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Cheryl North Interviews Mark Delavan

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for June 13, 2003

Had composer Richard Wagner been clairvoyant, he might well have hand-picked bass-baritone Mark Delavan to sing the title role in his powerful opera, The Flying Dutchman. During a conversation with Delavan in his Davies Hall dressing room last Monday afternoon, I was struck by how well-suited the affable singer was to play the role of the star-crossed ghost-seaman of Wagner's darkly romantic 1842 opera. With his six feet three inches of towering height and his Dallas Cowboys fullback build, Delavan looks the part. But add his simmering brown eyes with their unyieldingly direct gaze; his shock of barely behaving dark hair, his booming voice, and irreverent wit - and by golly - you've got the larger-than-life Dutchman looming right in front of you. I wish Wagner himself had been there with me!

By the time this column is published, Delavan will already have sung the San Francisco Symphony's Wednesday evening performance of the cleverly staged The Flying Dutchman at Davies Symphony Hall. But despair not, tickets might still be available for one of the four remaining performances.

Joining Delavan in the stellar cast assembled by SFS management are Jane Eaglen, the world's reigning Wagnerian soprano, as Senta, the one woman whose love is capable of freeing the Dutchman him from his damnation; Stephen Milling as Daland, Senta's sea captain father; Mark Baker as Erik; Eric Cutler as the Steersman; the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under the leadership of Vance George; and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.

Delavan brings the experience of 26 previous performances as the Dutchman to San Francisco. With his large frame sprawled comfortably in an easy chair, he reminisced about some of his earlier stints as the tormented seaman.

"During one production my face was made up like a skull, with dark circles around my eyes and hair standing out so that I looked like one of the singers in the rock group, Kiss. In another, the director had me doing all sorts of wrenching physical exertions so that I was exhausted after every performance. Ah - and then, there was that INFERNAL coat I had to wear in another Dutchman," he boomed out, arms gesturing dramatically. "It must have weighed at least 40 pounds and I looked like I was wearing a big black bear. It was awful. I suffered. I'll never wear a fur coat again!"

So what about the San Francisco Symphony's "Dutchman?"

"I intend to bring a dark, smoldering rage to the role," he said. "After 700 years of failure at finding the one woman whose love would be constant, the guy's just got to be skeptical and angry. So, I play him with a kind of wildness."

During his youth, Delavan actually did want to go into professional football. "My parents were both singers, choral directors, and teachers," he explained. "I saw the ground floor in opera and thought that if this is what it's like, I want NO part of it at all."

Eventually he realized that he wasn't committed all that much to football, so he started college with a triple major: business, art, and music.

"But, I hated the business classes so much, that I told my Dad, if I didn't get out of them I would end up hurting somebody. I got my first Bachelors Degree in art, with a music minor thrown in for insurance."

In fact, when Delavan first greeted me in his dressing room, he was holding a finely carved, polished piece of wood that looked as though it was destined to become the handle of a dagger or a cane. "I carved it," he said. "After a while interrogating the universe (praying), I came up with the idea of working with wood, polishing and carving it, while on tour. I love art in general - painting, sculpting, and working with ceramics. Helps me keep my sanity."

"But my Dad eventually took me aside and told me, that in all his experience teaching music, he had had only two students with what he called 'It.' By this he meant the spark and the quality needed to make it as a professional opera singer. I was one of them."

Even though the younger Delavan was a bit resistant at first, the seeds were planted and, he says, "they spread through my psyche like a virulent bacterial infection. I became thoroughly hooked on opera and singing and spent hours studying recordings of Sherrill Milnes, George London, Cesari Siepi, Leonard Warren and more. Jerome Hines became one of my mentors."

He eventually got a second Bachelor's degree in music and was chosen to participate in San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and then became an Adler Fellow in the graduating classs that included Dolora Zajick, Deborah Voigt, Tracy Dahl, Susan Patterson, Phil Skinner, Tom Potter, and Jacob Will, among others.

He has recently sung lead baritone roles in Othello; Traviata; Rigoletto; Falstaff; Aida; Carmen; Tosca; La Boheme; and more with opera companies throughout the country and regularly sings leading roles with the Metropolitan and City Operas in New York City and is looking forward his first Simon Boccanegra with the Santa Fe Opera in 2004.

He enjoys a congenial relationship with his Dutchman co-star, Jane Eaglen and chuckled that the two of them have great fun communicating in various dialects when they work together. "Janie has the greatest sense of humor. She can mimic the dialects of just about any area of the British Isles, from Sussex to Manchester, to London," he said while speaking in the most convincing possible Scottish brogue himself. In fact, throughout our interview, he responded to my appreciative laughter by lapsing into any number of accents, including a chillingly precise German one.

He flashes his broadest, warmest smiles, however, when he talks about his family. He and Karen, his pianist wife, have given recitals together and she and two of their sons, the 3 year old and 11 month-old, travel with him wherever he goes. An older son, 13 years old, is in school in New Jersey.

"It's a challenge, taking them - and all their gear - with us on airplanes," he says. "But we've both got well-developed biceps!"

Delavan can be seen in what are bound to be indelible performances of The Flying Dutchman at 7 p.m. tonight, Sunday and on June 21; and at 8 p.m. Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall.

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