When I came to Springfield in 1963 James Billings, the elder, was a reporter for the local newspaper. He also reviewed local theatre productions including those at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University). With trepidation I met him (he was not an ogre), and I always afterwards enjoyed conversations with him whenever I saw him.
At some point in the 1970s Lou Schaeffer and I were in New York. Among the performances we saw was Massenet’s Manon at the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center with Beverly Sills in the title role. One of the singers in a major supporting role was James Billings, the younger. After the performance we went across the street to a restaurant. Shortly after we arrived, Jim and a group of the performers came in. As we left, I stopped at Jim’s table, introduced myself and told him that I knew his father. Jim was gracious, and we chatted briefly about living in Springfield. Over the next few years we saw him several times in various operas including his favorite role as Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
In 1990 Jim and his wife Judy moved to Springfield to assume duties at Springfield Regional Opera: she as Executive Director and he as Artistic Director. One of the productions that he mounted was The Mikado with Jim playing Ko-Ko, the Royal Executioner. In Ko-Ko’s “I have a little list” of who and what to send to the chopping block, Jim added a considerable number of local personalities and happenings to the audience’s great amusement.
Jim and Judy became friends of ours, and what a delightful couple they were. Around the dinner table it would be non-stop conversation as Jim would regale us with many stories of performances and personalities he knew through the years. His stories were never mean spirited, but full of the joy of creating and the hilarious mistakes that sometime happen in the process and performance.
Various reviews of Jim’s performances often refer to him as “puckish.” That was an apt word both to his physicality and his stage humor. His comic timing was masterful in both delivery and physical gesture. He would delight audiences with his darts across stage, his posing of his hands and head and a myriad of facial expressions.
In 2004 I directed Terrence McNally’s Master Class, his dramatization of the life of Maria Callas. Jim was the pianist. He always supported his fellow performers and never took focus until it was his turn, but give him the stage and he commanded the space.
Several years ago Jim gave us a copy of a DVD of a concert staging by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with Jim singing Harlequin and Beverly Sills--someone who would become an important part of his life--in the title role. The conductor Eric Leinsdorf decided to use the first version that is seldom performed. A videotape of the performance had been discovered and transferred to DVD. As “payment” for the transfer Jim received a number of copies of the DVD. There he was, a young Jim Billings, long hair and all. As he gave us a copy, he said enthusiastically to listen to Ariadne’s big aria. With good reason is the first version seldom performed: the aria is in a higher key and makes treacherous demands on the soprano. Sills knocked it out of the ball park. That was Jim’s generous remembrance of that performance.
Jim was always writing: lyrics for a new comic opera or comic essays on musical subjects. Springfield Contemporary Theatre produced several of Jim’s operas and musicals: The Magical Adventures of Jack McPoorly-Or-Climb Every Beanstalk (1998), The Nutley Papers—The Musical (2001, world premiere), Babes in the Woods (2005, world premiere in association with Springfield Regional Opera), Sheer Will (2011, world premiere), and Jim’s always erudite and hilarious Forbidden Opera for First Night Springfield (1990-1996, 2010, in association with Springfield Regional Opera).
Somewhere out there Jim is now remembering again every word, note and gesture and singing joyfully:
When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney’s firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor.
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen Navee!
In coordination with Robert Bradley & James Billings' family, Springfield Contemporary Theatre has established a memorial fund in James' honor -- contributions will go into SCT's building fund. In the lobby of the theatre's future home an acknowledgement will be displayed. Click here to donate now.