Mark S. Doss: Performing Opera, the Culmination of All the Arts

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Learn more about Doss, see what he’s performed previously and learn what’s upcoming at his website or Facebook page.

This is the third and final article about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

Danielle Perrault: Studying Opera, That Stunningly Gorgeous Musical Expression

Danielle Perrault planned to be a psychologist.

In 2007, she finished her undergrad degree in psychology at Simpson University in Redding, CA, while maintaining a connection to music. “I had a lot of friends in the music department and I sang in the choirs,” said Perrault. “I was very interested in classical music even back then. There were times I considered switching my major to music, but at the time, I didn’t think I was good enough. I was afraid I would fail at it, so I never switched while I was at Simpson. I still really loved studying psychology, so I finished that. It wasn’t until I almost graduated that I realized I didn’t want to be a psychologist.”

Born in Queens, NY, but raised in San Diego, CA, Perrault returned to San Diego to be with her family while she figured out what to do next. “We’ve lived in the same house since we moved here when I was five,” shared Perrault, who has one younger sister named Kelsey. “After I graduated I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I moved back home and went to a community college to take prerequisites for nursing school, but the classes that I needed kept filling up. I ended up taking a music class to keep my schedule at full time.”

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Credit: Matt Haney

Then a class assignment required her to perform. “That was the first time I sang a solo by myself in front of people,” Perrault explained. “That was the beginning of my catching the performing bug. I started studying music about a year later and never went back to nursing.”

Perrault completed her degree in music and moved to Kansas in 2015 to study opera performance at the University of Kansas. She graduated this spring with her master’s degree. “I actually started out thinking I was going to go into musical theater,” admitted Perrault. “The two have a lot of similarities. Musical theater borrows a lot from opera, and it just kind of went off on its own track. But as I kept studying and taking voice lessons, my teacher and I both realized that my voice was well suited for classical singing. I still love musical theater and I’ve recently been honing my skills in that genre so that I can incorporate it into my career at some point. I went with opera as my primary focus because that’s where my voice was going and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Perrault sang in performances at the school and for the Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. “I’ve loved working there,” said Perrault. “The people are amazing. It’s always a fun experience with high production value. It’s a great place to sing.”

She also has had several opportunities to travel abroad. Currently in Italy for the month of July, Perrault also completed a choir tour in Spain while an undergrad and traveled to Germany after being selected by a panel to sing during the Eutin Summer Opera Festival in Eutin. “That was actually a tough experience for me,” admitted Perrault. “There were a lot of great things about it. Every time you get to go overseas and spend any amount of time in another culture is amazing, but it was also really interesting working in another country and experiencing a different work climate, a different work structure. It ended up being quite challenging. But I did get a lot of good things out of it as well, like cultural insights and learning how to deal with adversity.”

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Credit: Lauren di Matteo Images

Perrault is no stranger to tackling difficult roles and embracing learning experiences. “I think I’d have to say my favorite role so far has been Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” Perrault shared. “I did that while I was in my undergrad. We had a music director at the time who was very demanding and gruff, and the rehearsal process was often a bit scary. But as a result, I learned a lot and I grew so much. … I got a better sense of what it actually takes to be well prepared for a role. And the role itself was such a blast. I was playing a pre-teen boy. I’m a mezzo-soprano, one of the lower female voice types, and we frequently get cast in the roles of young boys or young men. When I was first starting my vocal studies and found out about that, I was kind of upset. I had all these stereotypical ideas about playing tragic, romantic heroines. Why would I want to play a little boy? But I actually really love it. It’s intriguing to play someone who is completely different from myself. I love digging into the psyche and physicality of a boy and having a blast with it. I hope I can do that role again many times.”

Ultimately, Perrault would like to be accepted into a young artist program, which, she explained, is an apprenticeship for opera singers. Typically, aspiring opera singers apply to programs at opera houses around the country. “They’ll typically hire four singers or so, one per voice part,” Perrault added. “They’ll use those singers for outreach events and sometimes they get cast in small roles or cover (understudy) lead roles for the company’s main stage operas. They’re all a little bit different, but ideally, that’s a possible next step I’d like to take. It’s one of the few ways young singers have some stability. It’s typically a two-year contract with a regular paycheck, which doesn’t happen very often in this industry. It’s not much and it’s not for long, but it’s steady. And it’s a great training ground to learn from professionals who are further down the path than you are, and to focus on your craft without the distractions of worrying about your ‘day job,’ or where your next gig will be. There are a lot of ways to become a successful opera singer, and a young artist program is not a requirement, but that’s an experience I think I would enjoy and benefit from.”

