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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 20, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mark Delavan’s Pastiche of Opera Styles
Baritone Mark Delavan’s immersion in opera shapes the
recital he will give at the Patriots Theater of the Trenton War Memorial
on Saturday, November 30, at 8 p.m., with his wife, pianist Karen
Linstedt Delavan. As an opera performer Delavan has savored the elements
of what makes a character tick, how the character relates to others,
and how he reacts to the unexpected. Area audiences have heard Delavan
sing Scarpia in Boheme Opera’s "Tosca," and play "Falstaff"
at Opera Festival of New Jersey.
"I decided to go with characters and their stories," says
the Princeton-born Delavan in a telephone interview from Baltimore.
The city is his month-long home during a production of Verdi’s "Rigoletto."
In programing a recital, he says he avoids an over-arching story line
such as faith-based songs or music about love.
The Trenton recital will give Delavan a chance to play more characters
than he gets to sing in an evening at the opera. All right, his repertoire
includes the four villains in Offenbach’s "Tales of Hoffmann;"
but even that vehicle provides him merely a quartet of characters.
This is the same number of characters that populate Franz Schubert’s
story-song "Erlkoenig," just one of the pieces Delavan
will sing at the War Memorial.
For Delavan, some characters appeal more than others. "I like
the villains more than the good guys," he says. It pleases him
that the "Erlkoenig" is a devil. He is enthusiastic about
Schubert’s "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus," which describes characters
from Hell. He likes portraying Death as a character, and showing opposite
reactions to the grim reaper: In Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden"
("Der Tod und das Maedchen") he enacts the girl’s resisting
death; in "The Youth and Death" ("Der Juengling und der
Tod") he sings of the boy’s welcoming death.
Delavan includes two operatic arias in the program. He performs the
protagonist’s monologue from Richard Wagner’s "The Flying Dutchman,"
the blaspheming sailor condemned to wander the seas until the love
of a faithful woman redeems him. He also includes the original "Cosi
fan Tutte" aria in which a disguised Guglielmo tries to talk Fiordiligi
and Dorabella into betraying their sweethearts. Rarely used rarely
today, the original aria requires a voice with a range that encompasses
a low G and high F sharps.
"I like pastiche," Delavan says, "and wanted to cover
as many styles as possible — baroque, classical, romantic, impressionist,
and contemporary." The baroque entry is from George Frederick
Handel’s "Joshua," and depicts Joshua watching Jericho burn.
The contemporary material, suggested by wife Karen, consists of cabaret
songs by William Bolcom, and includes the dark "Black Max."
In preparation for the recital, Delavan discussed tempos and interpretations
with composer Bolcom and Bolcom’s wife, Joan Morris, a veteran performer
of Bolcom’s cabaret pieces. However, a Delavan-Bolcom relationship
goes beyond the Trenton program. Independently of Delavan’s choosing
the Bolcom songs for this recital, Chicago’s Lyric Opera chose him
to appear as Snooks in the 2004 premiere of the Bolcom opera based
on Robert Altman’s 1978 film "A Wedding." Delavan dreamily
compares his contact with Bolcom to that of a person born 100 years
ago and having Verdi telephone him. At the moment, however, "Wedding"
is somewhat distant. Delavan is fully occupied, not only with the
Baltimore "Rigoletto" and preparing the recital, but with
being an active father. And under less than ideal conditions.
His two youngest sons, Matthew Jesse, age two, and David Iain, age
four months, are with him and his wife in Baltimore.
"When we got to the apartment in Baltimore," he says, "we
realized that it had no keyboard. I was doing the best I could, memorizing
pieces for the recital, and tapping out rhythms. We borrowed an electronic
keyboard from the opera company and put it in our bedroom not to disturb
the kids. It’s missing an octave and a half on the bottom, and an
octave on the top. My wife plays the absolute stuffing out of the
`Erlkoenig,’ but she’s missing the bottom notes. Bolcom’s pianistic
writing is wonderful, but on this keyboard, it sounds like a kid wrote
Delavan praises both his wife’s ability to work until 1 a.m., and
her talent. "She’s incredibly talented," he says. "I’ve
seen her accompany a guy who couldn’t sing, and make him look good.
We’re really a nice match."
Delavan was born in Princeton in 1958 while both of
his parents were studying at Westminster Choir College. After jobs
in Pennsylvania and their native Texas, the family settled in Phoenix,
Arizona, in 1966, where father Delavan obtained an appointment at
Grand Canyon College. By the time Delavan was in first grade, he had
seen five operas; in all of them one of his parents sang.
His younger sister, Reegan McKenzie, also followed family tradition
and pursued a career as a vocalist and as a director. Last month McKenzie
directed Boheme Opera’s vivid production of "Lucia di Lammermoor."
