By Diane Eisenman
“I’m looking for volunteers to play the bassoon!” a middle school band director in Frankfort, Kentucky exclaimed to his clarinet section.
William May, who hails from a family of drummers, raised his hand. He liked how the bassoon looked so different. Plus, the large size and low sounds fascinated him. Having enjoyed jazz with his dad and brothers as he grew up, he later expanded his classical training by adding saxophone and jazz to his musical repertoire.
After receiving a Bachelor of Music from Indiana University in 2007, he moved to Los Angeles and earned the Professional Study Certificate from the Colburn School in 2009. While still at Colburn, he auditioned for Principal Bassoonist with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. When he nailed it, William became the orchestra’s youngest member for a time.
Playing in an opera orchestra is something he would never want to give up. “The element of the story gives more meaning to the music, something to be inspired by.” William says that in opera, he plays the bassoon with more vocal expression, as his instrument often doubles with the singer. “I become one with the singer. Being surrounded by singing inspires that part of my musicality.”
William’s favorite opera experience so far is this season’s Salome. Last June he purchased a heckelphone, one of only a hundred in existence. It could be described as a giant oboe with a bassoon-type reed. Its round soft sounds are similar to an oboe, but it is really loud and carries through a large orchestra. It was used mostly by Strauss after its invention in 1904, and is featured in Salome and other Strauss works. William hopes to use it more often in his orchestra career.
Some of the most challenging opera parts for bassoon were composed by Mozart and Rossini. Their music requires continued technical acrobatics, especially The Barber of Seville and Così fan Tutte. Though William loves the beautiful music of Puccini, Albert Herring and Bluebeard’s Castle top his list of favorite operas for “the switch between tonal and dissonant sounds, evoking moments of beauty and moments of terror.” Bluebeard’s Castle displays so many subtle colors within the sounds of its large orchestra.
The bassoon comes with a unique set of requirements. The left thumb gets a special workout, as it must be used for no less than 11 different keys, while the right thumb “only” five. Making reeds can be a tedious, never-ending job, so William uses rainbow-colored strings to wrap each one in order to “make it more interesting.” He says the reed is actually more important than the instrument itself, and more personal. A good reed, he enthuses, feels expressive and uninhibited, and is saved for performances.
Outside of LAO, he substitutes regularly with the LA Philharmonic, the San Diego Symphony, and the Santa Barbara Symphony. He also performs with Pittance, a chamber group of LAO orchestra members. This being L.A., William also lands the odd TV or film gig, which can be demanding. Or not! Recently he was contracted for a certain high-profile production that required him to play one long note for six hours.
During his free time, William loves to travel and explore the great outdoors. He can be found doing yoga, swimming, cross-country skiing, or embarking on a new culinary adventure. He’s been to 18 European countries, finding Italy most fascinating. Though travel gives him plenty of joy, not to speak of memories, he can’t imagine living anywhere other than right here in Los Angeles.
William has a deep respect for James Conlon and Plácido Domingo. He says that as musicians, they are both constantly serving the music, and as leaders, are easily approachable. Indeed, the LAO orchestra is such a fine-tuned instrument, he thinks it would be fun to hold an annual concert featuring this great orchestra along with our company singers. It could be called “Out of the Pit and onto the Stage.”
To Opera League members, he says, “Thank you for supporting the arts. We count on you to keep this art form alive. It is important that you give us input about the operas you would like to see, and offer suggestions for future direction and improvements. We want to hear from you.”