Getting Good

Things really started moving for baritone Mark Delavan around the turn of the new century. The New York Times unequivocally cited his New York City Opera performance as Verdi’s Falsaff as the emergence of a world-class singing actor. Later in the season, a PBS telecast of Puccini’s Tosca, live from Lincoln Center, brought his chilling characterization of Baron Scarpia to a wide audience. Delavan performed the role with a total mastery, not only of the score and the work’s dramatic truth but also of the specific requirements of acting for the small screen. Although the NYCO production, set in the 1930s, was controversial, there was no doubt of Mark Delavan’s unmistakable authenticity. His was a Scarpia for the ages.

In January, Delavan is scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. Immediately after the Tosca telecast, and on the eve of his Met debut, Classical Singer requested an interview with this fascinating specialist in the darker, more twisted characters of opera. The objective was to discover just how he has gotten to be this good.

MARK DELAVAN: The secret is creative. You have to always remain creative and think creatively, and never competitively. Everybody says, “Well, it’s dog eat dog.” Oh, the hell it is! This is a great art form. It’s beautiful and wonderful. Oh yeah, the business end of it is just awful, and everyone hates it. It’s the same in any business. But opera touches people’s hearts. The competitive singers have that tightness, that edge in their voice. It’s fear, the fear that somebody else is gonna take their spot.

FREEMAN GUNTER: Is that when you began to move ahead — when you lost the competitive thing?

MD: I knew you were going to ask me that question, and I really started thinking about it. Sure, there are some monumental things that have happened [for my career] recently. But, the fact of the matter is I’ve been hacking away at this since 1983. I’ve been a professional full time singer — OK, I haven’t worked full time, all the time — but I have been a full time professional singer since 1983. I’m not bragging about this. In fact, I’m saying it as a matter of shame; it takes that long. But it took me that long because of that thing that we’ve been talking about, that competitive edge. I got into some personal habits that were highly destructive. Addictive habits.

FG: You mean life habits, not vocal habits?

MD: No, life habits. I do believe, and I’ll say this up front, that any form of addiction, whether it be work, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, codependence, relationships, any kind of addiction is going to be destructive to the creative forces that lie within us all. No matter what we believe, what we worship, if one is involved in any kind of addictive behavior, it puts a real block in the creative process. And I had to come to grips with that. I had some addictions that were horribly destructive. I lost my marriage over it, lost my full-time relationship with my son, my 10-year-old son, Lucas. I almost lost my career.

Everybody’s got his own inner saboteur. I’ve seen a lot of people go on the stage, and you know they’re getting ready to crash and burn. You look into their eyes and you see that “I’m not gonna make it. Nobody likes me. I can’t do this as good as you” look. And you see the other ones with the fire in their eyes. Then you’ve got the ones on the other side that say, “I’m better than everybody.”

If you want to be successful in this business, if you want to be successful in life, you have to treat yourself accordingly. There is a parallel in each of the major religions: Confucism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Each one of them has a parallel of the golden rule: Love others as you would love yourself. You have to start by loving yourself. It can not be taken for granted. You have to START by loving yourself. That sounds so “new agey” I just wanna puke.

Jealousy is also a huge problem, a huge deterrent to self-esteem. After the Tosca telecast I had a phone call from a rather famous baritone, whose name I won’t mention because it hurt me deeply. He acted jealous on the phone. We had a really good friendship for a long time. All of a sudden, some successes started coming my way, and he was not having the kind of career successes that he probably would have wanted. It was clear that there was some tension between us. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry I missed the telecast. And of course, I lied, I said, “Oh, that’s OK.” But it was not OK at all. It hurt me.

FG: What was your first real clue that your addictive behavior had become a serious negative in your career?

MD: My wife-to-be was the head of the young singer program in Sarasota and worked under Victor DiRenzi. He is a fabulous conductor, a fabulous man of music and a great help to my career. It was the first time, in 1992, that somebody started saying, “I’m not gonna work with you anymore because you’re an idiot.” He laid out the reasons. “You do this, and this, and this. Your habits have become a nuisance.” No one had told me, “I don’t like you. I don’t like what you do.” And that was the greatest benefit anybody could have given me. I don’t know how to thank him.

