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Alumni Profiles

Randall Bills
Written by Damien Elwood, February 27, 2009

The talented recent Thornton Alumnus takes time out from his busy schedule in Germany to tell us about his time at the Thornton School and his career since.

(The following was taken from an email interview with Randall on February 26, 2009)

Randy, when and what was your last involvement with the USC Thornton Opera Program?

It feels like such a long time now, but my last production with USC was in the spring of 2006, Idomeneo.  I was happy to log on to the Thornton Opera homepage and see a photo from that production staring back at me from my computer screen.

Who did you study with while at the Thornton School and what performances were you involved with?

I studied with Gary Glaze since I arrived at ‘SC to start my masters in 2001.  In that time I was in Flute, Cosi, Cenerentola, The Crucible, Schicchi, Rake’s Progress, Cendrillon, and Idomeneo, sang concerts with the USC Symphony and Early Music Ensemble, directed some of the Chamber Opera Scenes and loved every minute of it.

Where are you living now and what have you done since leaving the Thornton School?

Right now, I live in Würzburg Germany; it’s a city in north-western Bavaria, about an hour east of Frankfurt, two hours northwest of Munich. 

In spring 2006 I decided, on a whim, to audition for the Bayrische Staatsoper Young Artist Program.  The only US auditions were being held in LA and I thought I might as well walk on down to the Dorothy Chandler and sing my two arias.  About a month later I got an email from the company with an attached MSWord document (which I had to translate through google) informing me that I was selected for the year-long program.  I headed to Santa Fe for their Apprentice program that summer, then packed my bags and headed to Munich, Germany.

The program provided great performing experiences and an opportunity to learn the inner workings of the German opera system.  I was fortunate to participate in productions with the Staatsoper including Bohème, Rosenkavalier, La pietra del paragone, Liebe, nur liebe, as well as many concerts, and master classes the program had arranged for us.

After completing my year in the program I was encouraged to audition for agents here in Germany.  My first agent audition was a successful one and I was sent out for my first house audition two weeks later.  After a successful audition at that house I was offered a contract on the spot and I’m now singing here at the Mainfranken Theater.

Is there anything upcoming you would like the readers of this article to know about?

I have a fest contract here in Würzburg (a year long contract where you are ‘on retainer’ to a particular house) so for the rest of this season I’m singing parts in Così fan tutte, Tannhauser, Wünderhorn, and Die Zauberflöte.  I’m singing again next season with the Pasadena Symphony as well, and will be very happy to be back in Los Angeles for a short time.

How did you transition from your involvement at the Thornton School to what you are doing now? Was it an easy transition or a difficult one?

Transitioning from USC to the Santa Fe Apprentice Program to the Bayerische Staatsoper to my current position was a very easy one.  I can only praise the faculty and staff at Thornton for their guidance, support, and professionalism.  I always felt well prepared for the musical and dramatic requirements of an operatic career. But I think that the most important lesson Thornton taught me was the value of being a good colleague.  Being in an educational setting is very much like a fest ensemble: you work with the same people for several years.  Developing good relationships with other singers and being flexible while maintaining your personal professional artistic standards is a valuable lesson that I learned in the Thornton environment.

What did you gain from your time at the Thornton School?

While there are so many things individually that you could list, I think that the greatest thing I gained from USC was the inspiration of the professors I knew while at Thornton.  You can be taught how to overcome a vocal issue, how to react to something one time on stage so as to seem angry, how to interpret a single Fauré song, or how to sing precisely in a particular operatic ensemble.  But how much greater is it to have experienced teachers and mentors like Gary Glaze, Ken Cazan, Alan Smith, and Brent McMunn.  If I have a technical vocal issue, rather than recite a dogma I once learned about singing, I can imagine how Gary would approach and go about this issue as if I were in a lesson.  Can’t make something work on stage? I can imagine the three hundred different things Ken would say to me during a rehearsal to make the scene clear to me.  What historical piece of knowledge would Alan know (or have in a book at arms length) to bring a whole new light to a song or aria I’m performing?  And what can I suggest to make this musical ensemble or orchestral/conductor situation work smoothly?  Certainly there are different interpretations and conducting ideas Brent would bring to this situation. At USC I gained more than just a solution to a one-time problem, I gained people and experiences to draw help from whenever I need it.

What do you now know/understand about the opera world that you wish you had known earlier?

I think I would have benefited from knowing that not everyone in charge is as good as the teachers at ‘SC.  At USC so many people were beyond excellent that I assumed that would be the case in every position I had.  That being said: I’m still working out some sloppy diction drilled into me, against my will, from a very uninformed coach at the Staatsoper.

What is there about the opera world you still wish you knew/understood better?

Sometimes I think it would be nice to know why certain people get selected for this, and that, or how to make your career grow faster, or how do I sing this role or that. But in the end, if I knew all these things, I’d literally be bored.  These challenges simply provide you opportunities for success and I’m thankful for them.

What’s your opinion about the current state of the opera world?

I think the ‘state’ of opera is very much upon us the singers.  People go to opera to hear good voices, yes, but I think more importantly they go to hear that divine nexus of singing, acting intersecting at a transparent soul presented before an audience.  When we allow other things (on and off stage) to hinder our art of being open and vulnerable then it’s time for the public to stop going to opera and to start purchasing recordings.  Frankly there are other people that can sing a roll better than I, but on stage what I bring to a performance is unique, (and I hope) open, transparent and meaningful in some unknown way to those watching.

Who, from your time at the Thornton School, do you keep touch with?

Lots of folks, as Facebook is a marvelous thing!  Being on the other side of the world it’s not always a constant contact with my friends from my time at USC, but I’m very happy when there’s a chance meeting, when someone comes over to Germany for singing or otherwise, or I happen to be back in Los Angeles and have time to get together with friends.

What do you like to do that is not opera career related?

I’m a huge computer nerd, and have occupied a lot of my in-between time here in Germany playing an online MMO (if you think you know what it is, yes, it’s that one).  I also enjoy it because my siblings play as well and we can keep in touch very easily.

Finally, what advice or comments can you offer young opera singers?

I keep trying to come up with some advice, but I keep coming back to: “You’ll know.”  You’ll know when it’s time to take this part or that, which summer program to audition for, why that competition or audition didn’t work out, when it’s time to take a small break from singing only to come back refreshed, and most of all, when you have been successful, you’ll know.

Thank you very much for the invitation to share a bit about my time post USC with those you’re in contact with.  I’d be happy to chat further with students or other individuals about my experiences (through email is easiest).  Feel free to contact me through my website.  Thank you again.

Thanks, Randy! Good luck in Würzburg and with the rest of your exciting career. Stop by and see us when you are back in Los Angeles.

Randall Bills as Tom Rakewell in the USC Thornton Opera production of The Rake's Progress

Randall Bills as Tom Rakewell in the
USC Thornton Opera production of
The Rake's Progress

Related Links:

Randall Bills and Elisa Kaufman as Anne Trulove in The Rake's Progress

Randall Bills with Elisa Kaufman as Anne Trulove
in The Rake's Progress

Randall Bills with Jeong Ran Kim as Baba the Turk ini The Rake's Progress

Randall Bills with Jeong Ran Kim as Baba the Turk
in The Rake's Progress

Randall Bills as le Prince with Gian-Carla Tisera as Cendrillon in the USC Thornton Opera production of Cendrillon. Damien Elwood, photographer

Randall Bills as le Prince with Gian-Carla Tisera
as Cendrillon in the USC Thornton Opera
production of Cendrillon
Damien Elwood, photographer