By Charles Oppenheim
“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
John Louis Bills was born in Dunkirk, upstate New York, on Nov. 14, 1948. He enrolled in one of the leading music schools in the United States, the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington.
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.
“I have many memories of my time at the Met,” says John. “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.”
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 and the Concurso
In 2007, John and his wife, Shari, began spending the winter months in San Miguel de Allende. Here, 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 or contest. John was appointed artistic director in 2011.
With the experience of carrying out 12 singing contests, each year increasingly 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.
“Opera de San Miguel is a network of opportunities. Someone once said: ‘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 Oct. 3, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts.