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From the Other Side of the Opera Stage- Life as a Conductor, Coach and Collaborative Pianist: An Interview with William Hicks

All too often I find myself forgetting that there are many valuable perspectives to be examined in the world of Opera and not just that of the Singer. So today I'd like to introduce you to one such perspective from an interview that I held recently with the very talented Conductor, Coach and Pianist, Maestro William Hicks.

Although his extensive experience with many of the legends of Operatic, Classical and American Music would surely lead you to believe that he holds numerous advanced degrees from Juilliard, Mr. Hicks actually only completed two years of study as a Piano, Voice and Piano Accompanying Major at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and he did not finish high school. (This, of course, just makes his considerable achievements all the more impressive!) He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky; an only child raised by his maternal Grandparents and attended private school until his musical precociousness gained him early acceptance to CCM at age sixteen. Though he had many influential teachers at CCM (Dr. Robert Evans, Ms. Lucille Villeneuve Evans and Jeanne Kirstein), the lure of the big city was strong, and as he puts it, “The minute I turned eighteen I flew the coop!”, leaving CCM and his studies, and moving to New York City to work as a musician.
Unlike the majority of musicians nowadays who spend all of their time studying music performance at college, William chose to invest his energy in his late teens and early twenties in gaining practical work experience. This allowed him to find and build relationships with respected professional musicians who later served as his musical mentors. But I'm getting ahead of myself. In order to really understand any musician, you have to go back to the beginning, so that's where I want to start now: at the beginning of our interview where we learn about the very first experiences of Maestro William Hicks' extraordinary musical journey!

OperaAdventuress: Did your love of music begin with Opera, or was it sparked through exposure to another genre?
William Hicks: Opera was my first love! Every Saturday afternoon, beginning when I was three years old, I would tune in to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. One of my Aunts who was living with us at the time would come in and turn it off, exclaiming "I work hard all week and the last thing I want to hear is all that screaming!" I would thereupon throw such a tantrum of screaming, crying, and pounding my fists that nothing could calm me until the broadcast was restored. Finally, one year for Christmas, my Grandmother gave me my very own radio, so I could listen to Opera and all the other classical music broadcasts to my heart's content!

OA: When did you begin studying piano? How did you transition into Collaborative Piano (playing with Singers and Chamber Musicians) from Solo Piano? Was that a choice you made out of necessity or preference?
WH: I started formal piano training at age seven, and the inspiration was Chopin's Polonaise No. 6, the "Heroic." My family was not musical, but they loved music and had a wonderful collection of recordings, including this one. I adored the music of Chopin. I trained as a concert pianist, but when Helen Beiderbecke, a voice teacher, came to my school and invited me to start playing for her students, I added another love to my musical sphere: that of singing, vocal music, and making music with others. She also introduced me to some string players, with whom I formed a small chamber ensemble and conducted within the vocal recitals she presented.
In addition to classical music, my first love was also American Musical Theatre. I loved the records my family had of Kern's Show Boat, which I delighted in playing for them and their guests even before I could read! Of course, at that time, I never dreamed I would later grow up to be John McGlinn's Associate Conductor, Rehearsal Pianist, and Chorus Master for a 20-year period, as well as getting to prepare his landmark recording of Show Boat with Frederica Von Stade and Jerry Hadley! I love this music, and think of Kern as "America's Schubert".
Most of all, though, I love any form of musical collaboration with others, be they singer or instrumentalist. The life of a concert pianist was just too lonely and demanding for me, even though I had some success at it. Sometimes a pianist will accept these collaborations as a "second best" default when they cannot have a solo career, but for me it was a # 1 choice!

OA: Do you have any memory of the first time you saw an Opera performed live? What kind of impression did it make on you?
WH: When I was thirteen my maternal grandmother purchased a subscription for us to the Lexington, Kentucky Concert and Lecture Series. The first concert we saw was with Soprano Eileen Farrell, and her Pianist, George Trovillo. That concert is seared in my memory and had a tremendous impact on my wanting to continue studying music, and maybe one day play for singers like Mr. Trovillo had. [Eileen] Farrell was tremendous, and it was the first time I was hearing a real Opera Singer in person. The program was […] generous, containing Arias, Art Songs and even Christmas music! Little did I know [back then] that I would grow up to inherit Mr. Trovillo's notes on how to coach singers, [which were later] given to me [upon his death] by his assistant, or that I would be having lunch [someday] seated next to Eileen Farrell and Franco Corelli at Licia Albanese's [house]!

Helen Beiderbecke took me to my first opera when I was sixteen; it was Die Fledermaus at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera, starring Arlene Saunders and John Alexander. I saw many staged operas there in my teens, and when I was seventeen I was hired to sing in the Chorus and as an Assistant Conductor. My first assignment as a Chorister was Aida starring Martina Arroyo, and my first assignment as Assistant Conductor was The Merry Widow starring Karen Armstrong.

OA: When did you really start to get into studying Opera?
WH: When I was nine years old, I got up on Easter morning to discover that the "Easter Bunny" had left me a recording of Verdi's Il Trovatore, complete with the G. Schirmer Piano/Vocal Score; it was the Decca/London recording, featuring Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, and Giulietta Simionato. I had always loved Opera on the radio up until then, but now I was hooked! I would play the records and follow along with the score; then I would play from the score on the piano, singing all the parts! This was the first installment in what turned out to be annual Easter, Birthday, and Christmas gifts of recordings of complete operas, so I was listening to the best singers at an early age. I grew up to later work with many of them. But listening to recordings had its disappointment as well which I learned when I was working at the Cincinnati Opera as Assistant Conductor during my first year. I went up to James de Blasis, the General Director of the Cincinnati Opera, and said "Jim! The performance is not as perfect as the recordings!" He laughed and then told me that perfect performances were very rare in the theater.

OA: Did you ever experience any discouragement from your parents or teachers in your musical pursuits?
WH: I was always encouraged by my teachers to make a career out of music, and even my immediate family reluctantly agreed to that as a career choice for me, my mother being the sole holdout. Even when I was well into my career, it was not until I played at the White House for Roberta Peters, collaborated with Luciano Pavarotti for five years, and went to London as an Associate Conductor and Conductor for a series of recordings of the stage works of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern that she finally relented. It was when I landed a position as Assistant Conductor at New York City Opera that I finally made the choice to be a professional musician, beforehand thinking of it as just something that I did to earn money!

OA: When you first moved to New York City did it take long for you to find work? How did those first years mold your experience, as well as their impact on the ultimate trajectory of your career?
WH: I arrived in New York in September 1977 at eighteen years old [and three days later] I started working [...] A friend of a friend called me and said "Eddie Cantor's daughter is having auditions and the pianist did not show up- can you come right away?" I played for seventy-five singers, giving my business card to as many as I could. After that my phone did not stop ringing! I had to sight-read most of the songs, but sight-reading has always been one of my strong suits. [I asked one of my coaches at the time] what career choice I should make; she wisely advised "Do everything; your career will find you!" So that's what I did. While working as an Audition [and] Voice Lesson Pianist […] as well as a Proof Reader for a law firm and a Catering Waiter, I managed to study Piano, Voice, Conducting, Dance and Acting. I also trained as a Bodybuilder! As there were so many singers in need of pianists, I worked constantly. My years at New York City Opera solidified Vocal Coaching and Conducting [...] so gradually my lifelong career as a Pianist, Vocal Coach and Conductor was cemented.

