Q&A

A. My first inspiration for singing opera was from watching a movie on television where a baritone broke a glass while singing a high note from the “Toreador song.” I remember asking the chorus teacher at East Technical High School in Cleveland, Mrs. Hilton, where and how I might find the Toreador music. She directed me to the library. I don’t believe I ever found the music, but it’s funny that the role I have now performed the most in my career [125 performances] is Escamillo, the Toreador in Carmen. Mrs. Hilton subsequently arranged for me to be a supernumerary (a collective non-singing part) in the Metropolitan Opera touring production of Aida on April 27, 1976 — my first exposure to a live opera performance.

A. East Tech was very well known for its great basketball teams, and had recently won the State Championship when I started there as a student. I began my first year with cross-country, basketball, baseball and tennis. My best success came in basketball — I was Starting Forward on a Junior Varsity team that went undefeated and won the City Championship, and the sixth man on the Varsity squad that also won the City Championship.”

A. My family lived next door to the church rectory, and the priests were very kind to us, so I wanted to be like them. I’d grown up loving to play baseball, so I decided from an early age that I would be a baseball-playing priest. When it came time to choose a college, I began to think again about the priesthood and it was ironic that a recruiter from West Point was also interested in me. My father and oldest brother, Buz, were both in the military, and that was also an option I considered. I prayed very hard about it, so that’s probably why I chose the priesthood! After high school I entered the seminary program at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana.

A. I took drama and chorus classes towards the end of high school. It was during that time that I was recruited to a part in the school musical Godspell. Then, during the summer before going to the seminary, I participated in a city-sponsored training program in the arts and was cast as Daniel Galein The Wiz That Is — an original adaptation of the Wizard of Oz. The voice instructor expressed his regrets that I was not going to pursue a career in music. Soon after, I was cast as the Padre in the Man of La Mancha at Saint Joseph’s.

A. The impact that GodspellWizard of Oz, and Man of La Mancha had on me, all done within a span of roughly nine months, is something that lives on in me to this very day. When you combine them, you get: “While looking over the rainbow, I believe that — with God — the impossible dream is always possible.”

A. I graduated from Saint Joseph’s with a Bachelor of Arts, having chosen to leave the seminary after my second year to become a regular student (as you might imagine, I enrolled in a number of music courses). Following my graduation, I went on to a Master’s degree at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana from 1980 to 1983, where I studied under Walter Cassel and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. My first opera role was in the fall of 1980 at IU doing Khan Konchak in Borodin’s Prince Igor. My performance was reviewed in Opera News and the reviewer felt I had great promise. I went on to perform five other roles at IU, one of which is becoming a signature role: Méphistophélès in Faust.

A. In the summer of 1983, I was an apprentice with the famous Santa Fe Opera Company in New Mexico. It was there that I began very seriously studying — with the help of such people as Nico Castel — the pronunciation and use of languages, which is now one of my greatest passions. From there I became an ensemble member of Chicago Lyric Opera’s Center for American Artists, which subsequently became the place from which my career was launched. After the Opera Center, I flew directly to New York to begin working for the Metropolitan Opera, (the Met), on January 21, 1986. My first assignment at the Met was covering the role of Manoah in Handel’s Samson.

A. The role of Julius Caesar in Handel’s opera of the same name (Giulio Cesare, Cleveland Opera, December 2002) is an extremely powerful one. He is, at the time of the opera, a great general, and in the midst of achieving his military goals, he still has time for the affairs of the heart. Cleopatra was played by Sandra Moon, who sang Susanna next to my Figaro back in the Opera Center some 17 years before. I received a very good review in Opera News for one of my performances and it was fantastic to be doing it in my hometown.

