Jim Anderson

Opera Singer—A Blessed Life with Singing

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Arts, Power of Prayer, Putting God First

Jim Anderson’s life as an opera singer simply fell into place as he was lifted up and directed by God. His amazing story is a promise for us all.

How has your life been as an opera singer?
I have been absolutely blessed in my life. Not that things haven’t happened; they have. But I have always felt this blessing in my life. When I was in eighth grade, my track coach said, “Go run the 100 yard dash,” so I did. It was the first time I had ever run it, and I set a school record, which I did each time I ran it. That kind of thing has happened to me throughout my life. I’ve gotten to sing with Pavarotti, Renée Fleming, and Plácido Domingo. Just recently, I sang Beethoven’s 9th and felt the presence of God absolutely affecting my life. Singing has led me to the next thing in life.

How did you become an opera singer?
I backed into it. When I was in junior high, the young choir director came into the locker room and recruited about 10 of us jocks to come into the choir room after we got dressed. We started a barbershop octet, and I just got bit by the bug. It was a wonderful place to be—a joy and a delight. We continued into high school, keeping a quartet together, singing cool music, and being stars.

Then in Michigan where I lived, there was a church-based teenage exchange program, a youth choir that went on tour every summer to different countries. At the choir director’s prompting, I auditioned and got in. We toured South America my junior year and sang in all the famous concert halls in Europe my senior year. While I majored in English education at Albert Lee College in Minnesota, I continued to sing in the choir. The choir director, who was also the director of the Baptist church, helped me find singing jobs at different churches. I often walked in the back door, and the organist handed me the solo to sing, and we were pretty much ready to go.

After graduating, I got a teaching job near Detroit and saw an ad for a community choir that got together with the college every semester to make a huge monster choir of 300 or so people to sing compositions like Beethoven’s 9th. When I showed up for rehearsal, I had one of the most profound experiences in hearing the voice of God. On that Tuesday night choir rehearsal, I looked over into the soprano section, and there was a golden light sitting on this angel. I heard as clearly as I was sitting there, “Jim, this is my gift to you.” Six weeks later, the soprano and I were engaged. And she’s my angel, Kate. We’ve been married for 44 years now.

What an amazing experience to hear so clearly the voice of God.
It was. And I was still in a reverie when the director interrupted me and asked me to demonstrate a certain musical passage, after which he suggested that I become part of the Michigan opera they were starting. He said, “We can’t pay you anything but $10 a performance and parking fees.” Both Kate and I got into the choir, where I graduated up to doing a solo. One time, we were performing “Boris Godunov,” the Russian opera about the Tsar. They always brought in stars from the New York Metropolitan Opera to do the main parts.

It happened that I had to sing my one-liner to the character “Boris Godunov,” sung by Jerome Hines, a famous bass from the Met. After I sang the line, Hines stopped the rehearsal, and said, “Gee, young man, you have a nice voice. You should study singing.” I walked dazedly off the stage, and the chair of the Indiana University Music School, who was recruiting singers, said, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” I told him I was working as an English teacher and had recently gotten married. So he told me he’d get me a scholarship. We moved to Bloomington, IN, and attended their masters degree program in performance in music. I was put into opera, and that was that.

I sang 25 opera roles there, and after two or three fabulous years, the phone rang, and a fellow told me he’d pay me to sing in “Carmen” out in California. Then I got calls from Syracuse and Huston and all the other places. It was really a dream existence; the phone just kept ringing. And all along, I kept singing in churches, which I did all over Europe. It was an opportunity to have a home all over the world.

How did you get to Europe?
A friend of ours from Indiana who had gone over to Europe called me up and said we should come over and sing in the opera houses; and by the way, she was dating a fellow who was the general director of the city opera in Kassel, Germany. I told her we didn’t have any money, so they paid for our flight. I’m a 6-foot tall tenor, and the sopranos wanted a tall kid so they wouldn’t have to bend over to kiss the boyfriend. I sang for the director and was hired. 24 years later we came home to the U.S.

