CD recording of Luisa Miller with Placido Domingo. I was especially proud to be asked to sing Parpignol in a gala performance of La Bohème with Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.

“The operas I loved singing were also the most challenging musically and vocally: Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Peter Grimes, Les Troyens, and the Verdi Requiem. I never tired of singing the great Verdi operas, Otello and Aida. The year we toured with the Requiem, and the cumulative effect of singing that incredible music eight times in eight weeks, is something I will never forget.”

John sang more than 5,000 performances in 26 consecutive seasons with the Met Chorus. But he always says that “the decade that I was artistic director of Opera de San Miguel was my greatest passion and joy, for the opportunities that we have provided by opening the doors of many important opera stages of the world to the beauty, color, and passion of the Mexican voices I so dearly love.”

 

San Miguel

Since 2007, John and his wife Shari began spending the winter months in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There, a group of expatriate residents interested in promoting opera established Opera de San Miguel as a private organization that, as of 2008, organizes an annual singing contest for young Mexican talents, called the Concurso. John was appointed artistic director as of 2011.

His goal has always been to discover the most talented young opera singers in Mexico and nurture their professional development. But the main purpose of OSM is not the Concurso itself, but rather discovering and promoting the singers with the greatest potential for a professional career, through scholarships and job opportunities.

“When I was invited to take on the role of artistic director—said John— I saw that it was necessary to streamline the organization and start a new fundraising program that would make OSM a sustainable organization in the future. To begin with, our contest is financed entirely with private resources; more than 90% of our income proceeds from individual donations and the rest from local businesses in San Miguel.

“While it is true that most of our support comes from the expatriate community of San Miguel, the President of Opera de San Miguel is Álvaro Nieto, a Mexican businessman, born and raised in San Miguel. One third of the members of our board of directors is made up of Mexican citizens. And in that sense I have to acknowledge the work of our manager Alberto Pacheco, who oversees the day-to-day operations of OSM, and of our talented musical director and pianist, Mario Alberto Hernández.

“We have an organization called the Angels of the Opera, which is our main fundraising endeavor. My wife Shari Alexander is the director of the organization and her job is to seek sponsors for OSM. The first year we started with fewer than 10 private sponsors. Now we have about 100, thanks to the fact that they have seen results.”

 

The Concurso

With the experience of having carried out 12 singing contests, each year more and more substantial cash prizes have been added, as well as various prizes in kind, such as scholarships for ongoing education, participation in other international competitions, summer workshops, programs for young artists, academic postgraduate programs and, above all, singing opportunities for the winners.

“Perhaps the biggest difference we have from other competitions—John has said—is that we don’t just give the winners a check, but we require that they present us with a proposal on how they plan to use their prize money. Those projects must be clearly related to their career development. Our way of looking at it is that we are investing in their careers and we also have a fiduciary responsibility to our donors to invest their resources wisely.

“We must be doing something right, because in these years we have gone from being a small local singing contest to one of national recognition and, now, with international incursions. There are so many variables and intangibles that come into play in the career of an opera singer that you can never ignore the most arbitrary of them: luck; being in the right place at the right time.

“The first time I sang for the Met —John recalled—, I participated in an open audition with more than 400 singers from all over the United States. Later I found out that there was only one vacancy, and that I had been chosen. Could you say that I was chosen because I was ‘the best’ in an objective, empirical sense? Of course not. I had a combination of characteristics and skills, and I was there at the particular time the Met Chorus was looking for those qualities. Beyond that, I was ready, in terms of training and musical and acting skills. But I have never forgotten that I was also very lucky.

“Opera de San Miguel is a network of opportunities. Someone once said, and I think it’s a great phrase, ‘What is luck? Luck is the convergence of preparation and opportunity. If you're not ready when the opportunity presents itself, you may be out of luck. They go together.’ That—providing opportunities—is what I think we are doing for our singers.”

John Bills, Artistic Director of Opera de San Miguel, passed away on October 3, 2020 in Boston, Massachussetts.