Opera star Mark Doss has seen both sides of the good-evil divide

  • September 14, 2011

TORONTO - When bass-baritone Mark Doss takes the stage as King Thoas in Iphigenia in Tauris Sept. 22, an altar of sacrifice will stand at the centre of the Four Seasons Centre stage. It will be familiar territory for Doss.

Doss has played Thoas in Christoph Gluck’s most successful opera before. He premiered the role with the San Francisco Opera. The Canadian Opera Company has borrowed the San Francisco Opera production. But Doss’s knowledge of altars and sacrifice goes deeper than the opera roles he has played.

Doss arrived at classical singing by way of the seminary. His love of liturgy and sacred music eventually spilled over and his big voice found a natural home on the operatic stage.

Thirty years later, Doss’s experience of life in the seminary still influences his approach to opera.

“I’m the kind of person who really deals with the words,” said Doss. “It comes from that background — the Gospel as the Word of God, and you see it’s a really powerful thing. So, why go away from something that’s really powerful?”

As a singing actor, Doss has little patience with directors who impose interpretations that don’t fit the text. He feels most fulfilled on stage when he can make the words his own. He traces his love of words and drama to his experience as a lector in community Masses when he was studying for the priesthood with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood.

Doss went to St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, between 1976 and 1978. He went into the seminary as a very traditional young Catholic with strong memories of serving Mass in Latin when he was seven or eight years old.

He walked into the maelstrom of change in the American Church of the 1970s. Many of his classmates had come up through the minor seminary and were ready to challenge accepted pieties that had dominated their formation as high school students.

“My prayers were very traditional,” Doss recalled. “I could see guys rolling their eyes. It’s not that I didn’t try to keep an open mind.”

For those two years, Doss made the seminary chapel his home — the place where he worshipped, prayed and practised singing till late.

“I could sing, you know blast away, to 9 or 10 at night,” he said.

Looking back, Doss thinks he probably should have opted for a monastery rather than the sort of apostolic community represented by the Precious Bloods.

“I would have been happy as a Benedictine,” said the 54-year-old Doss.

The Benedictine vow of stability would contrast with the career Doss eventually made, singing in Milan, New York, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Athens, Frankfurt, London, Chicago. For the Cleveland-born Doss, home when he’s not touring is in Toronto and in Pennsylvania.

But what attracted and still attracts Doss to the monastery is life stripped down to its essentials. Life defined by a monk’s cell and a single purpose fascinates the singer.

“You see a little cell. There’s the bed and the table and a kneeler. I don’t think I needed much more than that,” he said.

Doss has become most famous for his role as Mephistopheles in Charles Gounod’s Faust. It’s fun playing the devil, said Doss.

“It’s understanding what’s on the other side, and how people can be seduced by that.”

But if Doss were to choose a favourite role it would likely be John the Baptist (Jochanaan) in Richard Strauss’s Salome.

“When I did John the Baptist at La Scala, that was my debut in the role. The second performance was like, OK I can die now,” he said.

Doss recalls the director Gabriele Lavia telling someone he had never heard anyone sing the role quite the way he did.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s because I believe the words.’ I don’t know whether it’s obvious, but that’s why. It affects the sound.”

Doss’s run as King Thoas with the Canadian Opera Company runs to Oct. 15.

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