Mark S. Doss grew up next to a church rectory and was able to observe the kindness of the priests who lived there firsthand. He combined his childhood love of baseball with his desire to enter the ministry, and settled on being a baseball-playing priest.
But another interest crept into view when he was young–he watched a movie that featured an operatic feat of breaking a glass singing a high note. He asked his chorus teacher, Mrs. Hilton, how he could find the music the baritone was singing. She directed him to the library, and then arranged an opportunity for Doss to have a non-singing part in Aida, a Metropolitan Opera touring production.
That day in April 1976 was Doss’s first exposure to a live opera performance.
He then took drama and chorus classes in high school, and performed in Godspell. That led to a city-sponsored arts training program, where Doss performed in The Wiz That Is as Daniel Galein. After that, he acted in The Man of La Mancha.
Photo from www.marksdoss.com.
Finishing a summer of performing, he entered the seminary program at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, IN, still intent on the priesthood. He ended up ministering through a different means. “My goal was to become a priest, and declaring my minor to be music was certainly a way (I thought) to continue my study of voice and to use that to the best of my ability in my ministry,” said Doss. “The comments I received early on did give me something to consider, but ultimately I knew that I wanted to use my singing to inspire others in a way that I, myself, am inspired, knowing that when one sings one does indeed pray twice. Certainly when I sing the words of Zaccaria in Nabucco, Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in Salome, or even Méphiso in Faust–the devil was once an angel–I am celebrating the gifts I have been given from God, and I am presenting back to God the fruits of those gifts, borne out through my hard work and dedication.”
At age 21, he won the second competition he had ever entered, mere months after the first competition, where he tried to sing after coming down with a cold. He placed in the District Competition of the Metropolitan Opera held at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
Still, Doss took his GRE exams in sociology and not music. Then things began to shift. “I auditioned at the University of Illinois and I was offered a full scholarship, and then I auditioned at Indiana University’s School of Music and received extremely enthusiastic responses from the faculty that heard me,” shared Doss. “I expected to be told I should just line up behind the other one hundred nice voices they had heard that day, but that did not happen. Something just seemed to ‘click’ when I would sing, and this came to me profoundly at one of St. Joe’s glee club concerts, when I found myself feeling extremely ‘at home’ while on stage singing ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof.”
Photo from www.marksdoss.com.
Doss left seminary after his second year, graduating with a Bachelor’s of Arts from Saint Joseph’s. He earned his Master degree at Indiana University, during which he sang in his first opera role as Khan Konchak in Borodin’s Prince Igor. This is also where he first performed his signature role, as Méphistophélès in Faust.
As much as the world of opera pulled Doss in, it has not been without its struggles. Without a large amount of musical training, Doss has had to be creative. “I have worked to develop many different techniques to compensate for what I consider a musical handicap,” said Doss. “My brain seems to initially put words and music on two different tracks, so I am constantly trying analyze each of them separately and then to bring them back together.”
In the years since he experienced his first live opera, Doss has performed all over the world in over 120 roles with more than 60 major opera companies, singing in 10 languages. He refers to opera as a “culmination of all the arts”, and has found that the art form fits his desire to have a hand in everything. “The word ‘opus’ means work,” explained Doss, “and the plural of that word is ‘opera’ (works). You have singing, acting, languages, dancing (ballet), scenery, makeup, wardrobe, the orchestra, and a number of other visual arts that are now incorporated into what we call opera. If you just want to sing, then you can do that with a piano or even a cappella, but it’s not opera because you are always going to be missing five or six elements of the art form that can only happen when you bring all of them together. ‘It takes a village.’ When you bring so many people together and have them working together on a single operatic project it can be a thing of great beauty!”
Doss won a Grammy in 1993, on the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Handel’s Semele, conducted by John Nelson. He was also honored with the Entertainment Award from Planet Africa for his artistic achievements while being a positive role model. He presents a Role Preparation Masterclass and continues to fundraise through Opera Susquehanna and the Bozeman Symphony. “Through my Role Preparation Masterclass I have presented as many elements of opera as I possibly can,” explained Doss who splits his time between Erie, PA and Toronto, ON when not performing. “I offer them a smorgasbord of what opera encompasses, and so I encourage people to study every aspect of history, culture, literature, music, languages that let them be encouraged to let the art more choose them, if they have the gifts that should be showcased for the world to see.”
Photo from www.marksdoss.com.
Doss also willingly and eagerly provides advice to those who ask. “Whenever I am asked to offer suggestions on singing, starting a career or my thoughts on a certain character, I am very enthusiastic,” Doss said. “Some of the conversations after performances have been very enlightening, when I get a chance to hear people telling me how many times they’ve seen me perform in other operas, or how many performances they’ve attended of the opera I am doing at the time. Some fans don’t like certain productions, and I often share their feelings or I try to explain the director’s concept in a way that might help them become more comfortable with different ideas. Primarily I want them to know that I am always more interested in playing a character on stage, than just being Mark S. Doss singing a few lines of music.”
The efforts Doss puts into fundraising are to not only raise awareness and encourage attendance, but also reach those who don’t have easy access to the art form. “I think there should always be private funding for opera, but also a balance of public funding because it really does allow so many people to be involved and employed, giving them a sense of worth and high self esteem,” shared Doss. “I think the funding issues are difficult, but not impossible to overcome with more innovative ideas. When the economic times are difficult, I think it’s very hard for people to attend performances of any type. My fundraising efforts have been to primarily help that situation and to constantly reach out to those in communities who might not be exposed to opera, inspiring them to see the possibilities the art form can offer them in its need to have a village to keep it going. Through the HD performances of opera, people have gone to theaters to enjoy the art form, when getting to the actual Opera House might be more difficult. This could be taking some people out of the seats, but it can also be inspiring more people to get their chance in the Opera House for the first time, and many times afterwards.”
Mark Doss performed as Méphistophélès at the The Coade Theatre during the Dorset Opera Festival until July 29, and graciously took the time to answer my questions between staging and videotaping sessions. His next performance, starting on October 7, will be as a soloist at the Wyoming Symphony in Casper, Wyoming. Doss will also perform as a soloist October 28 & 29 in Bozeman, Montana at the Bozeman Symphony.