Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

Chicago can be proud to think of Mark S. Doss as one of its own.  After studying at Indiana University with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Doss became a member of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. He learned and grew here for a few seasons and now has moved on to take his place in the international arena.

In the fall of 1997, Doss returned to Chicago for the central role of Cinque in Amistad by Anthony Davis.  Presented around the time that the movie of the same title was playing, the opera was well-received, and Doss was singled out time and again for his portrayal of this noble character.  This coming fall, Doss will again be back in Chicago for the ‘standard' role of Escamillo in Carmen - a new production along with Denyce Graves and Richard Leech.

It was just before Christmas during the run of Amistad that I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark S. Doss and chat about his career.  Here is much of what was said in his living room that afternoon.....

Bruce Duffie: I'm sure you get this question quite often, but was the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists the right way to start?

Mark S. Doss: I think so. It came about in an off-handed way. I was originally supposed to go to Vienna and try it out for the Young Artist Program at the Staatsoper, but I got a little side-tracked. I had sent them a tape which they liked, and they asked me to come and sing for them.  So, I sold all my belongings at Indiana University in order to buy the plane ticket. I had a motorcycle, a 10-speed bike, and a refrigerator which I sold to Rossi-Lemeni!  So I went to Vienna. Lorin Maazel was the director at that time, but he was not there for the audition. So I sang anyway, and they said it was really great and asked me to come back when Maazel would be there. Well, I thought I was getting a sort of a runaround thing.  That summer I was in the apprenticeship program in Santa Fe, and Matthew Epstein heard me sing and thought I was capable of competing on a high level, so I sang in the Chicago Lyric finals and was accepted into the program.

BD: You mention the word "competing." Is singing always a competition?

MSD: There are certain aspects of singing that are like an Olympic competition - you get 9.9 or 9.5. Basically it's breathing techniques and your ability to use consonants and vowels in order to make sure that the text gets over; placement of sound – where you're comfortable with the mask of your voice. I think all those things can technically be done in a certain way that makes it out to be a competition. Once you take all those elements together, then you start to see what one person's ideal is. That's when it ceases to be a competition and becomes more about art. It's more about subjective production of what is an art form.

BD: Do you get another set of marks for "artistic merit"?

MSD: I think so. It's hard to say if people appreciate that.  It's a vague sort of world sometimes. There's certainly an appreciation once people hear the whole product and can see that you're not necessarily focusing on technique, that you've gone beyond that. And to that extent, there is a joy that they have in just listening to you and knowing that you're not just attentive to what you think is necessary but you're somehow expressing what it is that you have inside you. The vehicle is just something that you don't even seem to even be aware of. It just pours out. I think that's important.

BD: While in the Lyric Opera Center, you sang a number of small roles. Is it nice now to come back singing a major role?

MSD: It's a process I have evolved into. Some of the things that I did then were small roles with great artists-colleagues. Stepping out onto the stage as Zaretzki with Nicolai Ghiaurov, in Eugene Onegin was a big joy. For us at Indiana, there was a sense of "you are a big opera singer" as soon as you walk onto the stage. You have to go into the real world before you learn that's not the case. You have process you have to go through. I did Escamillo in the student performances of Carmen with Lyric about 6 years ago. That felt very strong.

Doss and Denyce Graves in CARMEN at Lyric Opera of Chicago

BD: Escamillo, though, is a baritone role. Are you becoming a ‘zwischenfach'?

MSD: Well, I have done Escamillo more than any other role and it feels more and more comfortable. I've gone back to repertoire like Sarastro which I did in Glyndebourne in the summer of 1990, and it feels more comfortable than it did before. I'm doing several concerts of Mozart and Copland Songs plus Mozart arias. I've been starting with "O Isis und Osiris," and it feels very good.

BD: So, when you're offered a part, how do you decide if you want to learn it or perhaps put if off awhile?

MSD: Well, I don't think I've gotten many parts that I've had to put off.  I did Mephistopheles for the Boston Lyric Opera a couple of years ago. Then Stephen Lords, the conductor who thinks very much where voices can go, heard in his mind's ear that I could do Scarpia. So I did that part, which went very well, and then he said Amonasro would probably be no problem. But I look over the music first to see what the range is. F sharp is usually not a problem. It's never been a problem on top. Then if there's a G, I have to see where it's placed and if there's a nice leap of maybe a 4th or a 5th which is really ideal for me. The kind of rising line, which is reminiscent of a Verdi baritone, is something I have to look out for.

Doss with Geraldine McMillan in AÏDA in St. Paul

BD: So you really want to have someone who understands the voice to have composed for you?

MSD: Right. Right. Verdi wrote in the upper 5th of the voice for baritones a lot, and he got warnings from some people that it might not be a good thing, that he might burn them out real fast. I can see that in some roles. One of the most difficult of the Verdi roles is Count DeLuna in Trovatore. I do Ferrando a lot, and that in itself is very difficult. People don't realize that.

BD: You get the whole first scene to yourself.