She’s aware of the personal challenges that the career holds. “I’m under no delusions that this isn’t a tough industry, and at the beginning, it’s especially hard,” Perrault said. “You have to do a lot of start up work yourself on the audition circuit. It’s a costly process in terms of time, money, and energy. Some people go the competition route, and if you’re good at that and win a lot, it can help with your many expenses. Application fees, recordings, accompanist fees, coaching, lessons, travel expenses… It adds up quickly. It’s really helpful if you can get management to represent you and open some of those doors for you. But the work never really stops. An opera career is still a business, and you still have to maintain relationships and connections and stay on the radar of producers, conductors, and company managers. I’m not quite there yet. They say you have to have something to manage before you can get a manager, and I’m still working on the ‘something’.”

Then there are difficulties with societal perceptions. “It seems like every few months, someone publishes a new article about how opera is dying,” said Perrault. “I can see how people come to that conclusion, especially with the culture we live in now. Everything is instantaneous. Opera is hard. It’s a difficult art form to consume. Even for people in it, it is challenging. For one, it often takes a lot longer to say things when they are sung. You have to be patient. The story takes a little longer to unfold. If you don’t know the language the opera is being sung in, or even if you do, you have to rely on translations projected above the stage. It takes a little more work than sitting in front of the TV. But because of all of that, it’s rewarding. Because things take longer to say and because the story takes longer to unfold, it builds a greater sense of dramatic tension, and the payoff is greater. You get to experience stunningly gorgeous musical expressions of human emotion that words alone can’t convey. I think opera has a lot to offer and I think it’s presented in a way that any human can identify with because it goes right to your soul. I don’t think the problem is that opera is irrelevant, I think people are reluctant to consume it because of the effort that it takes.”

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Credit: Villa Medicea di Lilliano Wine Estate

Perrault has noticed that opera houses are trying different series and offering music in different venues, like libraries, museums, and restaurants. “I think the new performance trends are helping people realize that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring like they thought,” she said. “Is it for everyone? No. Nothing is, really. But I think it’s for a lot more people than those who realize it. Opera is fighting against culture notions of what opera is, but I think it can thrive. … I have a lot of hope for the future of opera. People can help by just trying it out. Companies are doing what they can to make it more accessible to more people. A lot of them are active on social media, so you can get regular updates on what they’re up to. Just find something that looks even slightly interesting and go! Worst case scenario, you don’t like it; there are worse things in life than not liking something. It’s no big loss. But then again, you might be surprised and enjoy yourself.”

Full opera performances are available on Spotify or Youtube, Perrault explained. “You don’t even have to leave your house. There are so many ways to learn about opera these days. Operas are even broadcast in movie theaters now, so you don’t even have to dress up. It’s best live though, so check out what your local opera house is doing and go support it. It’s such a beautiful art form that expresses humanity in such a beautiful way. I think it’s something that needs to stay, and it can if people are willing to take a second look at it.”

Perrault continued, “Another hindrance is a general lack of appreciation of opera as an art form and the people who do it. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. I’m not trying to tell a sob story. It’s just a reality that many people don’t know about. One of the biggest critiques I hear is that it’s too expensive and that’s why people don’t go. For one, that’s becoming less true. Yes, if you want orchestra seats you’re going to pay a lot. But a lot of opera houses now offer special rates for students and young professionals. And most of the time, balcony tickets are very reasonably priced.”

Finding the right venue for the right price can help. Sometimes, opera houses will offer tickets between $15 and $20 for great seats. “It’s financially accessible for a lot of people in different income brackets,” shared Perrault.

Perrault also explained the prices. “Opera is very expensive to produce. A lot of people are involved. You have the singers themselves, and you also have a whole orchestra of anywhere from 20 to 100 people. You have the people in the costume, wig, and scene shops, the stage managers and stagehands, the lighting technicians, everyone working in the main office, etc. It takes a huge village to put on a opera, and all of those people need to be compensated for their time and expertise. We don’t make a ton of money. Maybe international super stars make a good living, but most opera singers don’t. You may get a nice big check for a six-week performance and rehearsal run, but then you have to make that for last several months until your next gig.”

Perrault added, “When you think about supporting opera, it’s helpful to think about the people behind it. It’s not paying into some elitist thing that executives are using to line their pockets. It’s helping to support people who really love this, want to keep it around, and are already making a lot of sacrifices to do so.”

Follow Danielle’s adventures online at her website or on Instagram. She’s currently performing in Italy.

This is the second of three articles about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

Christine Sacchi: Writing about Opera in a Way that’s Interesting to the Aficionado, Accessible to the Curious

Artistic talent and music appreciation runs in Christine Chase Sacchi’s family, but opera unexpectedly captured her heart a few years ago.

