John Bills, Artistic Director of Opera San Miguel
By Shari Alexander
As Opera San Miguel celebrates the fifth anniversary of John Bills as its artistic director, I spoke with the former Metropolitan Opera tenor about his first five years, his flagship event Concurso San Miguel, and his hopes and plans for the future.
Shari Alexander: As you look back on the past five years, what do you count as your major accomplishments?
John Bills: When the board asked me to become artistic director, my first priority was to put OSM on a firm foundation capable of supporting growth. It’s not very sexy to talk about these internal details, but we tossed out the old Asociación Civil charter and replaced it with one that more accurately reflected our mission (moving from an event producer to a nonprofit charitable educational organization); we transformed the board of directors to make it more involved and effective; we stabilized our finances and created new fundraising initiatives; and we had serious internal discussions to define what our mission statement should be going forward. I saw our purposes as being two-fold: 1) to discover and assist the most promising and talented young singers in Mexico, through education, career advancing initiatives, and performing opportunities and 2) to inspire and energize our audience through public events and concerts. Since then, we have grown from a small regional contest to one of national, and now international, recognition. I have invited a group of international opera luminaries to form an advisory board. We have expanded our outreach to opera companies and training programs around the world, opening up many new opportunities for our singers. Our main focus remains Concurso San Miguel. I am particularly proud of the Gala with Orchestra that we presented two years ago, and this year’s Opera San Miguel IN CONCERT! series.
SA: Have you had any disappointments along that road?
JB: Not disappointments per se, but I had hoped that by the five-year mark, we would have grown enough to produce a fully-staged opera starring the singers we have discovered through the Concurso. My main focus is to offer our singers a vital educational experience, not to simply sell tickets for an event that might have only marginal benefit to our singers’ long-term progress. We have made significant strides towards that goal, again mostly behind the scenes: we have supported, in whole or in part, significant renovations to our home theater, the Angela Peralta. So on the practical side, we are very nearly there. The missing piece is adequate funding to produce the opera, which will include a capital investment. But I have some ideas I will be presenting to the board this year. Let’s say I am cautiously optimistic.
SA: Tell me more about the contest. How does Concurso San Miguel differ from other contests in Mexico?
JB: First, we are entirely privately funded through individual donations and from a growing number of business partners. We are the only contest that does not accept government support. As such, we have a reputation for being transparent, objective, and unbiased in the awarding of our grants. Each year, I assemble a prestigious group of judges from around the world, none of whom have any personal prejudice or agenda. This is a big reason we have become the most respected contest in Mexico. Our finalists have coaching, master classes, and career counseling with our judges and master teachers. My board and I take the view that the money our donors provide is being invested in the careers of these young people. We have seen winners of Concurso San Miguel be accepted into the finest conservatories in the world and make important debuts in opera companies in the US and Europe, including the Metropolitan Opera! For example, four of our singers are presently enrolled in Plácido Domingo’s training program in Valencia, Spain, coaching with and singing alongside the legendary singer. Frankly, I could not have dreamed that we would have come so far in five years. Our reputation has grown so much that the most prominent tenor singing today, Javier Camarena, came to San Miguel last spring to give a master class with several of our prize winners. What an affirmation of what we are doing!
SA: If you don’t mind talking about it, you had some health issues this year. What happened, and how are you doing now?
JB: No, I don’t mind talking about it. I’d rather your readers hear it from me than from rumors on the street. I had been experiencing some chest pain last fall, and my doctor sent me for a stress test, where I promptly had a heart attack. Luckily, I was already in the hospital and received immediate care. On October 27, I had open-heart surgery, a triple bypass. The surgery was a complete success. I started back to work this year not only with a new lease on life but a renewed heart for the work of Opera San Miguel.
SA: Before we close, is there anything else you would like to say?
JB: None of what we have done in the past five years could have been accomplished without the invaluable labors of others. First, your generosity and the work of my wife, who has thrown herself into this project, by being the brains and inspiration behind our fund-raising, our special events, our party planning, our public relations. I also want to recognize my company manager, Alberto Pacheco. Al does much more than manage the daily details of OSM. I have been so fortunate to have an energetic and supportive board of directors, headed by the tirelessly enthusiastic Álvaro Nieto as president of OSM. And finally, I’d like to extend my deepest appreciation to the Angels of the Opera and to our important business sponsors, particularly Rosewood, La Puertecita, The Restaurant, and Matilda, without whose generosity and passionate support we could not exist.
Coming soon from Opera San Miguel:
Jan 23, 2nd Annual Mexico-Canada Co-OPERA-tive Concert. 2pm, Auditorio Miguel Malo, Bellas Artes, 75 Hernández Macías. Tickets on sale now, La Conexión, Aldama 3.
Feb 6, Franco-Russo Concert. Opera scenes by Poulenc and Tchaikovsky. 2pm, Auditorio Miguel Malo, Bellas Artes, 75 Hernández Macías.
March 5, Concurso San Miguel 2016. Final Round! 7:30pm, Teatro Angela Peralta. Tickets on sale Feb 15 at the Peralta box office.
March 19, Concurso 2016 Winners’ Concert. 2pm, Auditorio Miguel Malo, Bellas Artes, 75 Hernández Macías. Tickets on sale now, La Conexión, Aldama 3.