From Seminary to Mephistopheles: The Operatic Journey of Mark S. Doss
23 September 2011 2 CommentsBy Anya Wassenberg
“I hit a high G,” says Mark S. Doss of his upcoming role in the Canadian Opera Company’s season opening Iphigenia in Tauris. “It’s quite dramatic. The singer at the Metropolitan Opera sang it a tone lower. I won’t say who it is… but I sing it in key. It’s treacherous.”
It seems like the kind of “treachery” Mark enjoys, however. The Grammy award-winning bass baritone has had a good year so far, you could say. He completed a successful tour of European opera houses, including Verona, Florence, Venice, Bologna and Madrid. He made his debut as Balstrode in Peter Grimes with the Teatro Regio Torino and opened the season in Salome as his house debut with the Deutsche Staastoper Berlin. At the end of August, he celebrated 25 years as Mephistopheles in Faust with the Santa Fe Opera, considered one of his signature roles.
It’s not that the pace has slowed down any. I caught up with him in Toronto recently during rehearsals for Gluck’s opera. He’s full of praise for the people he’s working with in Toronto. “It’s a strong production that Robert Carson is putting together. This may be his best of the ones I’ve seen.”
His is a thoughtful, intense and focused energy, although that focus on his craft as a singer of opera wasn’t at all a foregone conclusion. “The early aspirations about becoming a baseball playing priest changed when I got to the seminary,” he says with a typical understated humour. He talks of putting the disadvantages tossed in his way to good use.
“One of my weaknesses was being behind in school,” he explains. After moving around quite a bit and dropping a couple of grades, he was horrified at the impending ignominy of being the oldest student at his high school. “I thought I couldn’t endure the humiliation,” he says. A counsellor’s advice to make up the credits he needed at that juncture was to take drama, and, gifted with a rich voice, that’s how he ended up in a production of Godspell as John the Baptist.
He became fascinated with the possibilities and began listening to Mario Lanza records obsessively. “I got the idea from that,” he says of his eventual career. As it happened, a teacher recommended him to a touring production of the Metropolitan Opera when they visited Cleveland, and he got paid $8 a day to carry something on stage as an Ethiopian in a production of Aida. At that point, the hook was in.
A Cleveland summer youth program provided a grounding in music and theatrical techniques, and another chance on stage. He still felt a higher calling, however, and recalls that his vocal coach was disappointed when he decided to enter the seminary. There again, though, it seems fate wouldn’t let him leave music alone. He intended to major in math but didn’t have enough of a background, and so settled on sociology with a minor in music – a minor that ended up as his double major. “That was kind of the transition,” he says of his unintended path.
At the time, he was singing tenor roles. “I was still in the Mario Lanza mode,” he jokes. It was a teacher who switched him to bass baritone – although the Mario Lanza mode may explain those high Gs. He later polished his technique in graduate studies at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, and credits his teachers there with pointing him in the right direction. “I started getting really involved in music,” he says. “I was really excited to be at Indiana.”
One of his career high points came singing the role of the High Priest in Samson and Delilah with the Pittsburgh Opera. He was called in to do the role at the last minute when the original bass baritone fell ill. “I had done the role before in 1998,” he explains. “I thought I had two days – it turns out I had to do it the night I arrived.” For the first few performances, he sang from the orchestra while the original bass baritone blocked through the motions on stage, but the pressure and the challenge produced something special. “It was one of the best performances of my life,” he says.
The absolute height cycles back to his very first role as John the Baptist, this time however with the venerable Teatro alla Scala in Milan in the opera Salome. “The second performance, everything clicked. I thought, I have arrived.” His religious aspirations had melded seamlessly with the music. A colleague who was in the audience later remarked that he’d heard many sing the role, but felt that Mark brought something different to it, and wondered what that could be. “It’s because I believe the words,” was Mark’s simple answer.
For Mark, opera satisfies every creative impulse. “It’s the culmination of all the arts,” he says. He approaches it with a meticulous and studious sensibility, working on all the elements that go into it – the singing, the projection, the drama and theatrical considerations, even down to getting the language exactly right. “Opera is trying to fill the hall. I know that I’m very critical about myself. It’s never quite a 10; you’re always working to get towards perfection.” He delves deep into the emotional centre of the character to block out any anxieties he has about his technique during performance. “I don’t want to stop in terms of development. I want to keep growing.”
He lists his Uncle Milton, a photographer, as an early mentor, along with the Chicago restaurant owners who let him try out new repertoire as he entertained their patrons. “You dedicate those performances to them, and to the glory of God – even when I’m singing the devil,” he says. “When I do Mephistopheles, I end by acknowledging the audience, and then a final kiss up to God. That’s always something that’s there.”
“It’s been a journey.”
If you’re in Toronto, you can catch Mark singing the role of Thoas (the Scythian king) in Iphigenia In Tauris, which opens the Canadian Opera Company’s 2011-2012 season (September 22, 25, 28; October 1, 4, 7, 12, 15, 2011).
On October 22, he’s one of the featured performers at the Planet Africa Awards at Roy Thomson Hall.
Later this year and into 2012, he’ll sing the role of Amonasro in Aida with Opera Tampa, the Title Role in Teatro Regio Torino’s The Flying Dutchman, and the Four Villains in The Tales of Hoffman with Opera Tokyo.
These days, when he’s not on tour, Mark divides his time between Toronto and a residence in Erie, Pennsylvania.