A. The role of Mefistofele in Boito’s opera of the same name (May-June 2004, with Oper Frankfurt) is the ultimate bass role. The singing is extremely powerful and requires a sizable voice, with a wide range to perform it well. It is slightly more satisfying from a text and dramatic point-of-view than Gounod’s Méphistophélès because the story contains both Parts I and II of Goethe’s Faust. It was a dream come true to finally sing this role after covering the famous City Opera Production in ’88 and ’89, but only having had the chance to sing the prologue of the opera with the Baltimore Symphony in 1995. The recording of a performance was also released on CD, receiving an outstanding review.

A. I recall getting a notice in the mail that Semele had been nominated for a Grammy in the Classical Recording Category. One receives a medal for that alone, and also a notice that can be framed very nicely. I didn’t think that much of it because I’d never had the experience of such a thing before. I certainly knew at the time of the recording that I was working on it with absolute “giants” in the profession — Marilyn Horne, Kathy Battle, Samuel Ramey, Sylvia MeNair, John Aler and others. I received an invitation to the Grammys that year, but I was performing far away and couldn’t attend, so I did not think of being better informed. It was only when I received the notice that Semele had won the Grammy that I really understood the significance of this honor.

A. When I first sang the role of Jochanaan on the stage of La Scala in 2007, I really felt I had achieved most of what I could ever hope for in the world of opera. Singing Jaroslav Prus in Janacek’s The Makropulos Case at La Scala has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career, and I believe more of these types of roles will be coming my way.

A. The most memorable things that have been said to me were by Marti Tavela, who discovered me practicing in one of the lower rehearsal halls at the Met in 1986, and exclaimed, “You are bass! I am bass too!” He then told me that he liked the quality I had in the higher register of my voice. Placido Domingo, after I had taken my curtain call and was on my way to my dressing room, stopped me right before he went out for his curtain call and said, “You have one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard!” It was my singing as Jake Wallacein La Fanciulla del West at Lyric in 1990 that he was commenting on. I was speechless!!! Joan Sutherland did not say anything, but when I first opened my mouth as Lord Rochford to her Anna Bolena at Lyric in 1985, she simply turned her head to the side and nodded in satisfaction.

A. Musical integrity is extremely important to me, whether it is something that a conductor or coach will try to bring to my attention or not. I have an obsession with doing things correctly and not just getting by. My greatest strengths are my diction, acting ability, vocal beauty, vocal range and vocal flexibility. In 1996, I had six reviews that mentioned my diction. Languages have been a great strength throughout my career and I am very proud of my ability to sound like a native speaker of the 10 different languages I have sung in: English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Russian, Czech, Hebrew and Hungarian.

A. My teaching has been very important for my musical development. Between 1995 and 1997, I held the position of Associate Professor of Voice at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. The experience made a big difference in my ability to perform and interpret my music — doing vocal exercises every day with students, playing piano and quickly analyzing repertoire was invaluable. I also care a great deal about the students and their development. I have given master classes from time to time and enjoy it when I can demonstrate with diverse repertoire and then take questions and work with students afterwards. I’ve also worked with some of the apprentice artists who are engaged with different companies.

A. I have experienced very little prejudice in my career concerning race, and that is something for which I am extremely grateful. In reading an article on the racial mood in the “Age of Obama,” I was taken by the notion that there is a greater sense of “why not” concerning the ability to do “anything” at all. That said, opera is still basically a European art form, and when productions are not modernized, there is sometimes little effort on the part of some directors to find a relevant place for a person of my racial background in the plot. One of the Caesars was of predominantly African decent, but because history has been written in such a way so as to exclude the existence of such facts, the imagination of those who are empowered to come up with realistic representations can be poor.

A. My goals are simple I believe: I would like to sing ‘A’ roles (Jochanaan, Scarpia, Amonasro, The Flying Dutchman, the High Priest in Samson, Escamillo, Méphisto in Faust, Mefisto in Boito’s Mefistofele, Zaccaria in Nabucco, Attila and Figaro) in the greatest opera houses on the planet.

Copyright © 2016 Mark S. Doss. All right reserved.
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