"Because she was a singer before, she brings a unique perspective
to directing," says her brother.
At first resisting the family’s musical orientation, Delavan earned
a bachelor’s degree at Grand Canyon, with an art major and a music
minor. He earned a second bachelor’s degree, with a music major, from
Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "I got a good education
at Oral Roberts," he says. "I wouldn’t change one day of it,
but I wouldn’t choose to go back."
In 1982, at 22, he married. His son Lucas was born in 1989. The marriage
ended in divorce. Delavan remarried in 1999. The entire clan lives
in Madison, New Jersey. Lucas has appeared with Delavan in "Madame
Butterfly" and in "Falstaff."
After performances at regional opera companies ranging from North
Carolina to San Francisco, Delavan moved to New York, in the early
1990s. There he made an unsuccessful debut at New York City Opera,
suffered from an addiction, which he doesn’t name, and dissolved his
marriage. For about three years nothing seemed to work for him. He
made his nadir a turning point. "If you hit bottom," he says,
"you have two choices: You can either make it bottom or can make
it just another bad day."
After working with Jerome Hines’ Opera Music Theater International
and with Juilliard’s Frank Corsaro Delavan re-auditioned for New York
City Opera, which signed him for the 1994-’95 season. "That season
marked the beginning of the career I am enjoying now," he says.
What Delavan calls "knock dead" reviews for his City Opera
"Falstaff" led to an offer from the Metropolitan Opera for
2001. "Joining the Met was a huge jump," he says. "The
Met’s the Met. When I made that jump I got other invitations. It was
a catapult." Now on the roster at both New York City Opera and
the Met, Delavan has not yet run into contractual conflicts.
Detailing his attraction to villains, the six-foot-three Delavan specifies
Iago in "Otello," Scarpia in "Tosca," and the hunchbacked
Rigoletto as favorites. "With my size and my voice, I can be fairly
ominous," he says. Justifying his inclusion of the disabled Rigoletto
in his roster of villains, he says, "Rigoletto’s anger is ominous.
Rigoletto is a violently angry man without the physical capacities
to carry through."
"But I also do good guys," he adds. "With good guys you
have to do more big stuff to make them interesting. You have to show
a side of their humanity that people haven’t considered. Good guys
are rarely interesting in the theater. With bad guys everybody wants
to know why they are so bad. And my job is to dig and find out."
Although he presently concentrates on Italian romantic
and verismo opera, Delavan finds himself increasingly drawn to Mozart,
which was important in his career during the 1980s. "I probably
did 12 to 20 performances of `Don Giovanni’ on tour, and never got
tired of it, or of Papageno," he says. "Mozart just massages
your vocal chords. It’s almost physical."
Delavan finds a hidden villain even in "The Marriage of Figaro."
"I do the Count as a bad guy," he says, "a bungling bad
Explaining his temporary avoidance of Mozart, Delavan catalogs the
difficulties of Mozart’s recitative. "You have to get the Italian
just right, and get the inflection correct. You have to get the notes
right or you end up in the wrong key. It’s extremely exposed; there’s
only one chord from the harpsichord beneath you. You need tremendous
confidence and bravura and concentration to make it happen, but the
music repays you for your hard work."
Perhaps most daunting, he says, is the tedium of mastering the recitative.
"A lot of the expository information comes out in the recitatives.
They’re boring if you just rattle through the words. The audience
can’t catch up. You have to speak it in terms of drama."
To make the point, Delavan assumes the persona of an insensitive Shakespearean
actor and delivers the opening of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be"
speech at an unpunctuated, fast-forward tempo.
The maladroit Shakespearean is only one of the individuals Delavan
imports into the interview. During the course of our conversation,
he demonstrates the circumstance in which he uses both given names
of his two-year old; playing a displeased father, he sternly orders,
"Matthew Jesse, you cut that out!" He mimics a Scotsman, who
comments on the Scottish spelling of his youngest son’s name "Iain."
He becomes a supposed Swede after mentioning his wife’s Swedish name.
He evokes Snidley Whiplash, from the Dudley Do-Right cartoon, as "a
carbon-copy villain," and a foil to the complex bad guys in his
Besides being a formidable operatic performer, Delavan is an irrepressible
ham. The individuals he will sing in his Trenton recital cover a wide
swathe of humanity. With Mark Delavan on stage, there’s already a
— Elaine Strauss
Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton, 609-581-7200. "A Toast to
Tomorrow’s Superstar" features baritone Mark Delavan. $15 to $35.
Saturday, November 30, 8 p.m.
Post-concert reception in the Marriott, across from the theater. $15
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