The Dawning of a New Wotan: Interview with Mark Delavan Part 1

[The two parts of this interview took place in the Press Room of the War Memorial Opera House, where Mark Delavan was performing the role of Wotan in the San Francisco Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”.]

Wm: You came from a musical family, your father being a college-level teacher of chorale conducting and director of the Phoenix Symphony Chorale, but you had not planned at first to become an opera singer, nor even a musician.

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan) contemplates the punishment for his favorite daughter’s disobedience in Wagner’s “Die Walküre”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

What were the most important influences that led you to consider an operatic career seriously?

MD: Important influences! Well, it actually was not this magical moment – “I will do that”; going into music became a matter of attrition of other options. Believe it or not, I didn’t grow up as an operatic fan. I was a student at a local college where my father was teaching.  I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I had considered a business degree, and had enrolled in an economics class.  In my brash, headstrong, youthful opinion, the teacher was maddening.

I decided I did not want to be in the economics class and was considering dropping it. One day, I was sitting in my father’s car and I said to him. “I can’t stand being in that professor’s class! If this is what being a businessman is, I don’t want to do it.”

My father said, “Here’s a thought. Drop the economics class and get into my choral conducting class. If nothing else, if you have enough experience you can lead music in a church”. That one change in my college courses led me to an arts major, a music minor, formal vocal training and to a career in opera.  I actually have conducted twice in  front of an audience, and have found that being able to keep a beat with my hands has been useful to me many times in my career.

[Below: Mark Delavan; edited image, based on a Christian Steiner photograph from]

Wm: Even so, there are surely directors of church choirs who do not aspire to be opera singers. How did you come to know about the world of opera?

MD: First, through my parents who were both opera singers and vocal instructors, then through the recordings they introduced me to.  I was influenced by two operatic voices and one non-operatic voice, in particular; Cesare Siepi and Sherrill Milnes, and the non-operatic one was Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers Band.

Wm: Which recordings of Siepi and Milnes had such an influence on you that you began to consider an operatic career?

MD: With Cesare Siepi it was through his Operatic Recital recording. I was impressed with Siepi’s ability to create a beautiful line in such works as  Infelice! Et tu credevi from Verdi’s “Ernani”, Ella giammai m’amo from Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Si la rigeur et la vengeance from Halevy’s “La Juive”.

Then I discovered the voice of Sherrill Milnes, who had recorded an album of tenor-baritone operatic duets with Placido Domingo that included Au fond du temple saint from Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles”, O Mimi tu piu non torni from Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Solenne in quest’ora from Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”.

I was most influenced by Milnes’ voice on the album,  “The Baritone Voice”.  It had some unusual repertory on it, such as See the Raging Flames Arise from Handel’s “Joshua” and O vin, disippe la tristesse from Thomas’ “Hamlet”. Also on that recording was Resta immobile from Rossini’s “Guglielmo Tell” in which Milnes sang an optional B- flat, and the cabaletta from Verdi’s “Attila” where Milnes (as Ezio) sang a full-throated B- flat, as well as Urna fatale del mio destino from “La Forza del Destino”. Milnes also sang a 20th century piece from Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”. I was inspired by Milnes – I loved that American sound.

I was also listening to Luciano Pavarotti’s album “King of the High C’s”. I thought to myself, opera is something I think I can do.

My favorite non-operatic tenor is Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers Band, because he has one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices that I have every heard. I wanted to have Gatlin’s ability to communicate.

I dubbed all of these arias onto a double-sided cassette and I listened to those tapes over and over again in my car until I wore them out. I found out when my father worked with me on my vocalises that I had a true  voice, capable of singing with power through the full bass-baritone range.

Wm: Besides Larry Gatlin, did you have other “non-operatic” influences?

MD: Yes, Johnny Cash,  Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley  and Tony Bennett!

[Below: Mark Delavan in the title role of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”; edited image, based on a Carol Rosegg photograph for the New York City Opera,  from]

Wm: You were in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and were an Adler fellow in the mid-1980s. During that time you appeared as comprimario roles in operas starring such luminaries as Placido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Regine Crespin, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Pilar Lorengar, Sir Thomas Allen, Leo Nucci, Renato Capecchi and Dame Josephine Barstow.

MD: You can add to that list Luis Lima and Justino Diaz. It was an incredible time for me!