It’s so refreshing to hear of a career that has just flowed. It seems like a promise—that artists can be successful, that they don’t always have to struggle.
I feel that I’ve been lifted up, that God has been steering me. That voice I heard to look over in the soprano section—where did that come from? That was God. I just felt in touch with God, with the universe, and knew that’s where I should be. Later on after we got married, we wanted children. But for 19 years, we didn’t have children. It was when we were on the way for me to sing in Paris that God said, “Now we’re going to have that child.” And when we came home to Florida, my wife was pregnant. Our wonderful daughter just graduated from college.

As normal human beings, we can get caught up in wondering why this terrible thing just happened or what was that all about and get distracted by the problem. But then, I have this moment when I stop and realize … but there’s God, but there’s God. And I say, “Oh, yeah, I forgot. There’s God.” Sometimes we just go along and don’t really listen to God’s daily talking to us. We may not feel the need. And then it happens: we hear God’s voice, and it’s so spectacular, inexplicably so, a reminder; and it gives us hope, an answer, a confirmation—Yes, this is it; this is why.

What do you love or appreciate about singing?
As singers, our job is to make vibrations in the world. That’s what sound is. The physicists of today talk about string theory, which is that the entire universe is vibrating, is in motion, and is pulsing like vocal chords. What set this into motion? My thinking about it is akin to singing: we have vocal chords, and when we send a column of air up the wind pipe and close the little flap over it, there is vibration. So what set that into vibration? In the beginning, God said the Word. What is the word? It’s a vibration. Saying the word sets it into motion.

And so what is the WORD? Let there be … the universe. That’s the very first chapter of the Bible. Then there’s the big bang theory that there was a huge vibrating thing that happened that set the universe into motion. It’s God saying the Word. And I can participate in saying the word with singing—in vibrating with the universe.

I tell my students, “Every time you sing something, say this is going to beautiful, and it is. Think beautiful.” It’s amazing, really. We human beings are easily influenced: when we think something is beautiful, it can be beautiful.

That reminds me of the “think system” in “The Music Man,” although a little more grounded in truth. How else would you say the Bible has been a part of your career?
Half my career wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t had access to the Bible. As an opera singer and church singer, we sing the Bible scripture in oratorios. So many different works and operas are based on biblical scripture or characters—John the Baptist in Salome, Handel’s Messiah, and Beethoven’s oratorio. So my job is to study the bible text. I’ve sung 100 of the Psalms, all the famous prayers, the Sermon on the Mount, and the most well-known verses–all put to music.

I got to sing “Christ on the Mount of Olives” by Beethoven, which deals with Jesus’ thought process regarding what he was going through in the garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. What insight I’ve gained! It was a healing for himself. At first, Jesus seems terrified: his body is sweating blood. He asks for this cup to be removed. Finally, he says, “Not my will be done, but thy will.” And what an interesting thing to see. Of course this is Beethoven’s interpretation. But reading the Bible and then singing this piece gives a different way to think about what he endured. What did he pray?

Currently, where I sing in church, I get to participate in an insightful way every week by choosing which biblical song will fit the theme of the sermon. And it’s an intuitive moment that has the ability to expand and further the ideas. It’s a deep study for me.

How has studying the Bible impacted your life?
I feel that I have a close relationship with God. God is a buddy of mine, a friend. Sometimes I forget about Him, but then he pats me on the head and I remember: Oh yes; of course, it’s God. And the thing, whatever question I may have, is answered. I certainly have all the same questions as others, and I love reading philosophy and science. I have this book of quotes from hundreds of people throughout history, half of which are about God—who, what, how, and why.

So I go to the Bible. Jesus would not have done all that he did just to fool us. What would that have done for the world? He didn’t do it as a trip to make himself famous either. He didn’t ever become king of the world. But Jesus answered the questions himself: if you’re seeking the kingdom of heaven, it’s within you.

And Jesus kept that kingdom throughout his walk. That was absolutely imperative for him to do. And we have to do that, too. The things that happen in this world—the terror and destruction—they’re not what the world is. So we have to stay in the kingdom of heaven—within us—and hope, and continue to be the forward optimistic thinking people who look for answers. And God has the answers, and when we listen, we hear them.