FG: You can’t get a much clearer wake-up call than that.

MD: It was as though it was laid out for people to see. It happened to me one time, I was on the other side of it. I’ll tell you about the good tenor and the bad tenor. They were competing head to head, so to speak. Well, let’s say the creative tenor and the competitive tenor. The creative tenor was a kid named Danny Cafiero. Everything Danny did, he did with a smile. Once I saw him — how do I say this? — not do his best. He was tired, his vocal chords were tired, but he kept that smile on his face, he took a big bow, he walked around and chatted with the old ladies out in Sarasota. Of course once he came backstage he was distraught. Danny is one of those kids with a great attitude. I watched him in Carmen, in some of the chorus scenes. Danny didn’t have much to do. But my eye was drawn to him, because Danny was always acting.

This other kid, the competitive tenor, wouldn’t show up to rehearsals, because he didn’t want to sing in the septet. He wouldn’t learn his music; he wanted the coach (who was my wife) to teach him. He would mark at inappropriate times. There was a rehearsal for the general director of the company, and he wanted to mark. He said, “I’m tired, I’m trying to mark.” And Stephanie said, “You know, Joe (which is not his real name), we need you to sing out so we can get the blend. It was a quartet, and he was marking, because of his precious voice. No one could judge the blend. They couldn’t figure out the problem. It turned out to be this tenor. And then this kid, after being a royal pain in the butt the whole time, always had a really good excuse, you know, like Dennis Rodman, “I forgot my socks” He said, “Oh, I’m sorry I was late, I forgot we had a rehearsal.”

He wanted a letter of recommendation from my wife for another program, and she said, “I’ll write you a letter, but I have to be honest with you, it’s not going to be pretty. I’ll say you have a very good voice, I’ll work hard to come up with something positive, but you have not been a good colleague all winter.”

I had the same experience myself. It was ‘92-93, a period of transition, where there were people saying to me, “We’ve had enough of you.” I had to say, “You know what, I’ve kind of had enough of me too.”

This is a spiritual journey that I believe everybody has to take at some point, when all the old behaviors don’t work. Although I could give this a religious connotation, I’m going to stay away from that. But you have to have a catharsis. You have to have a conversion. You have to go from darkness to light. You have to change from being a taker into being a giver. It takes some time because it is about breaking inertia. You can’t go forward and all of a sudden turn around and go in the other direction. My God, it’s difficult! So you need help. Everybody needs help. My first choice would be sending people to certain churches, certain synagogues. Get a therapist, get a 12-step group, but change. Do something. I heard a Christian saying, “God can’t steer a parked car.” Don’t just sit around trying to figure out answers, DO SOMETHING! Do something different! Here is the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The jealous ones whine, “Why does Delavan get all the success?” Because they’re sitting around complaining and I’m not.

FG: Once you recognized that you needed to change yourself, what steps did you take to bring it about?

MD: Two steps. First of all, I got a counselor, and he’s now become an intense buddy. His name is Arthur Buster Holmes. He lives in California and has an 800 number. I asked how much he charged and he said, “Don’t worry about that.” You think I’m not sending him any money now? I send money to him every month. Sometimes every week. We started by looking at those behaviors. We started by looking at — I have to figure out a diplomatic way of saying this so as not to put anyone off — what my religious system says about it, and we looked at ancient writings. We would consult that higher power whom we choose to call God.

It started with a deep bitterness. One book calls it a root of bitterness, one book calls it an angry spirit. Call it what you like, but way deep down inside there was one thing that wouldn’t let me go. And I was angry at everybody. And we worked on that, finding out where it came from. We did a little research. I was very angry with my father; I didn’t know that I was completely locked up with it. I did some writing about it, did some praying and some meditating on it.

