Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1961, Don knew that he wanted to be a singer from an early age — but when the time came to plan for college, he hedged his bets. He chose the University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) because he could follow a double track, pursuing a degree in electrical engineering while taking voice lessons and classes in a strong music program. “I was an engineer who was serious about music,” Wilkinson recalled as he reflected on his educational roots. “I gave a senior recital performing Bach with oboe accompaniment, I convinced the [university] president to provide funding for what became a wonderful production of Sweeney Todd, and I was chosen to perform a number of solos that expanded my experience.”
After college, Don stayed on a dual track for several years. He worked at GTE as a microelectronics test engineer while simultaneously pursuing a career as a singer. His career as a professional musician began at Emmanuel Music in Boston in 1984. The open door at Emmanuel Music led to other opportunities, including a role in the chorus for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque). “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said Don, “until I got a 300-page score in the mail, all in German.” But Don was undaunted — he was thrilled to be steeped in such glorious music.
Don performing at U Lowell with Consortium Artis Musicae
raised by The New York Times for his “outstanding solo work” and by The Boston Globe for his “superb” and “sonorous” singing, Donald Wilkinson was an acclaimed bass-baritone, conductor, and teacher who had a distinguished career in concert, opera, oratorio, recital, and contemporary music.
These beginnings led Don to a 28-year career at Emmanuel Music, where he worked closely with Artistic Directors Craig Smith and Ryan Turner. He became a sought-after performer of the music of Bach and Schütz, which he loved deeply. Don was often a featured soloist in Emmanuel’s Sunday Bach cantatas. He sang more than 100 bass solos and appeared as a soloist in many Emmanuel Music concert productions, including the role of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute with Craig Smith and Jesus in the St. Matthew Passion with John Harbison.
Papageno was a role close to Don’s heart because he identified with the bird-catcher whose whistle attracts birds. Next to music, Don’s greatest love was bird watching, a pastime begun in the Berkshires when he was a Tanglewood fellow.
“I’d get up at 6:00 in the morning, when everyone else was asleep, and go out with my library copy of Peterson’s bird guide. I was astounded at the number and variety of birds to see.”
Don and Dan birding
Having a musician’s ear made it easy for Don to hear and identify birds by their calls. He was touched when Craig Smith put together a set of seven bird-related songs expressly for Don to sing at one of Emmanuel’s Schubert chamber concerts.
Music and birding came together as well when Don had the opportunity to travel as a performer. He sang with the Boston Camerata beginning in 1991 until the time of his death in 2018, under Artistic Directors Joel Cohen and Anne Azéma; the group’s tours brought him to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Wherever he traveled, Don went birding, and new technology helped him find and identify birds in any location. And when musical tours didn’t bring Don to new birding adventures, he organized birding tours on which he led others in his beloved pastime.
Don made his European debut performing the role of Dionysos in the world premiere of Theodore Antoniou’s opera The Bachhae at the Acropolis in Athens. Additional appearances included the New York and Boston premieres of Viktor Ullmann’s opera The Emperor of Atlantis and an American tour of J.S. Bach’s Missa Brevis in G Minor (BWV 235) with Christopher Hogwood and the Handel and Haydn Society. He was featured in J.S. Bach’s Missa Brevis in G Minor and J.S. Bach’s Peasant Cantata at the Carmel Bach Festival. He can be heard with Emmanuel Music on Koch International Classics and was featured on two releases on Erato Disques: Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson, in the title role, and Angels with The Boston Camerata. He released a solo CD, Classic American Songs, in 2011.
Don performing in Borrowed Light on a tour to Finland with the Boston Camerata and Tero Saarinen Dance Company
Don appeared regularly at the Northwest Bach Festival with conductor Gunther Schuller. He performed with the Boston Camerata and the Tero Saarinen Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow in Borrowed Light, a piece featuring eight dancers and eight singers performing 22 Shaker songs.
Don also appeared with the symphony orchestras of Boston, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Springfield, and Portland, Maine, and with Boston Baroque, Boston Cecilia, and the Washington Bach Consort. On the opera stage, he sang the roles of Marcello in La Bohème, Belcore in L'Elisir d'amore, Germont in La Traviata, Allazim in Zaide, Sam in Trouble in Tahiti, and Konecny in the American premiere of Janácek's Fate.
Along with his prolific stage career, Don served for many years on the music faculty at Phillips Academy Andover as well as in teaching positions at Harvard University, MIT and Tufts University. In 2014, he founded the Nahant Music Festival, one of his proudest achievements, and served as its Artistic Director until his death.
Don with Nahant Music Festival fellows
The Festival was established to enrich the cultural life of the North Shore and to provide young classical musicians with opportunities for artistic development and public performance. As Artistic Director, Don was passionate about commissioning new work for the festival from local composers, including Francine Tester’s Keepers of the Light, which was based on a rescue mission during the blizzard of ’78 that led to the death of Don’s dad, Donald Wilkinson, Sr.
Don returned to the North Shore to live in 2001. He bought a house in Nahant, and his home was his castle and his refuge — he filled it with love and music. He cherished living by the ocean and chronicling the many birds he found. On the morning of September 28, 2018, Donald Robert Wilkinson died after a three-year battle with stomach cancer. “What you heard from the concert hall stage, as Donnie’s rich baritone rang out, was an affirmation of life and a declaration of love for creation itself,” reflected Joel Cohen, Music Director Emeritus of the Boston Camerata. “Even though it was too short, his was a rich life. He shall continue to live in our hearts for the light, the air, and the beautiful music his time on earth engendered.”
—Adapted from Emmanuel Music’s “Musician’s Spotlight: Donald Wilkinson"