Frank Babbitt: April 25, 1959 - February 11, 2023
by Melissa Trier Kirk
This February, the Lyric Opera Orchestra lost a cherished colleague, violist Frank Babbitt, who passed away after a short battle with cancer. Frank was a person whose warm smile, vibrant character and out-sized sense of humor drew you in immediately and created strong bonds of friendship. He was larger than life.
Frank grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he began violin lessons at the age of 8. At the time, violinist Max Kreuz (a child prodigy originally from Munich) owned a restaurant/tavern nearby. Max would entertain his patrons by playing violin along with the jukebox. Little Frank would come in, drink his milkshake, and watch Max play. They became good friends, and this relationship kindled Frank’s love of the violin.
During high school, he studied violin and developed a strong interest in drama and musical theater. He received his BA in Music and Drama from Lawrence University and went on to earn a MM in violin performance from SUNY Stony Brook, where he studied with Lazar Gosman and did post-graduate work at Indiana University with violinist Henryk Kowalski.
In 1988, Frank moved to Chicago to freelance. He was hired by a young cellist, Cornelia Baumgaertel, to play in a piano trio. “You seem more like a viola personality to me,” she recalled saying. They were married in June of 1988. Frank switched to viola, and they started a family. Frank began working on a DMA on viola with Peter Slowik at Northwestern University and taking auditions.
His first services with the Lyric Opera Orchestra were as a sub two years before Lyric began its Ring Cycle with Zubin Mehta in January of 1993. He was appointed as a full-time member of the viola section in 1996 by Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. “Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” he told Cornelia when he won the job. Frank loved the opera.
Frank was a natural teacher and taught throughout his career, privately and coaching chamber music. He served on the music faculty of the Merit School, Lawrence University, Loyola University, and the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. While teaching at Loyola, he helped negotiate to unionize the adjunct faculty.
Over his long career, Frank performed with many organizations in the Chicago area. As a chamber musician, he appeared with the “Music Now” series at Symphony Center, the Ravinia Festival and in the “Rush Hour” series at St. James Cathedral. He particularly loved playing in the back-up orchestra for Frank Sinatra, a singer he greatly admired. He also enjoyed many seasons with The Grand Teton Music Festival where he was featured as violist and baritone in chamber music concerts.
Frank never lost his interest in theater. He was often called upon to narrate Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” with his rich, resonating voice. In 2007 he began to perform Charles Dickens’ one-man dramatic reading, “A Christmas Carol” and added a musical underscore for violin and viola. Frank performed this yearly all over the city and Midwest to benefit different charities.
In addition to viola, Frank studied voice and loved to sing Schubert Lieder in his rich baritone voice. He was quite adept at impersonations and had a repertoire that included Marlin Brando, Christopher Walken, and on occasion, his beloved colleagues. He loved movies, history, baseball, and fishing. Above all, Frank loved his family.
He is survived by his wife Cornelia, his sons Benjamin, Alexander and Daniel and Daniel’s wife Claudia.