The next thing that I did was get into a 12-Step program. Everybody says that’s just self-help mumbo jumbo. That is a load of …! And the steps are not steps to read, they’re not steps to think about, they’re not steps to pray — although praying is advised — they’re steps to do. I don’t know why miracles happen. I don’t know why the creative force of the universe/higher power/ (who we choose to call God) — I don’t know why he changed me from a loser into a winner.

FG: Maybe because you asked Him to.

MD: I think a lot of people ask. But I don’t know if people are willing to look at themselves and say, “OK, you out there, whoever you are, I’m willing to do it your way.” They’re only willing to say, “God, make me a winner.” And I think God says things like, “Are you sure? You think you can handle it? Cuz it’s gonna hurt a little bit.”

The steps hurt, because you have to look at yourself and see stuff you don’t want to see. I don’t want to see what a creep I am! I don’t want to see how I spit in that little kid’s hair when I was eight years old, and went away laughing. I don’t want to know that I was a bully. I don’t want to know I was a whining jerk. I don’t want to see that I am completely engulfed in self-pity. I don’t want to see that! It’s awful! But you’re going to be in pain anyway, you might as well pick your pain. We’re back to the creative vs. the competitive, one is creative pain, the other is competitive pain. This is creative pain. At some point the turnaround happened, the miracle happened.

You have to start from a position of powerlessness. You have to first admit that you can’t do this on your own, that you need help. You need to make something your higher power, something bigger than yourself. Maybe God. Some people use trees. I don’t usually recommend trees, because trees can’t answer back. You can make it another human being who is doing better than you until you can find something spiritual out there that you can latch onto. Mohammed, Buddha, who cares? That’s not true, I do care, because I think mine’s pretty effective. But choose something, as long as it works. If it doesn’t work, get another.

Here’s the worst part: You have to take an inventory; you have to write down who you are, what you are, and what you did. I remember the first time I did one of those damn things I felt like I’d given birth to an elephant. I sat there, and I was shaking. You have to say it out loud to a human being. If you don’t tell another human being who will understand, what’s the point? Do the actions, the feelings will follow. I don’t talk about how I feel anymore. Every once in a while, I’ll talk to my wife, and I’ll say, “This makes me feel bad. This kind of crap makes me feel bad.” Certain stuff. That famous baritone hurt my feelings. Do you know how hard that is for a big old tough hombre like me, to admit that I’m sensitive, and that things hurt my feelings, and that I’m basically just a big ol’ kid? I hate that. So what does one do? You just have to talk about them, acknowledge them, and move on.

Certainly there are things that are unjust, that are inappropriate in the business. But what are you going to do about it? You sit around and complain about it? Move on. Sure there’s a lot of injustice, but there are a lot of young singers out there that are going to lose jobs because they’re whining about things being unjust. Back to this Danny Cafiero kid. You never heard him complain about anything. He kept trying. They were working him to death. I’ll tell you something else, I’d hire him tomorrow.

FG: His good attitude must be something he was just lucky enough to be born with.

MD: I don’t know, I wasn’t born with mine. I had to work for it, and I had to change. I had to be willing to change. I mean, I could say now that anybody can have a good attitude. If I can, anybody can. I had the worst attitude of anybody I knew. I remember another incident at that same Sarasota job, with Victor DiRenzi, nothing went right. And thank God it didn’t.

I sat down with a guy, a bass named Matthew Lau. I was about to gossip about somebody and he said, “Look, if you’re gonna talk about another colleague, I’m gonna leave.” And he left. I was so shocked. I went on, but all of a sudden I was uncomfortable gossiping. Thank you Matthew. What a favor. He taught me a great lesson. There’s no point talking about each other. Sure it’s delicious, but it’ll get you. It’s a cheap thrill, another addiction, gossiping. You have to look at your character defects. You have to ascend in your higher power, because it has to be a higher power that can remove character defects.

When I worked those things, that was the year ‘93/94, I started getting better, started making a little bit more money. I didn’t have 2 nickels to rub together. I was living at 1016 Broad Street in Newark because Jerome Hines knew that I had been kicked out of my house and I had nowhere to go, and I couldn’t afford rent. I lived in the back room of a downtown Newark office building for eight months because I couldn’t afford anything else. Now, you think I’m not grateful for having a house? That’s the other secret: gratitude! It feels good to be grateful, and it feels bad to feel sorry for yourself. Gratitude and that inventory were the secrets.

