Willliam Pickersgill Emerges from the Shadow of the Stars as Don Quixote

by Claire Mathieson

When in 1991 Bill Pickersgill picked up the Chronicle’s pink section after moving back from Germany and restarting his job as a truck driver, he was shocked to see his own name. The documentary he had been in a few years before as a member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, In the Shadow of the Stars, was about to open. “I totally forgot about it,” he remembers, “I had no idea that it had come to fruition.” The documentary went on to win an Academy Award, and Pickersgill to pursue his operatic career, singing his way out of the shadow and all the way to the title role in Don Quixote.

Pickersgill – albeit having had a lot of fun making himself look “as granite-like as possible” as the Commandatore-turned-statue in the Virago Theatre (now Island City Opera) production of Don Giovanni – is excited to bring life to the “complex” role of Don Quixote. “I want him to be a real person,” he says of the character he is creating as he studies Cervantes and its offshoots, “not a caricature.”  Bill will also be a featured performer at Island City Opera’s Fall House Party on November 12.

As he builds his multifaceted character, we can reflect on the elements that came together to construct Pickersgill’s career, from a Datebook debut to Quixote. A California native, he grew up in a home resounding with his mother’s favorite symphonic music, his father’s beloved opera, and Saturday-morning Met broadcasts. However, he started as an instrumentalist, and it was not until he decided to “round out” his musical education with a chorus class that he found he loved singing and performing. He has long identified with the basso-cantante style of Italian singer Ezio Pinza and carefully watches his acting inspirations, Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, in order to bring greater complexity to his interpretations. His favorite opera is Beethoven’s Fidelio, which he loves for its symphonic nature. “It’s just one of those special operas.”

Pickersgill considers opera to be a “multi-art,” for which one must bring singing, acting, and movement together. In doing so, one enters a world of choices. “I think the choices that you get to make are very interesting; I find it very rewarding,” he shares. In his view, the art is not fixed; it encourages spontaneity and creation. He loves that opera is not just a recitation of a script but is a living work, ever-evolving as the actors respond to one another, in no way the stuffy tradition that many today imagine it to be. He describes acting as “keeping your ears open and being in the moment, responding to what’s being given you, not just setting yourself in a certain course,” and he finds the life inherent in this approach endlessly fascinating.

As spectators, we too will soon have the opportunity to live in the moment with the performer, inwardly responding from our shadowed seats to a truck-driver-turned-star. As he now brings not a statue – but a vision – to life, Pickersgill’s dynamic Quixote is sure to be as fascinating to us as his art is to him.