Conductor follows heart, mentors' urging and finds success at Lyric

  • Bill Billingham, assistant conductor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, estimates that he spends six hours each day sitting at the piano keyboard, either practicing, accompanying or performing.

    Bill Billingham, assistant conductor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, estimates that he spends six hours each day sitting at the piano keyboard, either practicing, accompanying or performing. Courtesy of Sharon Huck

Published1/20/2009 12:01 AM

If Bill Billingham ever has to write an essay about "What I Did on My Summer Vacations," he could fill pages with his musical adventures.

As assistant conductor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Billingham focuses on opera during the fall through spring, but come warm weather he heads to the Aspen Music Festival in Colo., the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan's Upper Peninsula or the Midsummer's Music Festival in Door County, Wis., to perform.


He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., where he played tenor saxophone and clarinet in the high school band.

"I enjoyed the social aspects of the band, but I always preferred piano," the Wheaton resident admits. "It seemed more the serious thing to do. I started piano lessons at 7 and they never had to tell me to practice."

For five summers he played the saxophone in the "All-Stars Jazz Band," a public service program sponsored by the Syracuse Parks and Recreation Department.

"They pulled around a trailer that would open up as a stage," Billingham said. "We played in the parks and in nursing homes. It was a great job."

His high school piano teacher steered him to major in music at Oberlin Conservatory. He had begun arranging and conducting at his teacher's request and thought he would become a band leader or music teacher.

"I tried music education for a while," he said. "I did a semester practicum and then dropped music ed and concentrated on a piano degree."

Billingham played the saxophone in the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble, but halfway through college dropped it to focus on piano.

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"Once again the piano won out," he said.

During summers in college, Billingham played piano at an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, in an American Pops Show.

"The last summer the head of the vocal department made me his assistant. I helped with arranging and kind of policed the shows," he said. "I found that I liked playing the piano better than being a boss. But I was making money!"

His college professor didn't like him working there. She wanted him to compete in classical piano and told him that if he didn't try to be a performance major, he'd never know whether he could do it. She also encouraged him to apply to grad school.

At Oberlin, he accompanied voice recitals and enjoyed that work. Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore offered an assistantship in accompanying that covered his tuition. He earned his master's degree in piano performance in two years. From there he moved to the University of Southern California where he earned a doctorate in musical arts. For five years he spent his summers at the Summer Music Festival in Santa Barbara, first as a student and then as an instrumental accompanist.


"A nice summer job for a few years!" he said.

A short-term job teaching and accompanying at the University of Tennessee followed. There he met his future wife, Joleen, who was one of his students.

"We didn't date right away because it was frowned on for a teacher to date a student," he said.

They were married the following year while he was working at Ithaca College.

Billingham had previously been encouraged to study in Europe by a teacher who was now teaching in Hamburg, Germany. She and her husband offered the young couple a room in their basement.

"I had a very American perspective on the world," Billingham said. "They felt I needed to broaden my world view and learn a language. We knew we'd be getting wedding money and it would be a kind of honeymoon to see Europe."

It was in Germany that Billingham was introduced to opera and a whole new world opened to him. He auditioned at the opera house in Cologne but was told that because he knew very little of the opera repertoire, he was too old. He was 30.

The following year he learned more operas, auditioned at smaller opera houses and was hired in Heidelberg.

"In the grading system of Germany, that opera house was a C," he explained. "They did six operas a year. They didn't seem bothered that my German was nonnative."

Here his oldest son, Josh, now 17 and a junior at Wheaton North High School, was born.

After two years, he moved to a larger opera house in Düsseldorf. There his second son, Adam, now 15 and a freshman at Wheaton North was born. Daughter Eliza, 11, in sixth grade at Monroe Middle School, was born in the United States.

When he decided he wanted to return to the United States, he wrote to many opera companies. Chicago's Lyric Opera gave him the most businesslike answer. They wrote, "We would have to hear you play."

He invested in a plane ticket and was thrilled when they offered him a job. That was in the fall of 1995 and he's been there ever since.

As assistant conductor, Billingham helps young singers learn their roles and plays for rehearsals. He describes himself as the orchestra before the singers rehearse with the full orchestra.

"Once the rehearsals get underway, we sit out in the house and become the conductor's ears," he explains. "We try to balance the tones, not to drown out the singers. We also take notes for singers on any language or phrasing problems." During performances, he plays the organ or harpsichord offstage during recitativos.

Billingham's talents can be heard on Feb. 15 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston in a recital of chamber music with the Chicago Philharmonic. They will be performing Mendelssohn's Piano Quartet #3, "Serenade" by Robert Kahn and Dvorak's "Bagatelles."

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