Wm: Of course! What impact does appearing on stage in operas with such famous artists have on a young singer?

MD: It is an invaluable experience. For me, it provided the lessons in life that rather immature young man needed to learn.

Wm: What lessons in life did you learn as an Adler Fellow?

MD: I remember the San Francisco Opera’s 1987 season production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. I was performing the role of Fiorello and covering Leo Nucci’s Figaro. It was an incredible cast. Besides Nucci, Renato Capecchi was the Doctor Bartolo and Nicolai Ghiaurov was the Don Basilio. The conductor was Alberto Zedda, who put together the critical edition of “Barber of Seville”. The stage director was Giuseppe de Tomasi, whom everyone lovingly called Beppe. It was a wild experience to spend time with these artists.

I remember not being where I was supposed to be during the rehearsal period. Tomasi called for me and I wasn’t around. Sarah Billinghurst, who was then San Francisco Opera’s Artistic Administrator sat me down and said “Mark, you are so very unreliable.”

That information had to sit in my mind and simmer. I realized later that if  I wanted to be the “go to” guy, I had to be wherever I needed to be. I wanted a reputation for reliability, so that people would say “If someone is sick, go to Delavan”.

Wm: Besides Fiorello, you had several smaller roles among these famous artists. What are some of your other memories of that period?

MD: I have a “painful” one. I played the small part of the Captain in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” who has two lines (for which I was coached by the excellent Russian coach Susanna Lamberskaya).  As the Captain, I was supposed to run up behind Thomas Allen’s Onegin who is in a fight with tenor Denes Gulyas’ Lensky. One night in performance, Allen jerked his hand away and thrust it backwards, hitting me square in the groin. I doubled up in pain and dropped to one knee. Someone asked if I was all right and I indicated not really. Later Allen came to me and apologized. It was one of those unexpected things that sometimes happen in live performance.

Wm: And what other memories will you share with us?

MD: I remember doing a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” with a famous soprano in the title role. I was playing Sciarrone. The soprano had recently  been rather ill and had just been in the hospital.  In the second act, she needed to take salt pills at a certain time and there was debate as to how to get the salt pills to her onstage. I suggested that they give the salt pills to me. Onstage, I stood in front of her (my back to the audience) and opened my hand showing the salt pills. The soprano did a pirouette, touched my hand, took the salt pills from me and placed them on the table where she could get to them when she needed them.

For that same “Tosca” production my Sciarrone was costumed with a long overcoat, and I seemed huge. The singer performing Scarpia, even though he was also a big man, requested that our positions be re-blocked so that I did not obscure the audience’s view of him.  I realized that part of being a good colleague is to not only think of where one stands on stage, but also how it affects one’s colleagues onstage, and how it will look from the audience’s point of view.

At another time I covered Pablo Elvira, who was playing Enrico in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. On the day of an orchestra rehearsal , he had leg pain and was unable to walk. As his cover I had learned the staging, so the arrangement was made that for this rehearsal Mr. Elvira would sing from the side seated in a chair, while I walked the part with Gianna Rolandi, the Lucia.  Just walking the role while Elvira sang it,  was another great learning experience.

[Below: Doge Simon Boccanegra (Mark Delavan) in conversation with his daughter Amelia (Patricia Racette) in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”; edited image, based on a Scott Humbert photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: You may be aware that the role that Domingo has sung more often than any other in San Francisco is Vasco da Gama in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”. There is a DVD in which you appear with Domingo, Shirley Verrett and Justino Diaz in that opera. Is this your only experience with Meyerbeerian opera? Besides the four villains in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” what French operas are in your current repertory or in preparation?

MD: Yes, that was my only Meyerbeer opera. In my youth, I did Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen”, when I could fit into a matador’s Suit of Lights. I also have done the High Priest of Dagon in Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”.

In the future I would like to do Golaud in Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”, Athanael in Massenet’s “Thais” and the title role of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte”, because I find something very interesting in these conflicted characters.

[Below: Vasco da Gama (Placido Domingo) kneels before the High Priest of Brahma (Mark Delavan) in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: Are there DVDs or other recordings that you believe have done a good job of capturing your voice?

