Interview: Bass-Baritone Mark Steven Doss On His Journey To A Grammy, The Big Stage & Spiritual Fulfillment

By Chris Ruel

Mark S. Doss is an artist recognized for his wide range, not just in his roles, but in his life experience. The singer has performed with the major orchestras of San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Toronto. Additionally, he has sung 95 roles with more than 60 major opera companies around the world including Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, the Vienna State Opera, London’s Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Canadian Opera Company.

First provided with the opportunity to connect with the performing arts as a pathway to academic progress, Doss understands the difference music education can make in the lives of young adults. The singer went from being a struggling student held back twice to a Grammy Award winner, a George London Award recipient (the award presented to him by Leontyne Price at Lincoln Center), and the winner of the International Verdi Competition in Busetto, Italy.

But, no recounting of Doss’ life up to the present is complete without exploring his spirituality, a trait that adds depth to his roles. As a man who once pursued the priesthood, Doss looks for the spiritual nature within each character he portrays, whether it’s Méphistophélès or Escamillo.

The spirituality Doss brings to the stage is reflected in the following anecdote he related to OperaWire: once, while cast as Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in the Teatro Comunale in Bologna production of “Salome,” the stage director pulled Doss aside after the performance, saying the bass-baritone’s singing made him feel as though something was “happening to him.” The encounter represented to Doss an object lesson in music’s healing power, a force the singer takes very seriously as he strives to bring opera into the lives of others young and old.

Rough Beginnings Made Smooth By Music And Drama

All stories need to start somewhere and a recounting of Doss’ pathway to international acclaim begins in the tough neighborhoods of urban Cleveland, Ohio.

His initial years in school started off rocky; he was held back from second grade due to poor attendance (per Doss, this was around the time that his parents split up). He was also held back in fourth grade “due to a lack of focus.”

But his counselor suggested that he take drama and chorus classes for extra credit, thus enabling him to graduate from high school. 

Upon doing so, the drama teacher inquired about his interest in performing in a production of “Godspell,” and the band director then asked if he would be interested in audition for a summer youth program that placed a focus on the performing arts.

“It was the first time the program was run in Cleveland, and I joined up,” he noted. “After some intense training lasting more than a month, members of the program put on an original adaptation of Frank Baum’s ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ called ‘The Wiz That Is.’ I landed the lead role of Daniel Gale in the production, and we performed the show for other summer youth workers.”

Shattering Glass: An Entrance Into The World Of Opera

We’ve all either heard about or seen—in some form or fashion—a singer shattering glass with their voice. Watching a performer break glass with a final top inspired Doss to ask the choir director about opera.

The director, Hilton, sent the inquisitive young man to the library to discover more, while also letting him know that the Met Opera tour needed supers for their production of “Aida” in Cleveland.

“Mrs. Hilton asked me if I wanted to be a super, earning me eight dollars and allowing me to see top opera singers from the wings and onstage.  I left, walking the streets of Cleveland, blasting out whatever songs I could come up with.”

When asked light-heartedly if he ever attempted to bust a wine goblet with his voice, Doss’ answer was no, but he understands the physics behind the phenomenon.

“My research showed the crystal itself needs to be tuned to the frequency of the particular voice trying to shatter it. So, yes, any of us can actually accomplish that feat, but you may have to pay out a few bucks to get the right crystal made.”

Belonging On The Stage

Doss’ subsequent stop after the Cleveland youth program was Catholic seminary at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, to pursue the priesthood. However, someone thought Doss’ talents could be used elsewhere, and that person was his voice instructor from the youth program.

“The voice instructor told me he was concerned that I would not be using my talents by pursuing the priesthood, though I told him I would continue taking voice lessons,” Doss noted before revealing that he ultimately left the seminary in his junior year due to an interpersonal conflict.

Then he auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and went on to the regional finals in Chicago.

“I worked very hard on five arias—in Italian, French, and German, and from both the bass and baritone repertoires. I got the attention of the Met judges, and that gave me a clear idea that I could make something happen in the world of opera.”

However, Doss remained skeptical but continued his study of music and declared a double major in sociology and music with the intention of getting a masters in this former subject matter.

But as fate would have it, he was pulled back toward music once more. 

“When I got rave responses from both the University of Illinois in Champagne and Indiana University in Bloomington, I decided to attend Indiana, the largest music school in the world and the largest school producing opera—seven operas a year and one musical,” he revealed. 

During his time there he performed in six major roles over three years with his first role being that of Khan Konchak in “Prince Igor.” It earned him a positive review from Opera News.

“I realized at that time that I could have a large presence in the opera world.”

From The Flying Shells Of War To The Flying Dutchman

Doss has sung the role of Escamillo an astounding 123 times, noting that it feels like being in the Olympics, but any attempts to pin the bass-baritone to a particular style or role would be fruitless. Doss finds Baroque works fascinating, takes great pleasure in performing the Verdi, Mozart, and Wagner repertory, and often makes ventures into contemporary opera.