Then a weird thing happened. In the middle of all this, when I was looking at myself, I laid opera down, I put it down. And I said, “Sir, whoever you are, I have done things in opera that I should have been lined up against a wall for and shot like a rabid dog. I have hurt my first wife, I have hurt my son, I have hurt opera, I have hurt myself, I’ve hurt my family. If you wanna take me out, I’ll go. But you’d better have a burning bush, because I don’t know what else the heck to do. I don’t have any other skills…I sorta type, I’ll go to computer work if you like, I’ll do whatever you say, but God, I can’t live that way anymore.”

Within three weeks, that’s as close as I come to a time frame, it was like the Master, whoever he is, said, “Do you know how long I’ve been waitin’ for you to say that? Fine. Son, I’ve got some things in store for you.”

FG: Aside from the personal, interior catharsis, when did you know that God had turned things around for you?

MD: Jerome Hines had set me up for a master class with Frank Corsaro. I didn’t know Frank Corsaro, and my attitude still stunk, but at least I was doing things differently, and I had prayed that prayer. I sang from Otello and Corsaro looked up and he said, “That’s about the finest ‘Credo’ I’ve ever heard.” I said, “Uh, well thank you!” He said, “Try this: what do you think about Iago? Do you think he’s evil? When he does these things, how do you think he feels?” I said, “I think he enjoys it.” He said, “Let’s try that from a position of enjoyment, when you talk about, ‘I believe in a cruel god who created me in his own image.’ Why don’t you say it with a little joy?”

I got it, and I went mad, right before his eyes. He said, “I would like to call City Opera on your behalf.” Now, my cynicism said, “Yeah right.” My mouth said, “That will be fine. Thank you sir.” He said, “I’ll set up the audition and you go in and sing for them?”

My brain said, “Oh man, you know dang good and well you’re gonna forget, and it won’t mean anything to you, and you’re gonna forget my name, you’re gonna forget everything, so don’t feed me a line.” My mouth said, “Thank you sir.”

Lo and behold the audition did come. He did call; he made good on his word. They called and wanted to hear me.

My agent, John Miller, phoned me a week or so later, and he said, “Mark, you’d better sit down for this, buddy. They offered you a full year’s worth of work.” But again, we’re talking about the creative forces of the universe that have gone to their very depths because of that one prayer, that have literally turned heaven and earth on our behalf, when we’re just willing to do it his/her/its way. I’ll never forget the next thing he said as long as I live: “They said, ‘What happened to Mark?’ They didn’t say, ‘what happened to his voice?’ They said, ‘What happened to Mark? He’s completely changed. He’s a changed man.’”

I was back at City Opera. I remember standing on the stage — it was that beautiful Lucia di Lamermoor set with all the beautiful dark paneling in the castle, the big duet. I had one of those moments. I thought: Dear God, would you look at where I’m at! Thank you, Sir, I really appreciate this. Then I went on with the scene. Where I had been a year earlier, I wouldn’t have spit on myself if I’d walked on by me.

It wasn’t until those times that I realized that my particular niche in the business is quirky characters. I mean, you talk about the Flying Dutchman! He’s been dead 700 years; that’s quirky. Enrico in Lucia. Mephistopheles, who’s weird in that production.

FG: This brings us to Scarpia, to the performance that so knocked me out on television that I had to call you and ask for an interview.

MD: If somebody has a deep desire to do those roles, you have to know your own weaknesses, you have to know your own proclivity for darkness. Friends and neighbors, I don’t know of anything I’m not capable of. I have seen darkness. I have looked into men’s eyes and seen their souls. I’ve seen murder in their eyes. And I don’t see any difference between them and me. I’m not saying I’m a murderer, but I’m saying you have to be aware of your own proclivity, you have to look Scarpia in the face and say, “I see that, I understand him.” I understand him real well, friends and neighbors.

