Last week, I paid a visit to the home of my predecessor, David Williams, to interview him about his amazing career as an opera harpist. Since the inception of the Dallas Opera in 1957, David Williams served as the principal harpist for an outstanding 46 years. During that time, he performed almost every opera in the repertoire and experienced the opera company's dramatic transition from its humble beginnings at the Majestic Theater on Elm Street, to the historic Music Hall at Fair Park, and finally onto our current home: the fabulous Winspear Opera House.
During those 46 years, David performed his opera duties admirably, with passion, dedication, and commitment. When I interviewed him, I expected our conversation to consist of stories of diva conductors, standing ovations, string-breaking disasters, etc...but what I learned instead was that opera was only one small part of David's life. In addition to performing, David is a certified harp technician, collector and restorer of antique harps, an experienced paleontologist, a beautiful woodworker and painter, and animal lover. He maintains a beautiful garden, continues to restore and rebuild instruments from all over the world, and was generous enough to have me over to share his amazing life with me. Here's what I learned:
1) In his career, he has regulated nearly 1,000 harps throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, and has rebuilt almost two-dozen antique harps from Europe and throughout the US.
2) He had two gorgeous Siberian huskies named Zachary and Livvie. Although they are no longer with us, my dog Annie joined me on the visit and fell completely in love with David! (He is clearly a dog whisperer.)
3) His favorite harp solo is "Legende" by Henriette Renie. Listen here.
4) David became so well-known for his craftsmanship that Lyon & Healy commissioned him to hand paint several harps for their clients, including the one pictured to the right. One hand-painted soundboard can take anywhere from 75-100 hours. The value of this harp is roughly $80,000.
5) Favorite Dallas Opera Memory: Wagner’s (entire) Ring Cycle at Dallas Opera, years 1981-1985. (Arguably one of the best/most impossible harp parts ever written!!)
6) For his undergraduate degree, David attended the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University while studying with harpist Julia Hermann Edwards. Then he attended the University of North Texas for his masters with harpist Charles Kleinsteuber. Here's a picture of David performing Wagner's Götterdämmerung with six harps at SMU!
7) Before David ever played a harp, he BUILT a harp! After playing piano from the age of seven, his interest in the instrument peaked at age 15 when finally he took his hand-made harp to local Dallas harpist, Julia Hermann Edwards, who became his first teacher. By his first lesson, he had already taught himself the first page of the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto.
8) Over the last few decades, David has collected thousands of amphibian fossil fragments and has rebuilt incredible fossil-prototypes. Most of these fossils are 280 MILLION years old and predate the dinosaurs!!! The majority of his fossil collection (almost 2,000 fragments) is currently being stored at the Natural History Museum in Fair Park.
9) Most memorable performance: Performing second harp with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on tour at Carnegie Hall. They played Stravinsky's epic "Firebird" ballet with three harps!
10) He restored and generously donated five historic harps to his alma mater, the music school at University of North Texas. Here's a video about the harps with current UNT harp professor, Dr. Jaymee Haefner.
A Story in Pictures
I had an incredibly inspiring visit that afternoon. What I learned most of all about David was not only his affinity for music, but his deep appreciation for beauty, art, history, and life. Bravo, maestro: we have been lucky to have you!