Businessman Bill Fisher Is An Iowa Medici Who Bankrolls Grand Opera All Over the U.s.

updated 07/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 01:00AM

'Bill plays the rube,' says a friend—but he knows what he wants in opera

Among the towering talents and equally towering egos of grand opera, Bill Fisher stands apart. He frankly loathes Mozart, except for Don Giovanni. He so provokes impresarios that his friend Anthony Bliss, executive director of the Metropolitan Opera, has firmly (if affectionately) called him "a damn fool" to his face. Instead of dwelling on Fifth Avenue or Nob Hill, Fisher has bypassed such cultural capitals for Marshalltown, Iowa (pop. 27,500), roughly 1,005 miles from the Met's dress circle. The pipes he knows best, moreover, belong not to Pavarotti or Sills but to his family-founded valve company. None of these apparent drawbacks diminishes in the least Fisher's fortissimo impact on opera. Since 1960 he has doled out $10 million to finance 45 operas around the country. He is a true Midwestern Medici, a 65-year-old millionaire whose generosity toward opera rivals that of even the Mellons and Rockefellers and has made him its largest single benefactor in the United States.

This fall, for example, Fisher will ease his friend Beverly Sills' transition from performer to director of the New York City Opera. "Bill offered to finance any opera I chose," she explains. "Very few women get presents like that." To show her gratitude, Bubbles flew to Marshalltown in May to help her benefactor celebrate the 100th anniversary of his company, Fisher Controls. Twenty years ago it spawned the Gramma Fisher Foundation, the idiosyncratic vehicle of Bill's support. (It is named after his late mother, a six-foot-tall Marshalltown matron known to all as "Gramma.")

Other Fisher-financed operas will be sprouting around the country faster than Iowa corn. He has promised Carol Fox, general manager of Chicago's Lyric Opera, that he will fund her production of Attila next season. He is also bankrolling a Carmen for Houston, a Samson and Delilah for San Francisco and a new Masked Ball for Washington, D.C. "I have overextended my budget," Fisher complains with a laugh. "I have only a limited amount of money." (Every year he gives away more than half a million dollars.)

The biggest single recipient of Fisher's largess is the Met, where he has funded 13 operas for singers from Birgit Nilsson to Luciano Pavarotti and has added his peppery views to board meetings for 17 years. Typically, Fisher denounced this past season's controversial Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which he financed, as "dull." He finds Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio "utterly boring." Yet Fisher has twice been offered the presidency of the opera, which he turned down on the grounds that it should be held by a New Yorker.

If Fisher's breezy but blunt style is unconventional, his beneficiaries are not complaining. "Sometimes Bill is like a great bull in a china shop," says the Met's Bliss. "But he is wonderful, very warm. I disagree with him, often daily, and he won't mind. He has good ideas and is full of enthusiasm and drive."

Fisher's most passionate conviction is that opera should be brought to as many people as possible, including his own engineers. "You've got to push some culture into those numskulls," he snorts. When he sponsors a work by a regional company, he demands that they do at least two performances in English. (Resident companies like the Met are exempt because Fisher regards their audiences as more cosmopolitan.) He also insists that his productions be shared by other cities. For example, the Masked Ball he will fund for the Washington Opera will later move to Miami, Houston and San Diego. This concept of traveling opera is often difficult—stage dimensions and technical facilities vary widely from one house to another—and sometimes exasperates proud impresarios. At the Met, where facilities are highly specialized, officials have sometimes flatly refused to adapt to an opera that initiated in another city.

Such disappointments never sour Fisher's enthusiasm. "Bill loves to play the rube and all that horsefeathers," chuckles Chicago's Carol Fox. "But he wants to express himself in the arts and has ideas on how opera should be performed."

Fisher is able to make his considerable contribution thanks to the success of his company. Fisher Controls manufactures automatic valves that regulate the flow of gases and liquids through industrial pipes. (Many valves on the Alaskan pipeline are Fisher.) Bill's paternal grandfather, William, invented the original model in 1880. "He founded the company one minute later," chuckles Bill. However, Fisher was less influenced by his grandfather and father than by his mother, Edna, a Marshalltown girl who became a popular singer in churches, synagogues and women's clubs in New York. She later moved back home to Iowa to marry Jasper Fisher. "She was making more money singing than he was in those days," recalls Bill. "She bought him a diamond ring for a wedding present and herself a grand piano."

