A month or so back, we received an email whose sender signed off with his name, followed by: “Bass-baritone, Metropolitan Opera of New York, etc.”
We don’t get these missives “live from The Met” every day.
More likely it’s a dispatch about this weekend’s karaoke offerings downtown or the latest spam-eluding Viagra update (how DO they do it?).
“I take this opportunity to introduce myself,” the email began. “I am William Powers, bass-baritone.”
To say the least; the world-class William Powers would be more accurate, seeing as his half-century of credits cuts across the global opera stage, from The Met to the New York City Opera to countless companies beyond.
Powers’ reason for corresponding: to let us know he’d be returning to his alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University, to perform for the first time since he graduated a half century ago under a certain level of, let’s say, “duress.”
The homecoming, at 8 tonight in Westbrook Auditorium, promises to be the best freebie in town this week or any other, with a program ranging from Mozart to Porter (Cole).
“I’ll lie down on the couch for you and tell you my story, and you can analyze it for me,” he says after we call him at his home in Lake Barrington.
At 71, he has the pipes of a man many decades younger. No way is this guy 71, we think. It’s a prank. A lie. He’s really 41, 42 tops.
But Powers has the IWU diploma (Class of 1964) to prove it — not to mention the playbill from the New York City Opera’s 1972 production of “Don Giovanni,” his professional debut.
So who are we to analyze his age? The analysis comes from the scholastic end.
Growing up in Bensonville, Ill., “I was the model over-achiever,” he confesses. “I was in all the clubs … National Honors Society member … prize-winner … jock. I was the one on the pedestal.”
Then: “By accident, I found I loved to sing and it developed that I had a very fine and potentially great voice.”
“You sing like Mario Lanza,” said his teachers. Even so, “I was much more interested in football and wrestling,” he says. “Music wasn’t a pursuit. I couldn’t read a note of music or play an instrument.”
He still can’t, by the way, and has no regrets.
“The fact of the matter is that I was a football player who happened to be able to sing, too. Like an angel.”
So he ends up at IWU, auditioning with Verdi and Mussorgsky arias and winning a scholarship and … well … falling off that high school pedestal with a thud.
“I was NOT a particularly good ‘student,’ he confesses from the couch. “I cut a lot of classes and spent a lot of time drinking beer and pursing co-eds. I had a lot of Ds and Fs on my transcript when I finally graduated … a year AFTER the freshmen I began with!”
Sleeping off a long, liquid night at downtown Bloomington’s Polar Lounge was par for the course. What happened to this former high school super-student?
Powers knows it’s tied to that lack of formal music education: couldn’t read a note, couldn’t play an instrument. “Suddenly, I was in a school where every student had played piano since they were 5 and they all knew what a C-major chord was,” he says.
The party-animal transformation could be chalked up as defense maneuver: “I wasn’t good enough, so I tried in some way to justify it by the fact that I was a jock underneath … a drunk … a girl-chaser.”
At least, he says, when he cut classes and failed them, he could also be found working on his vocal repertoire, which, in the end, saved his day. “That was the one good thing I devoted my energies to. I could get on stage, open my mouth and blow everyone away.”
Though technically, he adds, “I really had no business graduating.”
But, in the end, “The Voice” won out: He was IWU’s only set of bass pipes, and, in his freshman year, the spring opera, “Don Pasquale” was staged to accommodate it.
The angel beat the demons of drink, partying and scholastic failure. And the rest is history, a chunk of which will be re-created on the Westbrook Auditorium stage tonight.
Because of his bum academic record, they couldn’t give him a requisite “honors recital” in 1964; consider this a delayed reaction of sorts.
Or, as Powers puts it with mock-immodesty but genuine enthusiasm, “My triumphant return recital!”
At a glance
What: William Powers, bass-baritone, with pianist William Billingham
When: 8 o’clock tonight (Thursday Oct. 4)
Where: IWU Westbrook Auditorium
Program highlights: “Il Lacerato Spirito,” from Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra; “The Catalogue Aria,” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” “Vous Qui Faites,” from Gounod’s “Faust,” Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”