MSD: Yes, but because it's only the first scene and there's not very much singing after that, people think of the opera as needing the four greatest singers, but the fifth one is certainly necessary in order to accommodate some of the funny runs that Verdi has written. There are many grace notes that call for a lot of flexibility within the voice, as well as power and text. It's the story that starts out Trovatore. If you don't figure out what Ferrando's saying, you get lost throughout the opera.

BD: Have you done it with supertitles, or have you done it in English?

MSD: I've not done it in English. I've done it with titles every time that I've performed it – New Orleans, Seattle, and Melbourne, Australia.

BD: Do you like this idea of having the text over your head?

MSD: I do, as long as it's not distracting. I think it helps the audience to enjoy what's being said a little bit more.  I ask the technical crew what the timing is - if it's quick, if it's slow - and a lot of times they just tell you, "We do a wonderful job with titles here and we don't use too much, we don't do to little. We make sure that the pauses aren't too long and that we don't have too much repetition." Having people seeing something out of the top of their eye and just going up to it can be very distracting. If there's a lot of repetition in text, then it's nice to just see it maybe faded in and faded out. It's also the speed at which the titles come in. If you see something click real fast, then every time you see something up there, or you think you see something, you're going to be distracted.

BD: Do you feel a more close coordination with the audience when you know that they understand what you're singing?

MSD: Yeah, I do. It depends, again, on the speed of the titles because sometimes I may choose to take text at a certain rate and I think it's always nice to see people out there in the technical end trying to time out the titles with the individual singer and knowing that that is going to help in the performance.

BD: How much of you is a singer and how much of you is an actor?

Doss as Riolobo in Daniel Catan's
with the Houston Grand Opera

MSD: Starting out I did more musical theater. I think a lot of singers do that. I did a program when I had just finished high school in Cleveland where I grew up. It was a summer youth program for the arts and we got paid for it, which was something new for me. There was a director and a singing instructor, so we had studio instruction in voice. Then we had acting exercises – just improvisational things, being on stage and just being able to relate to other people - as well as movement and dance. We learned how big a gesture would be for a certain emotion and then how small you can make it but still get it projected to an audience. That's held with me ever since. I was 19 years old and it has helped keep my acting in proportion. When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on acting types, skills, and techniques.  I've studied some of Stanislawski's book on opera. Rossi-Lemeni at Indiana University was a fantastic actor. Just to see him in Opera Workshop was amazing. He would transform himself from one character to the next. My teacher at that time had coached a bit with Rossi-Lemeni, but mostly with Walter Cassel, who had been Horace Tabor in the Ballad of Baby Doe.  His acting techniques were different from Rossi-Lemeni's in that they always generated from so deep inside of him that you could always see it in the intensity of the eyes. He was just sort of a natural, a gutsy actor.  They were both very genuine in their styles.

BD: Do you change your acting technique at all if you're in a small theater like Glyndebourne or in a large theater like Chicago?

MSD: I think so, yeah. The gestures don't need to be quite as big if it's a smaller stage. St. Louis opera has that stage which juts out so you have people behind you and you have to make sure that they get an idea of what you're doing.  I did King Arthur there. In that space, you can use a very small gesture and make it very intense. You can also utilize a smaller sound, like a stage whisper, and sort of do the same thing with your gestures.

BD: Are you conscious of the audience each night when you're out on stage?

MSD: I'm not so conscious of them. I certainly know that there is an audience out there and I play to an audience. It's just that sense of the presence of people out there. I know that there are people out there, but I can't really see them. I can't see faces and so I begin playing to an aura of an audience.

BD: Do you also give song recitals?

MSD: Yes, I have.

BD: Are your more conscious of the audience in a song recital because you're right there with them?

MSD: Yeah. I was teaching at Michigan State University for the last couple of years and I gave recitals in a small hall, pretty much like a room where I had given a master class. The people were some 8 feet away and I could make it very intimate. I felt fairly comfortable with it. If I feel more comfortable with the repertoire, then I'm going to be more comfortable in that setting. If I'm not as comfortable, then I think I prefer a little bit of distance and inability for people to really look me in the eyes. If I see somebody nodding off, I can sing right into their ear if they're very close to me.

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BD: When you walk out onstage in an opera, are you portraying a character or do you actually become that character?

MSD: That's a very interesting question. I had a conversation with the director with whom I did Scarpia in Boston. There was that element of wondering if you are the character,  or am I just reacting to things as a character would react. I think about that a lot as Scarpia because you're sitting there trying to ask Tosca about information and she's telling you that she knows nothing. It all becomes a cat and mouse sort of thing. He's trying to be very coy with her. I went back to Tito Gobbi, who has written a couple of books. In one, he wrote that he never did watch his colleagues perform his roles. He didn't want to corrupt his own concept of the character. I actually thrive on that. I like to see what other people have, but only after I've already worked with a character so that I know what's inside.

BD: Now you're here in Chicago for this production of Anthony Davis' opera Amistad. Is it special for you to be involved in it because it's about your heritage – being an African-American?

