Interview with John Bills, artistic director of Ópera San Miguel
By Jesús Ibarra
Ópera San Miguel is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to discovering the most talented young opera singers in Mexico. Atención spoke with its current artistic director, John Bills.
Jesús Ibarra: How and when was Ópera San Miguel born?
John Bills: OSM began with the idea of presenting staged operas here in San Miguel, but it quickly became clear that our local theater had severe limitations as an opera venue and that the fundraising challenges of presenting opera here were quite daunting. In 2008, my predecessor, Joseph McClain, had the wonderful idea of focusing local interest into creating a national contest for young Mexican singers. We are one of only two opera contests that are exclusively for Mexican singers, the other being the Morelli contest in Mexico City, which has been in existence for more than 50 years. However, I can say that the contestants constantly tell us that ours is the fairest, most efficiently operated, and most beneficial to their careers, both in terms of prizes and experience.
JI: Can you describe the structure of the contest?
JB: To begin, our competition is entirely funded through private contributions, more than 90 percent from individual donors, and the balance from local businesses, through program advertising and donation of services. Our goal is to discover the young opera singers in Mexico who not only have the most talent, but who also possess the strongest potential for a professional career. This year we considered more than 150 applicants from all over Mexico, as well as Mexican nationals living abroad in the US, Canada, and Europe. From the preliminary round we selected 12 finalists who will return to San Miguel de Allende for an entire week, during which we will give them musical, dramatic and language coaching, master classes and professional career counseling, all conducted by recognized international opera professionals. At the end of the week we hold a gala public concert at which substantial prizes are awarded. Perhaps the most important difference between us and other contests in Mexico is that we don’t just hand the winners a check and send them on their way. Before we release the prize money, we require that each winner present a proposal as to how they will use their grant. The project(s) they are asking us to fund must have clear and demonstrable career-advancing potential. We take the view that we are investing in their careers and that we not only have a responsibility to the winners, but we also have a fiduciary responsibility to our donors to invest their contributions wisely. Our principal donors are Los Ángeles de la Ópera, Angels of the Opera, each of whom contributes a minimum of US$1,000/MN 12,500 annually. This group, which was created in 2011 by its director, Shari Alexander, is the engine behind the success of Concurso San Miguel.
JI: What skills or talents must a participant have?
JB: Each applicant must have musical and voice training at the college level and must be recommended and have their repertoire be approved by their teacher. We only accept singers who are Mexican citizens or who have lived in Mexico for a minimum of five years. To become a finalist, the applicant must demonstrate a voice of high potential for an operatic career; musicianship and musicality of a very high caliber; dramatic ability and stage deportment; and facility in at least three languages common to opera, i.e., Italian, French, German, English, Russian, or Czechoslovakian. In addition they must have that special “something” that is difficult to quantify objectively, but that you recognize when you see it, that makes them a unique performer.
JI: Who are the judges?
JB: My team for the first round consists of myself, Joseph McClain, and John Daly Goodwin, all of us residents of San Miguel de Allende, and all of us veterans of international careers in music. For the final round we are joined by special invited judges from Mexico and around the world who are also recognized experts in opera at the international level. For instance, in past years we have been joined by Gilda Cruz-Romo, the most celebrated Mexican soprano of the last 50 years; James Wright, artistic director of Vancouver Opera; and Sharon Thomas, stage director at San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. Last year we were joined by legendary American bass Paul Plishka, who had just retired after 45 consecutive seasons as a leading bass at the Met and dozens of the world’s most important opera houses. Our invited judges often conduct master classes with our finalists during Concurso week, through our “Master Teacher Program,” generously sponsored by Rosewood San Miguel de Allende.
JI: What do they evaluate?
JB: When listening to singers we evaluate first and foremost the voice, including such factors as quality, pitch, diction, range, consistency, power, breath control, stamina and flexibility. The general public does not often think of opera singers as athletes, but many of the same qualities that make a great athlete are also necessary for an operatic career. We also judge the singers’ expressiveness and ability to communicate to the audience. One of the most rewarding aspects of working with young Mexican singers is their ability to express the out-sized emotions of opera in a very natural and direct way, without a trace of self-consciousness. American singers in general may have more advantages technically and musically, but this kind of expression that comes so naturally to Mexican singers can’t be taught; it’s in their genes.