OA: It's really very interesting that you studied dance and acting on top of all of the various musical disciplines. With whom did you study and how do you feel that it added to your artistry?
WH: I studied dance privately in New York City with Alberto Delgado and Reinhard Michaels. I studied acting with the great Sandy Dennis at HB Studios in New York City, and took other classes there as well. I also studied acting at The American Academy of Dramatic Art. It was there [that] I learned to project my voice. I studied conducting with David Gilbert in New York City.
My training in all [of] the other fields only served to enhance my ultimate career choices. I was fortunate [through the years] to have the very best teachers, all of whom were willing to impart their invaluable knowledge. It was this [combination of] private study, collaboration, public performing, and work with major artistic institutions that shaped me as a professional- not my brief time in music school. For me two years of music school while I was in my teens were enough for me to fly the nest!

OA: Did you always see yourself going in this direction?
WH:When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always reply "I'm going to New York City to work at the Metropolitan Opera." My dream came true in 1995 when I started working there as an Assistant Conductor and also eventually as Assistant Chorus Master. I stayed there [for] six years, and left of my own volition when I realized that I wanted to be a free-lance musician […] able to take contracts outside the MET whenever I wanted […] so I resigned under amicable circumstances.”

OA: Who do you think contributed the most to your development as a musician and artist?
WH: There are too many people to mention here from whom I learned so much, but special mention must go to the aforementioned Helen Beiderbecke, herself a performing singer, the Voice Teacher Carolina Segrera Holden, the Voice Teacher and Soprano Clarice Carson, the Conductor Julius Rudel who taught me how to play like an orchestra (for which I am eternally grateful!), and Luciano Pavarotti, from whom I learned so much about singing technique during our five-year collaboration. 
One of the first conductors with whom I worked and from whom I learned so much was Max Rudolf, who taught me to always cut the volume by half when singers where singing, and to bring it up when they were not singing, saying the "Bayreuth sound" was the ideal (orchestra recessed) so the singers could always be heard. I wish more conductors would do this today!
They all encouraged me to keep going in this tough and competitive world of professional music.

OA: Do you have any advice for younger conductors nowadays, or singers who are just starting out? What are some of the things you think that they could improve which would make a big difference?
WH: All the great conductors started out as apprentices in opera houses, learning how to make music breathe. Today too many conductors start with Symphonic music and then conduct Opera without the proper training or background; many singers privately complain to me about how many conductors today fail to breathe with them or to provide a true artistic collaboration.
I think that singers today could benefit enormously by starting their learning of material with the text, slowly declaiming and identifying each word until they have a through grasp of just what they are saying and how they want to say it. Too many have just learned notes upon which they fit meaningless words!
What I said above about attention to text and dramatic intention will also go a long way towards remedying one of the most pervasive aspects of the vocal art today, which is either over-singing or under-singing. If a singer is blasting away at an unremitting forte, there can be no nuance; we don't go around screaming when we converse, we modulate our tones depending on our intentions, so the same holds true for great singing. (Neither do we whisper at inaudible levels.)
Another thing I've noticed many young singers lacking is a proper and efficient taking of initial and subsequent breaths. The topic of breathing is controversial, and many voice teachers will not even discuss it, but I can tell you that an improperly taken breath, divorced from the flow of the music and taken as a separate, mechanical event which usually results in the singer holding their breath, can impair the performance of even the most talented artist.
I would also add that a complete mastery of vocal technique is essential before presenting oneself in auditions or performance; it is shocking to me how many technical lapses are accepted today that would never have been tolerated even forty years ago, but that is what accounts for many shortened careers; most of the great singers of the past lasted well into their sixties, some even into their seventies.
One more thing: there has been a lot of poking fun at the singers of the past, saying they couldn't act! Anyone with a computer can see from watching YouTube videos that this is just not so; not only could they act, one could close one's eyes and hear the meaning behind every single word. Just waving one's arms and doing acrobatics, striking poses and attitudes, and looking like a professional athlete are not attributes of fine acting. There is also a certain arrogance some younger singers have who think there is nothing to learn from the past, so they avoid listening to or watching the great singers; they also tend to have no background in the arts, classical music, drama, or the theater- all of which would go far in making them into great artists and singers.

