The News-Leader’s Answer Man: Springfield’s most famous opera singer

Morning News

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — I had never seen a real Grammy until Wednesday, when I visited James Billings in his Springfield home.

I can’t say I touched his Grammy, although photographer Andrew Jansen did. He positioned it for a better photo.

Billings, 87, won a Grammy in 1987 for a recording of the operetta “Candide,” which was performed by the New York City Opera. He and several others were recognized.

Billings, a Springfield native, lived out his life’s dream and performed for the New York City Opera from 1972 to 1990.

In 1990, he and his wife Judy returned to Springfield to run the Springfield Regional Opera from that year to 1996. James was artistic director and Judy was executive director.

If the name “Billings” sounds familiar, it’s because his father was James Billings, who worked for The Daily News and the Leader and Press – which became the News-Leader – from 1927 to 1976. He died in 1988.

Longtime News-Leader columnist Hank Billings, who worked for the News-Leader for 74 years, was the brother of the elder James Billings and the uncle of opera singer James Billings. Hank Billings died in June 2017 at 91.

“He taught me how to fly,” James Billings says of his uncle Hank, who often wrote about his love of flying. “But it scared the hell out of me.”

Nope, he says, he never gave much thought to journalism.

He remembers, not necessarily fondly, working briefly at the paper during a strike. His father, who was in management, worked and James the son came in to set type.

“I had to find a safe place to park my car,” he says.

Nevertheless, the younger Billings has written and published five children’s operas.

By the time Billings was at Springfield High School, on Central Street, he was an accomplished pianist.

As a teenager, he knew he wanted to someday sing professionally.

He attended Wichita State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in music and then obtained a master’s in music at Boston University.

It was in Boston that he became friends with Sarah Caldwell, a Missouri native who formed the Boston Opera and later became the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

“When she went to New York she wanted me to go with her,” Billings tells me. “I did and from that point on I was busy. Singing became the rest of my life.”

At first, he traveled the country to perform.

“But I got tired of that,” he says. “I don’t like traveling.”

Let me pause here before I go further. I don’t think I’ve fully conveyed the professional stature achieved by our native son James.

He performed with and became close friends with legendary opera star Beverly Sills, who died in 2007.

He has performed with Placido Domingo during Domingo’s debut in the United States in a production of “Tosca.”

And as a longtime news reporter, I couldn’t help but notice that in his study hangs the Feb. 23, 1976, front page of the New York Times.

It includes a story, with two photos, about Billings. He performed in two different operas on the same day.

The headline reads: “Baritone Doubles in ‘Meistersinger’ and ‘Pinafore.'”

“That’s why you pay a publicist,” Judy tells me.

Nearby in the study is an enlarged copy of a story in the New Yorker published Nov. 26, 1990. It is written by a reporter named Tim Page, with the Washington Post, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for music criticism in 1997.

Several times in his career, Billings played the comic relief role of Ko-Ko in the opera “The Mikado.” The New Yorker story reads:

“But Mr. Billings’ level of command, variety of tone and pacing, eschewal of gags that do not arise from Ko-Ko’s situation and zest for the role after many, many performances must surely count as rare; and what he represents – the corps of players who can do ordinary and necessary things really well – is all the more important in the traditional branches of musical theatre as we are gradually forced to do without it.

“… As it happens, we may have to do without Mr. Billings as Ko-Ko; after more than a hundred roles at City Opera since 1972, he has declared his intention to retire and devote himself to producing opera in his native Missouri. The production, which has remained delightfully free from much of the staleness that can afflict comic opera at State Theatre, may still be a gem without its Ko-Ko. But where, we wonder, shall they find another?”

Billings is a baritone, which is the middle-range voice for males; it lies between bass and tenor, overlapping both.

Specifically, Judy tells me, Jim was a “buffo baritone,” which simply means the character in the opera is intrinsically comic – “buffo” coming from the word “buffoon.”

“Comedy has been something that I love,” he says. “I want people to laugh. I want people to be happy. I enjoyed doing what I did.”

The couple had lived in a New York City apartment with a view of the Hudson River and only a 10-minute walk from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where New York City Opera staged its show.

A big reason they left Gotham in 1990 was because of a monstrous hike in city taxes, they say. As a result, their rent went from $800 a month to $2,600.

Billings was making good money at the time, he says, but there was another factor in their decision to move to Springfield.

“The roles that I had always wanted to do – since college – I had already done,” he says.

He and Judy have been married 32 years. She is from Cincinnati.

Like Jim, she went to New York City to make a career as an opera singer.

“I was never at the level he was,” she says.

In Springfield, they performed together in a Valentine’s show called “Double Billings.”

He last performed in a full-time role in 2004-05 in the “Pirates of Penzance” for the Syracuse (New York) Opera.

He no longer sings, not even in church.

“There comes a point where the voice – at least for most people – just disappears,” he says. “The muscles stop working.”

Life has slowed for Billings. He tells me how delighted he is to have visitors and to be able to reminisce about his career in opera.

Our pleasure, I say.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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