A Conversation with the Brilliant and Versatile Mark S. Doss
Grammy Award-winning bass-baritone Mark S. Doss has performed numerous roles with more than 60 major opera companies around the world and sung with several foremost orchestras. He recently made his Lincoln Center debut with a sold-out concert tribute to the legendary Paul Robeson, followed by performances in The Time of Our Singing in St. Gallen, Switzerland, a contemporary anti-racism opera he premiered in 2021 at La Monnaie in Brussels. Next, he will sing the protagonist of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead at the Rome Opera, the bass-baritone soloist of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in an open-air concert at Piazza San Marco in Venice with Teatro La Fenice, and Germont in La traviata with Welsh National Opera. For more information about Mark S. Doss, please click on the link at the end of this interview.
Mark S. Doss during the Paul Robeson tribute concert “Here I Stand: Paul Robeson’s 125th Birthday” at David Geffen Hall, April 1, 2023 – Photo: courtesy of Mark S. Doss
You just made your Lincoln Center debut with a sold-out concert tribute to Paul Robeson honoring his 125th birthday and his legacy. Please tell us what this concert meant for you.
It was very moving, and I think it went really well. The next day, we did it again at the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Harlem. Both performances were quite distinct, and the audiences seemed to like them a lot. We got some good questions, and I was hoping to give some good answers. So, I think we came up with something that was entertaining and also edifying as far as education about Paul Robeson and his legacy. And it links to this production I’m singing in St. Gallen, Switzerland, The Time of Our Singing, an opera by Kris Defoort about an interracial family, a love born during the concert of the great Marian Anderson in 1939.
It’s all giving me a great education that unfortunately as I grew up, I didn’t get. Why didn’t I get these things in school? They just weren’t available, or they weren’t known, or no one could teach certain things. I do have a degree in sociology, so I actually took a course on American minorities. I think the professor had a different take on how to present the course without necessarily trying to deal with the stereotypes of minorities and then display them and say “well, this only reinforces these stereotypes, why don’t we deal with the contributions of minorities in the United States?” They’re just so rich, these contributions that have brought America to what it is today, not just on the backs of slaves, but also in the sense of them giving their specific contributions in the face of the huge amount of different discrimination and people not appreciating fully what they were contributing.
Mark S. Doss as Captain Balstrode in Britten’s Peter Grimes – Teatro La Fenice 2022 – Photo: Fabio Barettin
So, what is your opinion of the state of opera today in the U.S. and in the world? Do you think it has become significantly more inclusive?
Oh, I think so. When we started The Time of Our Singing, it was quite poignant to do it in Brussels. Their general director was saying how much of a mix we have in the different racial connections, and a lot of different truths were coming out as far as how people are dealing with discrimination. I remember when I did The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis with New York City Opera, I sang the role of Reginald, his brother who introduces him to Islam. Then, I also did Malcolm with the Chicago Symphony some years ago, and there were some thoughts in the opera world then: “Can we bring out some more positive things so that these real-life stories have more of a possibility of a rebirth?” When I did it at City Opera in ’86, there was a mixture in the audience never seen before in that state theater, and many in the audience said: “Oh my gosh, there are so many other types of people here involved, and we are being more inclusive.” People started to understand that this needs to be done more often.
It is happening now, as a response. I mean, corporate America has tried to do certain things in making it more inclusive. In Europe, when I got there to do The Time of Our Singing, one biracial young lady from the Netherlands was saying how the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States sparked things in Europe. People fighting for rights and inclusion have definitely affected not just those in the United States, but also around the world. George Floyd has done something very powerful with his sacrifice of his life. In the past, certainly, people have sacrificed their lives. but things just went on, we seemed to keep doing the same thing over and over again. But for the arts to really concentrate on something like this to try to find a solution, there are more people dedicated to that goal now than there were before.
You know, Paul Robeson did the film The Emperor Jones while, at the same time, the lead in the opera adaptation was white and did it in blackface: Lawrence Tibbett. But what I also said during the Robeson concert was that it was Lawrence Tibbett who fought for a certain African American group of dancers to be included in the performances at the Metropolitan Opera; he said: “If they don’t go on, then I don’t go on.” So, we have to find every little bit of positiveness in what somebody will do and if they make a stand, because we can’t do it alone. We have to be asking everybody to be a part of this movement to have equality, because everybody benefits.
Mark S. Doss as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca with Welsh National Opera, 2018 – Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
In your impressive career you sang 100 roles, is that right?
101 now. Rigoletto in Cardiff was the 100th.
What a milestone to sing Rigoletto as the 100th role!