Thomas Young, Doss, and Wilbur Pauley (l-r) in AMISTAD at Lyric Opera of Chicago

MSD: I think so. I only feel more admiration playing the character of Cinque. I had taken a trip to Bridgeport, Connecticut for a concert. During the first week of rehearsals, I was released for a Saturday and there was a gentleman that approached me who had overseen the construction of the monument dedicated to the captives outside of what is now City Hall. It was their jail, actually, across from Yale University in New Haven. So I'm there and I'm touching this monument. On three sides are Cinque. There's one side with him in his African robe and there's a dove flying apparently free. On another side, he has more traditional western garb and there's a dove now flying in a different way, supposedly in captivity. That struck me. And then a third side where Cinque is again in more African garb, with a Bible that they presented to John Quincy Adams.  I was told that this was the first monument that was built in America which is dedicated to an African. There are many for African-Americans, but that one is actually for an African. So that was quite poignant for me because that is part of the heritage. That is part of the history of the United States. In fact I didn't know anything about this thing until about a year ago when the opera was offered to me. A couple of weeks before rehearsals started, I was doing Ferrando in New Orleans, and I was invited to the Amistad Research Center. Dr. Johnson, the founder of the Center told me that he had been working on his doctorate in American history and he hadn't heard of Amistad. So he said, "Don't feel bad that you hadn't heard about it before you started this project." It made me feel sad that there wasn't enough that I knew about before. In African-American History Month, you know a lot of the people you heard of in school, but they were not people that came before that really said something about the heritage as it was. That really hits home. Here you have something to be very proud of.

Doss (left) and Young in AMISTAD

BD: Does it make it even more special to you knowing that you are bringing this to the general Lyric Opera audiences which are predominantly white rather than African-American? Or does that even enter into it?

MSD: I don't know if that enters into it. I did X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X at the New York City Opera, and my perception then was that there was a mix. I could see almost a 50/50 mix in the audience, a salt and pepper look, and that was something which was poignant to me at the time. Since then, I haven't really thought of it very much. I can't see out in the Civic Opera House in Chicago as well as I could in New York State Theater, so I can't really tell what the audience is like. I perceive that there is a mixture out there and that it's going to be both. When I sang my Mozart/Copland program in Birmingham, Alabama, I worried that there were people who might not like me because of the color of my skin. So for some reason, there were flashes at the beginning of this need to get the idea across that I'm really credible. I really do a good job, and it doesn't have anything to do with what color my skin is. I'm going to do this, and I'm going to show you. Then I kind of felt embarrassed afterwards because they really loved the concert. They really applauded very enthusiastically. Maybe this wasn't the crowd of people that I was thinking about.

BD: Have we gotten to the point that your artistry comes through and you are the professional and they accept that?

MSD: Well, I hope so. Certainly, that's the thing about expression. That's the thing about being able to articulate your thoughts and to enunciate the words very well so that people can hear that there's something behind the vocalism. People have said the nobility of the sound is what hits them immediately. Then they think, "Oh. This is credible."  I hope there are certain things about me that come across very quickly, and then people can have respect for a person of dignity.

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BD: Now, because of your vocal range, you're assigned certain roles. Do you like the characters that you play?

MSD: I do. This goes back to your earlier question about zwischenfach which takes in some of the baritone roles. I like the bass roles and people have said to me, "Well, gee, you've got the range, you've got those high notes. When you are going to switch over to baritone?" And I've said to them, "Well, I really like the bass characters. I like the sympathetic sort of father type, paternal type people."

BD: Aside from the devil, you're mostly fathers and priests.

Doss as Friar Laurence in ROMEO AND JULIETTE in San Diego

MSD: Right. Yeah.  I kind of like those elements.

BD: And the baritone tends to be a more evil kind of character.

MSD: Yeah, but sometimes, in a sense, he's a lover.

BD: Of course, if you were the tenor, you'd always get the girl. Would you rather be a tenor to get the girl a lot more?

MSD: Not really. I think the bass parts are a little more interesting. I think my heart is just a little bit more with that sort of fatherly, priestly kind of thing. It goes back to my seminary days at St. Joseph's College. I am still there in some ways. I'm still connected to that.

BD: Do you feel you're preaching classical music now?

MSD: Sometimes, yeah. I read one of the reviews talking about Amistad as being a large sermon. There are some preachy things Sarastro says, "In diesen heilgen hallen -  within these walls we don't know revenge." It's just basically a sermon. I think school kids need something that will allow them to learn that this is an art form which is valid and that they could aspire to. I did a one-week residency in Houston where I went into schools, and I realized that people had a connection to me when I told them that I had played sports in high school – basketball, baseball, cross country, tennis. I would pull out a rope and start doing little things with it, and I had some of the guys in these inner city schools say, "Oh wow." So all of a sudden you could see the ears start to pick up on the other things I would say.

BD: Aside from this kind of thing, how do we get more and more young people interested in and involved in the classical music?

MSD: I guess you have to make that impression upon them that it's something worthwhile and it's something that really is necessary. Certainly Amistad makes it more of a living art form and something that's connected to roots, heritage, and  it says something about what's going on in the world now.

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Bruce Duffie continues his on-air work with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  Next time in these pages, a chat with the American tenor Thomas Moser.

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© Bruce Duffie
Published in The Opera Journal, June, 1999

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