How does bass baritone Mark S. Doss maintain stamina, vocal health and mental peace? Surely his extraordinary journey has taken great effort to navigate. It has taken him around the world to opera houses like La Scala, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera and Chicago Lyric Opera. His awards and accolades include a grand prize in The Metropolitan Opera competition, a Grammy Award and many other astounding accomplishments. This year, he will perform his 100th role on the operatic stage, when he debuts Rigoletto with Welsh National Opera.
Enjoy this interview as we find out what it takes to achieve and sustain such a remarkable career.
CS: What was one of the biggest turning points in your life that led you into the life of a full-time international opera singer?
MSD: My decision to leave the Catholic Seminary after 2 years at age 21 would certainly be the biggest turning point in my life. I had done enough with my studies at that point to look around and see what else I could do, and music and drama were in full swing after having sung in “Godspell” in high school, “The Wiz that Is” in the summer before entering the seminary, and “The Man of LaMancha” during my first year in the seminary at St. Joseph’s College.
CS: You’re known for performing fully staged opera, as well as concerts, recitals and recordings. Which type of singing do you prefer? What are the unique challenges of each kind of job?
MSD: I have just completed two recitals that were extremely gratifying. The movement from one genre/vocal style/language to another is exciting, and closely communicating and expressing music with another artist (the accompanist) gives this performance medium the VARIETY I love the most. Concert usually brings the challenges of having to have the music in front of me, while trying to take if off the paper for the audience.
Opera allows for the most concentrated development of a single character, with a break here and there for other parts of the plot to play out before you bring your role back into the mix. Being able to divorce myself from the music on the page and to fully bring out the dramatic elements makes this medium my next favorite after recital. Recordings allow you to concentrate on the precise execution of the music, while still trying to let the drama come across with the many EMOTIONS I like to concentrate on during performance.
CS: What are your favorite methods for learning a piece of music and preparing for a role? Do you have any methods that you recommend to young singers?
MSD: My favorite (and now essential) methods for learning a role are a part of my Role Preparation Masterclass, which I have been presenting since I first give it in Feb of 2013 at the University of Michigan.
- I enter all the words of the role into a word processing document and I number each phrase of the role, making the cross-referencing extremely easy when and if there is a problem.
- I enter all the solo notes and accompaniment of the role into a software program, transferring the resulting MIDI track to a program like Finale where I can also label notes with solfeggio syllables.
- I highlight the dynamics in the score, as well as on my page of numbered phrases (which then become cue cards), while giving each phrase of the role an EMOTION.
- I will play back the accompaniment of the role (with or without my vocal line) while video/audio taping myself juggling and then doing extreme pantomime gestures to rivet the text, music and emotions into my brain.
Young singers will always benefit from one essential element of my role preparation, which is to sing
- the beginning of a role
- the end
- the climaxes (phrases from recitatives, arias and/or ensembles) of a role/song to get an instant feel for what will be required to complete everything.
Enter the worlds of Sir. Lawrence Olivier with as many external sparks as possible to paint the role in front of you (at times I simply hold a painter’s pallet in my hand as I am looking at the score), to bring out more colors; or I will close my eyes and say 2 or 3 words or phrases of the character, in a Marlon Brando sort of Method Acting exercise to see what I come up with when I execute the role on video. The use of solfeggio through difficult passages gives an alternate perspective on what the music is saying TONALLY, and when I hear a leading tone that NEEDS to be resolved (mi — fa; ti — do), it gives me an emotional connection concerning how the line functions musically, just as rhythmically a dotted construction can make a significant emotional impression on my brain – so I play with it.
CS: How do you maintain vocal and mental health despite the rigors and stresses of international travel?
MSD: I have to say my current regiment for maintaining vocal health rests upon the regular use of mild detoxing programs, which include colon cleansing, aromatherapy, massage, liquids, naps, vocalizes and calisthenics. My mental health is greatly aided by the songs and roles I am learning, which are filtered through my degree in Sociology as well as my time in the Catholic Seminary.
CS: You’ve performed a wide variety of music in the most important concert halls and opera houses in the world, and you’ve won a Grammy and multiple other awards. Are there any career dreams and goals that you would still love to achieve in the future? How do you keep pushing yourself to stay motivated?
MSD: There are still many goals I would like to accomplish. I recently completed a run of 16 performances of Scarpia in Tosca with Welsh National Opera (where I will return in a couple of months to sing one of the premiere roles in all of the baritone repertoire, the title role in Rigoletto), and that brought my Scarpia performances to a total of 29. That is only some 850 short of Tito Gobbi’s reported total of 879 performances of Scarpia, so of course I still have goals to achieve, as 100 performances of that role would be fantastic.
Next month I will sing the title role in Nabucco (My 99th performed role), and when I sing the first show I will hope to sing 99 more performances before I retire. Likewise my 100th role will be Rigoletto, and I will be hoping to sing that role 100 times more before I retire. Two major opera houses (of the big SEVEN) offered me roles that I turned down in the past, so I want to make my debuts with those companies before I retire. When I was in school I wanted to do EVERYTHING, and opera is the culmination of all the arts, so there is not enough time if I were to live to age 200 to learn enough of what is needed to be the ultimate opera singer, and each leaning experience brings to mind the great words of Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I want to learn.”
CS: Do you have any advice for finding a work/personal life balance as a classical vocalist?
MSD: I would say that completing the intense methods of learning a role/aria/song should be accompanied by rewards that entail what you enjoy doing the most (other than singing), though accomplishing the successful singing of a complex piece of music is a reward in and of itself. I like going outside and biking, hitting a tennis ball, or playing table tennis. I have robots for both of the latter, so I will occasionally take a half hour (or so) to engage in that part of my life, and to talk to others about my passion for the art form and what it does for me. This helps me to balance what I am doing with my music.
CS: Are there any other career stories or bits of wisdom for young singers you’d like to share?
MSD: Ardis Krainik (Lyric Opera of Chicago) and Joseph Monastero (The Bel Canto Foundation) both passed on to me an essential mantra of what every singer (especially a young singer) should emphasize: (1) be on time, (2) know your music, and (3) be in good health. In the first case I have accomplished to achieve this by trying not to do too much (an obvious issue for someone who wants to do everything) when a departure/arrival deadline is approaching – though organization of my clothes, my music materials and my toiletries.
For the 2nd item, my role preparation tips have helped to greatly reduce my anxiety about having my music prepared on time. Lastly, my current detox methods, mostly vegetarian diet (I still eat fish), and napping systems have helped me to stay in good health.