Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Meet our singers: RANDALL BILLS, Don Ottavio

Originally from Fresno, California, tenor Randall Bills was noted by The Seattle Times as an “appealingly lyrical Don Ottavio” for his Seattle Opera debut in Don Giovanni. Like his fellow cast member, Mark Walters (Don Giovanni), Bills also wanted to become a music teacher before he realized he had the potential of being an opera artist. Today, he stands poised on the brink of an impressive international career. We talked with Randall about what it’s like to sing for European opera houses, his character in Don Giovanni, and his desire to inspire others.

You’re new to Seattle Opera, welcome!—What has been your impression of Seattle, the city, so far?
I love it here! Of course everyone is going to talk about the climate as a negative thing, but the weather is pretty close to that of Bremen, northwestern Germany, where I’ve had an apartment since 2010. So I’m used to the cloud and drizzle, but there have been plenty of nice sunny days during my stay here for Don Giovanni. Also the food here in Seattle is just top status!

As another bit of an introduction: Tell us an interesting fact about yourself, something people may not know about you.
Well, I actually once was on How I Met Your Mother. It was the 2005 Halloween episode called “The Slutty Pumpkin.” I’m in a fictitious a cappella group called The Shagarats—we provide entertainment at a rooftop party in that episode. At the time, I was studying in Los Angeles and there were lots of opportunities to do different types of music—caroling gigs, movie scores, TV events, etc. and I knew people who were putting together the group for that show.

You’ve spent several years singing in Germany and other European opera houses; out of those, what's your favorite place to sing so far?
As far as the opera house itself, I love the Teatro Rossini in Pesaro, Italy. Acoustically and visually, it’s just beautiful and the history in that building is amazing. As far as European cities to spend time in, I was recently in London for three months singing with English National Opera; while there, I got to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theatre! That was a check off an old bucket list. For food? I went with a friend to Barcelona for four days in June. The city was very fun, and there was also an incredible tapas place right around the corner from the apartment we had rented. It was so good, we were there four nights in a row.

Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Alexandra LoBianco (Donna Anna) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Tell us about your character—Don Ottavio.
Don Ottavio is placed in an interesting situation early on in the opera. Right at the opening scene (spoiler alert!), Donna Anna and Don Giovanni are seen clearly enjoying a tryst. This is a problem, not only because I'm friends with the fellow "nobleman" Giovanni, but I'm also engaged to Anna. Ottavio has this cavalier code of honor, which he believes in strongly, so he can’t imagine one of his brethren would make advances on his girlfriend, let alone kill the Commendatore. While it seems ever clearer that Giovanni has broken this code, Ottavio wants to be informed, to get all of the facts together before he makes his decision. A lot of people slam him for being a “weak” character; I don’t find that to be weakness; it’s absolute control.

So how does Ottavio respond when Anna tells him that Giovanni attacked her?
Most of Ottavio’s interjections in her recitative are very short. After Anna says, “That’s the person who killed my father,” Ottavio simply responds, “What did you say?” After that, his next thought is, “Is this even possible? What happened? Tell me the story.” He’s definitely holding out for Giovanni and for the honor of his order.

Randall Bills as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
Is there any universal truth in these characters?
I really think there is; I know that audience members will be able to relate to the feelings of these characters and the dilemmas they face (though hopefully not the actual circumstances of events) The events are certainly a bit exaggerated—this is opera and entertainment, after all—and these amped up situations are there to serve the communication of these emotions to the audience. Its just that mundane situations just don’t work so well: they don’t make operas about your roommate who took the last bit of milk from the refrigerator—although there’s potential for a really awesome aria!

Which of Ottavio’s two arias do you find more challenging?
For me “Dalla sua pace” is the most challenging because it’s all about bel canto—beautiful singing—providing that line and always making a pristine sound. There’s no hiding anything in bel canto; every momentary laps of legato is obvious. And that line is a work in progress, you never get it down, there’s still something more to strive for, and that’s what makes the aria difficult.

From left: Evan Boyer (Masetto), Ashraf Sewailam (Leporello), Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
So, once upon a time you wanted to be a high school choir teacher?
Yes, I had a great high school choir teacher myself—Marc Ferguson—and just this last weekend I reconnected with him, he had since moved up here to Seattle. He inspired me so much, and he’s also the one who made me want to pursue music. I studied Music Education in college, but realized that, while I enjoyed teaching music, I didn’t want to do the classroom management aspects that a high school music program required.

I was lucky to have another great mentor, my voice teacher Craig Johnson, who I now realized sort of tricked me into going to USC for a master’s program for voice. I loved performance and further studying of the voice, but even with this degree in vocal performance, I initially resisted the thought of wanting to be an opera singer because I knew it was a difficult and I had always heard there was only a small chance of a career.

I went on to complete a young artist program in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and I was still cautious—I didn’t know what the future held. Even in my first two years of a fest contract in Germany, I had to figure out if I was right to live the singer lifestyle on a daily basis. It was certainly a long path of discovery from high school choir teacher to singing where I am today.

Alexandra LoBianco (Donna Anna), Randall Bills (Don Ottavio) and Elizabeth Caballero (Donna Elvira) in Don Giovanni. Elise Bakketun photo
What’s the difference between being a performer versus an educator?
I really believe that the goals are actually the same: it’s about inspiring! I think that performers like myself were drawn to classroom teaching as a way to inspire students, in much the same way that we were inspired by our mentors. But in the end, not every one of your students in high school choir will want to pursue music, and that can be difficult for some people. I have so much respect for music educators who are constantly investing in these individuals' lives.

As a performer, my goal is still to inspire. But the audience that I’m given now includes those students (we had several local schools in the dress rehearsal performances and it was such a wonderful energy), lovers of opera of all ages, and the upcoming generation of singers, directors, musicians, technical and creative types, administrators, etc. who will continue this art form on. The opera house itself is a classroom for those who will listen and learn, and I hope to be performing, teaching, and learning from it for a long time.

You have one more opportunity to hear Randall Bills sing Don Ottavio--this Friday (Halloween!). All remaining Don Giovanni performance dates include today, Oct. 29, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.