FG: (sings Scarpia’s line from the Te Deum) “…both of them shall be mine. One on the gallows, and the other in Scarpia’s Arms!”

MD: And there but for the grace of God go I! So, I don’t have to act too much. Everybody has to look into his own soul. What are this person’s personality traits? Scarpia’s a sick dude, but he also has some positive qualities. Everybody says he’s just pure evil. No he isn’t. He’s just a man. If he were pure evil, then he would be Satan. So how are he and I the same? After all, he does have some positive qualities. He’s forceful, he’s powerful, he is authoritative, he’s charming, he is a leader. And he has a great line (sings) “Oh, Have I offended you? How awful of me!” And you’ve got to mean it. And it’s all a line.

When I knew that this Tosca was to be telecast, the voice of Jesse Lair, an old buddy of mine who had recently died seemed to speak to me. He said, “You’ve gotta work your butt off. Get ahold of that scratch tape.” [A tape of the dress rehearsal of a planned live telecast that can be used to test the effectiveness of the camera set-ups and as a back-up in case something goes wrong with the actual telecast.]They made two practice tapes of actual performances at City Opera. That last night, I asked for a copy.

Freeman, I looked at that thing 10 times. I noticed something. There was a great movie called A Bronx Tale. Chazz Palmintieri played a gangster and said the line, “You can always spot them because of their dead eyes.” Well, I found that I was trying to do that, and on camera I looked like I was half-asleep. I could see that for my particular body, and for my particular face, that wasn’t going to work. So I had to keep my eyes open a little bit more. I also found out that a couple things were so subtle they weren’t playing at all. I caught little distracting things that I was doing; I would anticipate a line. And I also noticed that some of the little things that I did with my face did work.

FG: Listen up, singers! Mark Delavan didn’t go out there on stage that night just hoping he would get lucky and give an inspired performance.

MD: I had to have help. I knew I needed another set of eyes. And I’m gonna say her name, because she’s my sister Reegan McKenzie. I used her as a dramatic consultant. I played it for her twice. She and I sat and took notes.

Remember that little bit with the Sacristan? He had that bad leg and I stepped on his leg, and ground my heel into it. That was her suggestion. Kevin Glavin and I worked that out just before that show. We had never even talked about it. He said, Yeah, do it, man!

I saw things in the death scene that didn’t work; it was like I phoned it in and so I made the decision that I was going to take a real fall. I fell like a tub of guts.

FG: Your relationship to Tosca’s clothes, to her cape, sensuously feeling it and drinking in the scent. It was as if you didn’t care that anybody was watching you, because you were not even self-conscious. You were really getting off on it. And that was wild! That was so good.

MD: I’ll give credit where credit is due; that’s Mark’s [Mark Lamos, Director]. He recognized that about this guy, too. That he would be into fabrics, smells and touches. And those things play well.

I worked hard. I’m not a natural on TV. But I recognized things that did work, like when Cavardossi came down and spit at my feet, I looked at the spit, and looked up at him. Then I saw it on camera, and it didn’t read.

So all I added was one cock of the eyebrow and it worked. The camera didn’t lie.

FG: This fascinates me: Your re-learning the role specifically for television and how well it paid off. I can’t believe, personally, that this won’t clench your reputation as a marvelous singing actor.

MD: I hope so. Again, it’s a matter of attitude or gratitude. What could I complain about? By the time 1995 had rolled around, I was actually working. Before, I made a whopping 1200 a year. A year! And I was trying to pay phone bills…I wasn’t even eating. People would say, “Mark you seem to be losing weight” “Yeah, you think?”

I have four or five volumes I could write on just gratitude. I’m doin’ what I was put on this earth to do.

A lot of singers are locked up in fantasy. They learned to sing when they were young and maybe they really don’t want to. They HATE it! Get out and go do something you love. I’ve got a few friends who just don’t have the temperament. Now, can they get the temperament? Sure. But you’ve got to ask the question: Is this really what you want to do? People have asked me, “What do I do to be an opera singer?” I give them a simple answer. You’ve got to find out if you were put on this earth to do this.