In 2009, when Sacchi’s daughter traveled to Italy as part of her art education, Sacchi, a homeschooling mother of seven, wanted to hear music that evoked the experience of being in Italy. She found Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, an Italian bass-baritone opera singer, on Youtube, and got hooked. “I looked up everything I could on Youtube and starting buying CDs,” Sacchi said. “He sings a lot in Europe and not as much here.”

She started to watch for a chance to hear him on stage, and was eventually able to see D’Arcangelo on the stage in Los Angeles, and continued to pursue her appreciation of opera in other ways. “I started being more interested in opera in general through being his fan,” Sacchi shared. “I would get so full of words every time I would go to something. I would write and put it on Facebook. My girlfriends who were opera fans that I met through Facebook groups had an endless appetite for everything I wrote. They said, ‘You gotta write a blog.’ A girlfriend from Russia said, ‘I read all the opera blogs, and I like yours better than theirs.’ After a year, I got around to it.”

Sacchi launched her blog on January 1, 2014, and now, over three years later, has hundreds of daily visitors reading her posts. “I’m having so much fun with it,” Sacchi said. “I’m having people tell me on Facebook that they saw me at the opera.”

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Sacchi started adding interviews to her blog, in addition to her reviews. She interviewed two composers, Robert W. Butts and Marco Frisina, as well as bass baritone Mark S. Doss. Doss sings in twelve different languages, and flies around the world singing in many prominent opera houses. When Sacchi first reached out to Doss, he was singing in Italy. Doss is tall and strikingly handsome, and Sacchi was a bit nervous at first. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m kind of afraid, but my readers just love interviews,’ said Sacchi, who was able to complete the interview in writing and eventually met Doss in New York. “This interview was perfect for my readers, since my blog is focused on basses and baritones.”

While the opera blogosphere is full of good writing, Sacchi wants her niche to be writing for those who may not be musical experts or even opera fans.  She wants to discuss things in a way that’s interesting to the aficionado while accessible to the curious. “I’d like to be a bridge between normal people and the world of opera,” Sacchi shared. “I want to appeal to the avid fan as well as the first time opera goer.”

As she’s attended more performances, Sacchi has been able to verbalize what she finds particularly appealing about opera. “I have distilled for myself why the art form is very special to me and why I’d like to see it perpetuate instead of dying out,” shared Sacchi. “The human voice without amplification is a very beautiful instrument. The experience of it hitting not just your eardrums but your body can’t be reproduced outside a live performance. To be in the room with the music is an experience of the whole body, mind, and soul.”

Of course there’s a place for microphones and recordings, Sacchi agrees.  But hopefully through writing about opera she can reach people with the idea that live singing is a tradition well worth preserving in an electronic age.

In her quest to introduce more newcomers to opera, Sacchi admits encountering some familiar preconceived expectations. She responded, “Some people literally expect to see a large lady in Viking garb, horned helmet and all.”

This raises the question of body image and the pressure on singers today to not only sound great but conform to standards of beauty driven by film and television. As to whether a large frame is necessary to sing well–it’s not. “I’ve seen a lady five feet tall and slender fill an opera house with her voice,” said Sacchi. “It’s pretty amazing what they can do with professional training. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with size at all. In the meantime, they’re now dealing with being judged on how well they look, as well as how they sing. This modern standard of physical beauty is putting a lot of pressure on the opera world. The singers think, ‘If I’m overweight, I won’t get the role. And if I get the role, but I’m not someone’s idea of slim enough,  what will the critics say?’ The critics can be vicious.  Fans like me get nervous because I don’t want people to get hired just because they’re thin. I want them to be good singers.  If the balance tips too far toward movie star looks, we could end up hearing lesser voices.”

In addition to old stereotypes, technology has influenced how a potential audience views opera. “We can all hear the world’s best at the touch of a button,” Sacchi said. “What does this mean for audiences attending local shows? Will we become unrealistically demanding?”

When considering new material for her website, Sacchi looks for performances that revolve around a featured singer, a new opera, or a particular composer, especially if she’s featured a certain person on her blog. “Because I’m interested in new music in helping opera not die out,” explained Sacchi. “We need new opera. The old opera is very beautiful but I don’t think we were meant to watch the same shows over and over. There’s something stale there. Culture needs something of our own time.”

She is also aware of how music continues to evolve. “In the 20th century, some modern music got very hard to understand, very intellectual and technical,” Sacchi said. “Audiences became wary of new compositions. I think we’re finding our way forward now to music that’s very beautiful and relevant. Opera is just drama and music put together–people singing about their feelings and about life.”

Sacchi writes in other forms as well and is working on her first novel, a murder mystery that revolves around a real-life church homicide. Catch the latest in her adventures on her blog.

This is the first of three articles about appreciating, studying, and singing opera.