Bill (his middle name) was christened Jasper. But, as he tells it, "My uncle looked in the crib and said, 'You can't call that nice little thing Jasper.' I worshiped him forever." His mother played operas at home on the Victrola, and when Bill was 5 she took him to his first opera, a traveling production of Il Trovatore. Then his father decided the family should winter in Beverly Hills. "I was as moviestruck as you can get," Bill says. "Garbo lived about six houses down the street from us, and Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were the other way." Bill learned the saxophone and then took organ lessons at Santa Monica High School. Later he attended Iowa State and Pomona colleges, but never graduated. At Iowa State Fisher met a pretty art major named Dorothy Meyer. A seven-year courtship followed, interrupted by Bill's wanderings to Bali and the Far East. Finally, in 1941, Dorothy bought a marriage license and Bill was persuaded to the altar.

His interests had always been music and composing, but two years after his father died in 1938 his only brother was killed in a car crash. Bill found himself in charge of Fisher Controls at 28. "The third generation usually wrecks the company," he chuckles. "But I didn't." Indeed, by the time the company merged with Monsanto in 1969 it was worth $100 million.

In those years everything Fisher did seemed to work. In the early '50s he was named "Man of the Year in Marshalltown" by the YWCA. At the awards ceremony, a striking young local woman named Jean Seberg got up to make the presentation. "I thought: 'My God, where did this girl come from?' " Fisher recalls. " 'She is outstanding.' " He undertook to launch her career and wrote to Otto Preminger suggesting she was right for the lead in his 1957 movie Saint Joan. Preminger screen-tested her and concurred. Years later, when Seberg was married to her second husband, French novelist Romain Gary, Fisher wrote a musical based on Gary's autobiographical Promise at Dawn (it was never staged). Seberg's drug-related death last year, and revelations of FBI harassment of her, devastated Fisher. "I will never get over Jeanie's death," he says.

Bill saw his first Metropolitan opera during World War II when he came East for a security clearance because his company was building components for the atomic bomb project. But his operatic philanthropy was not triggered until his mother impulsively asked him to import soprano Nadine Conner from Chicago for a Fisher sales meeting "to give those damn engineers some culture," as Bill remembers it. Several years later, in 1957, he says he told his mother, "Listen, Gramma, there is no use in your daughters and me inheriting all this goddamn money." The three children set up a foundation in her name that has since dispensed funds to virtually every professional opera company in America. (He was asked to sit on the Met's board, Fisher jokes, because a friend told then impresario Rudolf Bing, "Here is a pigeon—go get him!")

Besides funding opera, Fisher also has supported plays and musicals, some of them by unknown writers about whom Fisher remains unfailingly (if sometimes unrealistically) enthusiastic. "Don't talk about Bill's successes," confides a friend. "There have been a million failures." For his Marshalltown neighbors, Fisher has built a community center and filled the lobby with works by Monet, Degas, Bonnard and Matisse. "These people would never go to an art museum," Bill reasons. His own interest in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art has grown considerably over the years, and he has owned galleries in New York and Houston.

Since his retirement from the valve business in 1974, Fisher has commuted by private turbojet among his several worlds. In addition to an elegant Marshalltown condominium, he and Dorothy keep a Manhattan apartment across the street from Lincoln Center. "I live there for a reason. I tell them how to run it," he jokes. The Fishers also own a terra cotta Italian-style villa near Palm Beach and have summer homes in the north woods of Wisconsin. One is for their grown children, Russell, 37, a furniture and textile manufacturer, and Christine Hunter, 34, who is president and chairman of the board of the Washington Opera.

Fisher has a raffish side to match his aesthetic interests. His vices include gambling (he loves to sneak away to Vegas for baccarat), gin (he claims to be Plymouth's biggest customer in the U.S.) and chocolate mousse pies (imported from New York's Cafe des Artistes). Yet, unlike some philanthropists, Fisher has generally managed to avoid the urge to play the tune as well as call it. His only operatic score, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, was mounted in St. Paul in 1974 to what he calls "swell reviews." He hasn't tried twice. "I think you should enjoy giving," he says, adding with a twinkle, "Giving is as selfish as you can imagine."

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