MD: No, I don’t have any commercial recordings or DVDs yet.  There have been some broadcasts  that have become available. But, you know, as an artist, I’m rarely totally satisfied with a performance; I review it afterwards and think, I could do that line better, I could hold that note a little longer!  I’m always looking for ways to improve.

[Below: Iago (Mark Delavan) reveals his Credo in Verdi’s “Otello”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Wm: In an interview with a Chicago television station prior to your appearances at Lyric Opera in early 2009, you were frank about having had a reputation in the early 1990s of being such a “difficult artist” that it was affecting your career and life in general. In that interview you related that the great basso Jerome Hines helped and advised you during a period of personal crisis. Do you regard Hines’ mentorship as the turning point in your career? What advice did he give you?

MD: I don’t know if Hines gave me a lot of advice, but that period of time was a turning point in my life. Hines was one of the unusual people that I miss. Jerry led by example.

I told the following story at his funeral. Something caused a clash between myself and Martha Griselli of Newark, New Jersey’s Opera Music Theater International. There was a room, facing Newark’s Broad Street, that she used for “discussions” with artists. She left me there and came back with Jerry Hines and his wife, Lucia. I sat in the “hot seat” (I later bought the chair from them). I don’t remember now what made her mad, but she gave me a well deserved lecture about what was wrong. As Jerry and Lucia sat there quietly, with serene, Mona Lisa-like smiles. I responded angrily with my point of view. Then Jerry, in that deep voice of his, said “Well, Mark, you’ve often spoke of your temper, but it’s very interesting to see it at first hand.”

There is a famous proverb that says a soft answer turns away anger. It wasn’t Hines that I was mad at, but his calm words changed my attitude. He had the strength of a  leader and yet was so kind. He offered me a place to stay when things got really rough; he  said that I could live in a back room in his office building, and that I would clean the place in lieu of rent. I consider Jerry and Lucia as members of my family. I still feel his mentorship.

Hines was also an incredibly generous man. There is a detail of voice training for which Jerry gave me credit in one of his books about the singing techniques of famous operatic singers. He had made reference about  Enrico Caruso’s “square throat” (a positioning of the mouth to produce a specific sound).  I said the shape it made was not a square, but a rhomboid. I was deeply humbled when Jerry quoted me on that observation.

Wm: We are now two and a half years from what I believe will become a very exciting time for artists with your repertory of roles – the bicentennials of the birthyears of both Wagner and Verdi. One expects that most opera companies have firmed much of their planning for their 2013 seasons. Will you be singing Wagner and Verdi for their bicentennials and adding more Wagner and Verdi roles to your already impressive list?

Wagner and Verdi – what masters! To be honest, I have learned and performed all of the Verdi roles that I want to do.  As time has passed, my voice has changed, and is now lower than it was ten years go, and so the lower Verdi baritone roles are where I feel  I can maximize my current skills. Also, the Wagner pieces are generally set lower.

Some of my Verdi roles are set very low, such as Iago in “Otello”, Amonasro in “Aida”,  Don Carlo in “La Forza del Destino” and the title roles of “Falstaff”, “Macbeth” and “Simon Boccanegra”. Those are the roles on which I want to concentrate and to hone my craft so as to do them better than anyone.

Wm: I am scheduled to hear you sing Renato in “Ballo in Maschera” in Chicago this November at Lyric Opera, on my birthday, no less.

MD: Well, I’m honored that you want to spend your birthday with me! That will be my 14th major Verdi role (the 13th being the one from unlucky “Forza del Destino”).

By the time of the San Francisco “Ring Cycle”, when I do my first Wanderer in “Siegfried”, I will have five Wagner roles under my belt. (Besides the Wotans in “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre”, I sing Amfortas in “Parsifal” and the title role of “The Flying Dutchman”.)

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan, right) enters into a unseemly contract with the Giants Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli, far left) and Fafner (Guenther Groissbeck) in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]

My buddy, heldentenor Clifton Forbis believes I should do Kurwenal in “Tristan und Isolde”. I am not certain yet as to what I can bring to that role, and have hesitated to date from committing to it.  I am interested in Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger”, in the future.

[In the second part of the interview, among other subjects, Delavan talks about his Wotans in Berlin and San Francisco, working with Francesca Zambello and Donald Runnicles. See The Dawning of a New Wotan – An Interview with Mark Delavan, Part 2.]