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Bill Holley, European opera star who settled in Plant City, dies

Before his quiet life of rural retirement, the Panhandle native performed in some of Europe’s most vaunted opera houses.

Bill Holley would sing in church. The Lord’s Prayer. Amazing Grace. Climb Ev’ry Mountain. If someone asked him to sing at a wedding, he might agree to that, too.

But he never sang opera. Almost no one in his retired life in Plant City experienced the voice that took Mr. Holley from the Florida Panhandle to the finest concert halls across Europe.

The few clips of his singing one can dig up online — some Puccini here, a little Verdi there — are all most ever heard of the 89-year-old tenor, who died Dec. 28 following a string of lung, kidney and infectious problems.

“You don’t really know unless you are there in a live performance," said his niece, Candy Greene. "You can’t really appreciate it 100 percent. You can only speculate.”

It was just another life. One to which Mr. Holley rarely looked back.

For 35 years, he lived quietly among loved ones in Plant City — raising cats, fishing, running and eating healthy, though he wasn’t above the odd plate of down-home cooking.

This undated family photo shows William "Bill" Holley during his retired years living in Plant City. Before he retired there in 1984, he had a thriving career as an opera singer across Europe from 1961 to 1984. In Plant City, he never really performed opera, only singing in church and at weddings for friends and family. He died Dec. 28, 2019, at age 89. [Courtesy of Candy Greene]

It was a lot like the rural world he grew up in, near the Calhoun County burg of Blountstown. A mechanic’s son, he sang in church and school, but also lettered in four sports and was active in the FFA. At Stetson University, he intended to major in physical education and become a coach. Only after auditioning for Stetson’s Glee Club did he change his major to music — and even then, it took him a while to realize he was a tenor, not a baritone.

After a stint in the Army, Mr. Holley taught voice at Oklahoma Baptist University and studied and taught at Indiana University, where his opera career took flight. In 1961, he earned a Fulbright scholarship to a music academy in Vienna, Austria.

The European opera market was brutally competitive, particularly for American tenors in an era dominated by Italians and Spaniards like Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.

“Bill used to say, ‘I’d have a bigger career if my name was Guillermo Pavarini,’" said Gordon Greer, a close friend who, like Mr. Holley, became a leading tenor at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg and Dusseldorf.

But Mr. Holley still found success across the continent. He was 6-foot-2 and handsome, soft-spoken but fluent in several languages, and he took excellent care of his voice. He sang for renowned state operas in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, as well as houses in Salzberg, Frankfurt, Brussels, Naples, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Tehran.

One place he rarely sang professionally: America.

In 1968 and 1969, he portrayed Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in San Francisco and Los Angeles; a few years later, he went to Houston for Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Reviews called him “impressive,” a “standout,” and praised his “tender strength." But afterward, it was always back to Europe.

In a review of a 1970 performance from Tosca, one critic wondered why Mr. Holley’s “excellent tenor” had never been engaged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

That was his dream, as it is for so many singers. But he wasn’t interested in constantly crisscrossing the globe to achieve it. He booked roles as they came, rather than planning his schedules years in advance, like some singers. Instead of chasing high-profile gigs in America, he let his European career flourish.

“I like the way of life in Europe,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 1974. “People spend their weekends out walking by the river or enjoying nature. They don’t think they have to drive 50 miles to a good restaurant for entertainment.”

This undated photo shows William "Bill" Holley in costume during his thriving career as an opera singer across Europe from 1961 to 1984. After that, he retired to Plant City, where he never really performed opera, only singing in church and at weddings for friends and family. He died Dec. 28, 2019, at age 89. [Courtesy of Candy Greene]

Mr. Holley would return to visit siblings in Florida, rarely singing anywhere but church. On one trip to see a sister in Plant City, he met a woman who would become his wife. When he retired in 1984, they moved there for good. They never had children and later split up, but Mr. Holley was a devoted uncle to his nieces and nephews, always good at remembering names and jokes and stories.

But he was private, too. He kept many of his opera mementos and recordings boxed away. He never formally taught voice. Greene doesn’t know if he attended local operas. He preferred watching westerns.

“Some guys want to be coaches after they play,” Greer said. "Some of them don’t want to do anything else. They just leave. It’s a thing to be able to leave when you’re on top and not have people say, Oh, I remember when Bill Holley sang well. That’s not the way it was.”

Occasionally, Greene, a onetime music teacher, would play old recordings for her uncle. He enjoyed it, but couldn’t help listen with a critical ear, pointing out notes he could have hit harder, lyrics he could have nailed better. He was so strict and meticulous about his health, she suspects, that by the time he hit his 50s, he could hear his voice changing, even if no one else could. So he quit.

“He just wanted to be perfect,” she said. “Things were probably not to his standard. He wanted it to be as perfect as in Germany."

On rare occasions, she said, Mr. Holley would wonder if he should kept his opera career going just a little longer. Other times, he’d say he knew he made the right choice.

“He was content, I believe," she said. “He said it was time to take it easy and enjoy life, and not be on such a busy schedule.”

He sang for friends, and that was it. That was all he needed.

Cecil William “Bill” Holley, Jr.

Born: Dec. 4, 1930

Died: Dec. 28, 2019

Survivors: Siblings E.C. and Edward Holley; his former wife Betty Sue Sapp Holley; many nieces, nephews and cousins.

Services: Were held Jan. 4 in Plant City.