Most recently, in Paris, Doss sang in “Shell Shock: A Requiem of War,” marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. Under tight security due to terrorist threats, Doss believes his performances in “Shell Shock” were some of the best in his career.

“Eighty-three heads of state were scheduled to arrive for the first performance, but they had to cancel their plans due to a terrorist threat, so the performance was quickly opened up to the public,” he narrated, adding that the Nov. 11 performance featured “five layers of security to get through.

“I still don’t know who might have been there, but I know I gave it my all and that my dramatic and vocal renditions reflected some of my best work.”

Before jetting off to Paris for “Shell Shock,” Doss was on stage at the Dallas Opera performing as Daland in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” where his voice was praised by the Dallas News for being “…[a] finely focused, splendidly declamatory baritone.”

The quick switch from Wagner to Nicholas Lens demonstrates the singer’s vocal and role versatility.

“Changing styles is what I regularly do when I perform a recital, which generally includes opera arias. I’ve been doing such recitals since the very beginning of my time studying voice, and I absolutely love making the transition from one style to another, finding ways to focus on what is most essential when conveying emotions that are in keeping with certain periods in history.”

To facilitate this versatility, he has a specific process that he employs that dates back to a role preparation master class at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor back in 2014.

“‘Who’s Who in Opera,’ and Wikipedia are great places to start when studying a role, and of course I go to whatever source material I can find that even seems remotely like something that will give me added insight,” he said. “When I prepared the title role in ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ I looked first at the words using great sources of translation and transcription, such as Nico Castel, to get an idea what the character was trying to express.

He also engaged two different dramatic coaches, one who dealt with the larger arc of the character and one who picked out choice moments for further investigation. He also had sessions with stage directors and worked with vocal coaches at the Met, La Scala, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the COC “to run the role and get their perspectives.”

From there, he the bass-baritone employed a Word Torture program (iFlash or Anki as well) to establish his interpretations of the text and then worked on them before also placing the music into a software program (MusicTime and/or Finale) “so that I can mold different ways of phrasing things that might not occur to others, while syncing an initial track from one that I admire the most—attempting to stand on the shoulders of giants.

“I will use solfeggio to make the intervals of music as precise as possible, and I will juggle with balls, rings or scarves to get the words and phrasing intensely into my body. Once all this is done, I will try to feel what the composer seems to be leading me to, and the results are usually very satisfying.”

The Devil And The Grammy: The Spiritual Side Of Mark S. Doss

A particularly favorite role of Doss aligns with his intensely spiritual nature; however, the character he enjoys most might come as a surprise to some—it’s the Devil himself!

He first sang the Gounod version of the Devil at Indiana University and has also interpreted Boito’s version

“The range is wide in both operas for the bass, both vocally and dramatically,” he explained. “The character dominates the stage with intense emotion, flowing legato lines and patter, and he certainly laughs quite a bit as he tries to defy God by taking the soul of a man who God knows will ultimately be faithful to him.”

He also added that the Devil should sound like an angel. 

“The Devil was once an angel, so he certainly should sing like one. Those who want to be well-armed against the whims of the Devil couldn’t find a better study than playing him.”

Doss is also a Grammy winner with his recording of Handel’s “Semele,” taking the accolade back in 1993. Interestingly enough, Doss did not attend the Grammy Awards that year; instead, he was in Fort Worth singing in “Don Giovanni”—another opera steeped in the supernatural.

“I found out after the fact via a letter that ‘Semele’ had won and I thought, WOW!!! I was asked if I would like the award presented to me where I was next performing. Logistical problems caused that not to be possible, so the award was just sent to me. I will occasionally take it to schools or a TV interview to show it off.”

Helping Create A Better World

Doss’ spiritual compass also guides his youth outreach, a project he is passionate about because of his background, his desire to help others, and the joy he takes in such work.

Doss’ mentoring methodology has a lot in common with sports training, helping young singers develop strength and agility. He works with them in a boot camp type of atmosphere to “to see if they can get through to the next obstacle and if I can take them higher and higher and higher.”

He will jump role with them, give them weighted hula-hoop, and even have them juggle before showing how to do those very things while singing a “complex Marchesi vocalise with some solfeggio syllables.”

“They begin to understand that opera requires one to focus on several things at one time and the need to do them all well. If they can’t do it, I am still gratified to know they are learning something just by trying and that will extend over to other aspects of their lives. My interest is in helping them become complete human beings, with the ability to say at the end of the day, ‘What I am is God’s gift to me, but what I become is my gift to God!’ I am just trying to help them mold the clay…

He noted that this duty was well-ingrained in him since he was a second grader and a priest, Father Dominger, came to speak for him and his fellow students.

“He said something that I will never forget: ‘I don’t know if there is a Heaven or Hell, but I do know that it doesn’t do me any harm to do nice things for other people, and I know that I feel better about myself for having done those things.’ It could be that in another life, I have experienced the value of helping other people to see and actualize their full potential. I see that as my mission in life.”


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