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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

it."

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

guy."

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

operatic roles.

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

crowd.

— Elaine Strauss

An Evening with Mark Delavan, Boheme Opera, Patriots

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

by reservation.


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