It was awesome! It was 13 performances or so just in Cardiff and then we went to other cities.
And you’re such a great actor; even in concert you bring together the acting and the singing and have amazing diction! Do you think you have a natural instinct for languages?
I think I have somewhat of a natural instinct. I have always enjoyed learning languages… French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian. I studied in the Catholic seminary, and we had to take Latin. I almost got a minor in it, but then the one professor said he couldn’t teach anymore; he ran out of things to teach, so I did an independent study of Latin. I don’t know Hungarian; this is one of the more difficult ones. I studied it a bit to try to do Bluebeard’s Castle, and I did scenes from it. I enjoy the challenges of Czech now for the performances coming up in Rome. It’s quite a beautiful language, you can actually have some connections to Italian. I also get good reviews on my English diction; when I studied at Indiana University, we did all of our operas in English. Now they do them in the original languages, but at that time but we didn’t really have diction classes. You had to do this sort of work on your own. Stanislavski has been very helpful to me in the attempt to really accentuate and to bring out the nouns. I do my own system of pronouns, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, and put them in a diagramming of sentences. This attention to bringing out certain words makes things vivid for the public; they begin to participate because they can hear and see what you try to describe.
Mark S. Doss as Germont in Verdi’s La traviata in Tokyo – Photo: courtesy of Mark S. Doss
I noticed that kind of word emphasis in your singing, which is interesting because you’re also following the dynamics of the composer at the same time, while bringing in your own word coloring.
Yes. When I became one of the ensemble members with the Chicago Lyric program, someone said to the singers in a masterclass: “You’re pretty much just a prostitute for the composer and for the director, and you can’t really bring that much to it.” I thought, that’s crazy, what are you talking about? I can certainly color words differently than anybody has done before because these are from my own experiences in my own life. It’s about how words affect everyone differently. I could always start a consonant a little earlier, I can sing a word with more emphasis or roll the r’s something more. There are so many ways to bring out language and make it your own.
Speaking of languages, in an opera like Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” I feel that the transmission of emotions and psychological states by the singer and reception of them by the audience are greatly impacted by whether it’s sung in French or Italian. It’s two different operas. For a singer so great with languages, do you feel these nuances when you’re singing Philip in Italian as opposed to French? What are the emotional differences for you and where do they come from, besides the sonority of each language and subtle differences in word meanings?
This is fantastic, thank you for asking, because these subtle differences are some of the things I would bring out the most since I’ve done it in both languages. It was a very poignant time when I did Philip in French in Boston. It was 9/11. I was about to sing Philip’s aria when we were told: “The towers are down.” We stopped and they advised us: “Go home, walk, don’t take public transit.” We did do the performances later and obviously people were still very much in a state of shock. But we got through them. I always felt the emotional differences in the two languages because I had done almost the entire opera with the Chicago Lyric program. I had also done the Inquisitor in Santa Fe in Italian, I worked with Nico Castel on that. So, it felt very profound when I did it in French and yes, it feels a different opera. I liked the accents; it has a little bit more intensity with the way the accents are set up. I like the way it connects to the vowels. In other works, there are times when one language is doing a little better than the other, but with Don Carlos you can’t compare, you can’t say the Italian is better or the French is better, that’s what’s amazing about it! Each language takes on different flavors and yes, emotions; there is a bit of restraint in the French, and the Italian brings out a certain fire. It’s just genius!
Mark S. Doss – Photo: courtesy of Mark S. Doss
Are you finding any connections between opera and spirituals in your artistic approach to them?
Yes, I think they can feed each other. I got that very early on when I realized the Italians really like spirituals. Just as an example, take Verdi’s I vespri siciliani, that sense of the spirituals is there in the emotion of “rise up, Sicilians, come back to your former glories.” And that’s just one example, these kinds of rousing-against-oppression emotions are in so many operas. I feel the connection, and certainly people have expressed it to me.
What is coming up next for you?
It’s a whirlwind, but a whirlwind as I like it. I just did the last three performances of The Time of Our Singing in Switzerland. Right away I’m going to Rome to do Janacek’s From the House of the Dead; the opera is sung in its original language, Czech, and is based on the Dostoevski novel. It’s very poignant, about the life of prisoners and how they are able to deal with this type of situation to be in confinement and tormented, and this aristocrat finds himself in with the prisoners. Then I have a little bit of a break to prepare because on July 8th, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth with La Fenice in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice; there’s going to be a live stream of it. After that, I will go to Cardiff to do Germont in La traviata. So, that’s a lot of back-to-back performances, but it will keep me employed. I will try to find ways to have a life offstage too and look forward to spending time with my wife.
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