JI: What benefits will the winners or participants in the contest obtain?
JB: First, every finalist leaves Concurso week a winner by virtue of the week of coaching and master classes they receive. I have had many singers tell me that this was the greatest week of their lives, and they didn’t win a prize! For the actual winners, each year we award career grants and performance opportunities in excess of MN 150,000, and a big addition to their résumés!
JI: Has Ópera San Miguel ever performed or organized any other event or activity besides the contest?
JB: In recent years we have performed two free public concerts in the Jardín, once for the dedication of Cañada de la Virgen, and just this past December we presented a Christmas concert featuring four winners of our Concurso. We have also presented a number of fundraisers at Rosewood San Miguel, including “The Two Tenors” and last year’s “Kings of Opera.”
JI: Have you performed any professional opera programs in San Miguel?
JB: On March 19, 2014, we will present a grand Opera Gala with full orchestra and chorus, and starring 10 past winners of Concurso San Miguel. This will be a coproduction with the Conservatorio de Música de Celaya, with a second performance in Celaya on March 20. Rather than being the usual parade of opera arias and ensembles, we will be presenting three complete acts from three masterworks of the operatic repertoire: Act IV of Rigoletto, Act IV of Carmen, and Act III of Aida. This gala will not only provide valuable performing experience for our singers, but it will also give them an opportunity to show the progress they have made since our Concurso gave them their first chances.
JI: Does the Teatro Ángela Peralta have the appropriate equipment for supporting the contest or for a professional opera performance?
JB: For the Concurso, yes, unquestionably. For “professional opera performance,” the Peralta is a work in progress, and one of which we are proud to be a part. Opera performance is a three-legged stool: you need excellent singers, you need sets/costumes, and you need an orchestra. Take away one leg and there is no way to call it “professional.” It is one of our goals to present complete opera, with orchestra, produced with the assistance of the members of our prestigious advisory board. In fact, the Peralta was originally designed as a 19th-century opera house, complete with orchestra pit. Over the years it fell into disuse and was covered over, and the space was used for storage. But in fact it is a perfectly sized pit for a 25- to 28-piece orchestra, ideal for any Mozart, most bel canto-period orchestras (Don Pasquale is scored for an orchestra of 25), even early Verdi, plus many other scores for which reductions exist. This is repertoire that is ideal for our young singers.
JI: Is the contest open to the public in general?
JB: Yes, of course. The Concurso final round will be held on March 8 at 7:30pm. Tickets will go on sale at the Peralta box office on February 21. I encourage people to buy tickets early because we always sell out within a few days.
JI: How can participants register?
JB: Singers can register for Concurso San Miguel 2015 beginning next October on our website: www.operasanmiguel.org.
John Bills and his wife have owned a home in San Miguel de Allende since 2007, and they currently live here for six months each year. He retired as a tenor from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 2004, where he had sung for 26 seasons and some 5,000 performances. His arrival in San Miguel more or less coincided with the first Concurso in 2008, and Joseph McClain invited him to join him in the judging. He later became assistant artistic director and then succeeded him as artistic director in 2011.
Opera San Miguel has a proven record of discovering singers who have gone on to wonderful achievements here and abroad. Here is a partial list of accomplishments of finalists and/or winners of Concurso San Miguel:
- Four singers currently on full four-year scholarships at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia (AVA), the most prestigious and exclusive opera training program in the US;
- One singer on full two-year scholarship in the graduate opera studies program at Mannes College of Music in New York City;
- The leading tenor of the Bucharest National Opera in Romania;
- One singer in Placido Domingo’s opera training program in Valencia, Spain;
- One finalist in Placido Domingo’s Operalia international voice contest in Beijing, China;
- Over a dozen debuts at the Opera de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, including two more coming up in March