It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Charles Williams, beloved friend, mentor, and longtime Levine faculty member. It is no exaggeration to say that Charles was the heart and soul of Levine throughout his long tenure.
For nearly 40 years, Charles guided and inspired his students and colleagues, sharing wisdom and artistry gained from a distinguished career both here and in Europe. From the earliest days of his career, Charles was a true collaborator, always striving to connect through performance with other artists, fellow faculty, and former students. Whether at the Metropolitan Opera, the Kennedy Center, a Levine performance, or one-on-one in a lesson, Charles left lasting impressions on us all.
Charles was born in Haynesville, Louisiana, a small town near the Arkansas border, and spent time living in both Michigan and Ohio before college brought him to Los Angeles. At age 3, he was already singing, and by his teenage years, he recalled being moved to tears by a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of La Boheme. In college, at Los Angeles City College where he majored in drama and voice, an interview with a student reporter named Ruth after a lunchtime recital turned out to be love at first sight. Charles and Ruth would soon marry, but first, the US Army draft called Charles to Europe, away from Ruth and his budding musical career in the US.
Orders brought Charles to Augsburg, West Germany, where Ruth would join him and where they were married. In 1961, along with the First Battle Group of the 19th Infantry, Charles moved to West Berlin. Ruth would soon follow as would a European discharge and a full-ride scholarship to attend the Hochschule für Musik. The young couple thought their European stay was to be short, but it turned out to be a 20-year adventure with front row seats to historic events of the Berlin Wall and Cold War Europe. While abroad, they started a family, welcoming their daughter Lynne and son Scott, and found community among the artists, journalists, West Berliners, and ex-patriots that called the small enclave home. Ruth would later publish stories of their young family and emerging careers in Europe in her memoir, Detour Berlin.
Charles eventually left the Hochshule für Musik to study privately with Professor Ernst Garay, a tenor and survivor of World War II concentration camps, and gradually saw performing work begin to pick up. His operatic debut came at Spoleto’s Festival of Two Worlds under Gian Carlo Menotti, and musicals, including Sweet Charity, Godspell, HAIR, and more, gave him opportunities to stretch his creativity and work with legends like Donna Summer. Charles had appeared in musicals before; in Cleveland, he played the first Black leprechaun in captivity in Finian’s Rainbow before moving to Europe. As his voice became more in demand on European stages, he found himself juggling the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess and Paul in Kiss Me Kate at the same time in different cities. While still in West Germany, Charles met fellow American Jack Waddell, with whom he started a two-man show that brought Charles his first TV appearance as well as a six-week run in East Berlin, requiring daily border crossings from his home on the other side of the wall.
More and more roles emerged for Charles in both Europe and, increasingly, in the US, including the opportunity to appear in the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever performance of Porgy and Bess as Sportin’ Life. Eventually, Charles and Ruth decided to relocate to Alexandria, VA.
Once back in the US, Charles and Ruth called Levine Music to ask about instruction for their daughter, Lynne, already a promising young musician. Former Executive Director Joanne Hoover answered and, after learning Levine needed a new voice instructor, Charles auditioned and joined our faculty in 1983. In his early years at Levine, he helped to expand the voice department, directed a musical (The Me Nobody Knows) where students provided their own lyrics, and collaborated with Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center in programs for DC Public Schools.
At Levine, Charles continued the spirit of collaboration that he came to love in Europe, connecting with faculty across departments for decades-long artistic and personal friendships. Levine faculty Rosa Lamoureaux and Betty Bullock frequently joined Charles on stage as a trio, and a duo performance for a Levine concert with percussion faculty Tom Teasley led to an ongoing musical partnership that melded poetry, prose, percussion, and song. The two toured globally on State Department-sponsored tours and performed throughout the DC area in what they dubbed Word-Beat, and Charles described Tom as a “son, little brother, and best friend.” Charles was also a coach to the renowned ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and their founder, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Celebrated performance opportunities continued to come throughout his career, including world tours of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s The Temptation of St. Anthony and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, but Levine remained his musical home.
His greatest legacy is the nurturing of future generations of artists, regularly staying in touch with his former students and watching their careers flourish with great pride long after they left his studio. He was a mentor to faculty across departments. At Levine, Charles remembered in an interview beside his former student Sarah Wolfson, “I found my tribe.”
Charles is survived by his daughter Lynne; his son Scott and daughter-in-law Kimberly; three adoring grandchildren; and generations of students, colleagues, and collaborators. Thank you, Charles, for the joy and inspiration you brought to each of your roles at Levine and for the remarkable legacy you leave us.
Join us in celebrating the legacy of Charles Williams
Saturday, May 6, 2023