OA: You said that you believe in mentoring younger musicians. Why?
WH: I think it very important to share one's knowledge and pass it on to the next generation of performers if the standard of excellence is to remain high; so many of my teachers freely imparted their knowledge to me, and I feel a keen responsibility to impart what I learned to those coming up. I charge nothing for doing this for aspiring voice coaches, pianists, and conductors. Of course, as a voice coach, pianist, and conductor I do have my set fees that I charge, always willing to give a break to impoverished, out of work singers who show enormous potential.

OA: In the long list of impressive professional accomplishments that you've gathered over the years, which of your achievements makes you most proud?
WH: The recordings I accomplished as Pianist and Music Director of the complete Piano and Cello music of Victor Herbert, as well as 102 Collected Songs of Victor Herbert with sixteen singers for New World Records, totaling 127 pieces of music, is one of my landmark achievements.
I recorded these six CD's between September 2010 and February 2011 at Manhattan's 'The Academy', an acoustically perfect recording space, but damp and very cold (Brrrr!) at 155 Riverside Drive.

The project was initiated and paid for by John Vogel, the executor of John McGlinn's estate; John's next project was to record the complete works of Victor Herbert, but he died before accomplishing it. Mr. Vogel asked me then to undertake the mammoth task, but only 127 of his relatively unknown works were all we recorded before the funding ran out. We recorded five days per week, six hours per day, and our recording engineer was Judith Sherman. The 'Cellist was Jerry Grossman, Principal Chair of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Fun fact:Victor Herbert also served in this position! There were also sixteen solo singers, 15 Piano pieces, 10 'Cello works, and 102 Songs in all. The recordings are available in two albums: Piano/Cello works and Collected Songs, on

CURIOUS to learn more about Maestro Hicks? I've posted his Biography below, and you can also visit his website at: or purchase his Victor Herbert recordings on click here for the Piano/Cello works, or here for the Collected Songs.

WILLIAM HICKS, voice coach, conductor, and pianist recently completed a recording of 127 pieces by Victor Herbert to be issued by New World Records, including fifteen piano solos, eleven pieces for cello and piano featuring Jerry Grossman, Principal Cellist of the Metropolitan Opera, and 101 songs with fifteen solo singers.
He also recorded HAVE A HEART by Jerome Kern with the London Sinfonietta; A SIMPLE SONG: BLACKWELL SINGS BERNSTEIN and ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT with Harolyn Blackwell; and MY LIFE, MY SONG with Martha Eggerth Kiepura. He most recently conducted Puccini's LA BOHEME and Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE for the Martha Cardona Opera Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.
He made his New York conducting debut in 2003 conducting an all Mozart/Beethoven concert with members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall. From 1995 to 2001 Mr. Hicks served as Assistant Conductor for the Metropolitan Opera, and made his Metropolitan Opera stage debut as the concert pianist Lazinski in Giordano's FEDORA.
He has also served as Associate Conductor for the Santa Fe Opera, The Canadian Opera Company, the Cincinnati Opera, and the New York City Opera. He prepared the singers, conducted rehearsals, and performed as pianist in Maestro Lorin Maazel's first opera production of Britten's TURN OF THE SCREW at Castleton, Virginia.
From 1990 to 1995 he collaborated as repetiteur and pianist for Luciano Pavarotti; he has coached, appeared in recital and on television and in master classes with some of the leading singers of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Renata Scotto, Roberta Peters, Teresa Stratas, Anna Moffo, Regina Resnik, Deborah Voigt and Harolyn Blackwell. In 2009 he prepared Renee Fleming for her recording, VERISMO!
From 1982 to 2002 he served as Associate Conductor to John McGlinn, preparing the singers and performing on all of his concerts, broadcasts, and recordings; he was also on staff of the Israel Vocal Arts Institute for their programs in Tel Aviv, Portland, Oregon, and Montreal.
Mr. Hicks gives master classes in preparation and presentation to young singers throughout the world; he also has extensive training and professional experience as an actor and dancer.


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