Q & A: Peter Mark Reflects on his Career & New Project ‘Opera Voice and Body Work’

By David Salazar

When he was 12-years-old, Peter Mark received a recording of “Aida” starring Renata Tebaldi. He was hooked.

One year later, he got what he called “the chance of a lifetime.” He got to sing at the Old Met and was able to witness a number of singers from the golden age that would be major influences for the rest of his life. Among them? Renata Tebaldi, of course. But you can add Jussi Bjoerling, Mario del Monaco, Leonie Rysanek, and Birgit Nilsson to that list, among many others.

Having witnessed artists from that time period, Mark has felt himself to be a keeper of that legacy throughout his a career, which has seen him work as a performer, impresario, teacher, and as the founder and Artistic Director of Virginia Opera where he conducted over 100 productions in 36 years.

Now he’s shifting toward a new project: “Opera Voice and Body Work,” with the aim of helping singers better understand how their own bodies and voices work together as well as how to further delve into the interpretation and performance of major roles and characters. The project was created in collaboration with body specialist Karin Fantus and has just recently launched.

OperaWire had a chance to speak to Mark about this new endeavor and his major career milestones and experiences.

OperaWire: What is Opera Voice and Body Work? What was the inspiration behind it, and why is it so important to the opera world right now?

Peter Mark: OVBW is my ‘finishing school’ for experienced opera singers. This coaching gives access to each singer’s desire for vocal freedom and artistic expression as they are guided to access and own their unique vocal, musical, dramatic, and emotional identities. When these elements come together, singers embody “the full package” that every 21st-century opera company is looking for.

The focus of OVBW coaching is on two essential steps too often neglected in traditional vocal training: 1) understanding how each singer’s body can function naturally, seamlessly, and efficiently to support their unique voices; and 2) how to deliver the musical intention of both the character and full score precisely.

Our Body Work is based on “universal principles of the living body in motion”: the science of biomechanics, which explains how our bodies are “designed” to move. When a singer is using his/her voice inefficiently, we look at the body to see what area is deviating away from ‘normal’ alignment. Usually, the variation is subtle, easily brought back into line, and vocal freedom restored.

Each singer’s inner architecture (the shape of their resonators and support structure) is different. So are habitual movement patterns that create and aggravate the deep-routed tensions and compensations we fall into as life happens. This is where OVBW can help. We direct singers to define, redirect and re-align their bodies to restore them to maximum efficiency and effectiveness in their singing. That is what OVBW is all about. Encouraging and unleashing the vital and unique power of every singer!

OW: What can students who engage expect from this? What do you hope they will take away from it?

PM: OVBW coaching is designed to release vocal freedom and freedom of expression. Our formula for success is simple and direct: sing with maximum “physical efficiency” and minimum expenditure of breath and energy. That is our “mantra.”

Singers come to OVBW to be coached on their repertoire. Whether polishing a role or an aria in preparation for an engagement or approaching a piece they’ve only just memorized, we coach at their level and according to stated goals. Most sessions are a cappella and progress phrase-by-phrase. As singers meet original goals, we move on to tackle new ones. Each session builds on singers’ earlier progress and ramps up to a higher level of accomplishment than the one before.

Over time, technical and artistic progress “coalesces,” improving performance noticeablyOften tiny adjustments—how to relax the jaw, re-distributing body weight over the feet, how to counterbalance and support the registers and transitions with the full body—make all the difference to smooth and confident vocal lines. And singers know when they’re in “the sweet spot” because it’s effortless and feels just right!

During a session, Karin [Fantus] and I inject practical technical information on using the body “as nature intended.” We direct singers to recognize and re-enforce their best possible spinal alignment, which makes it possible to stand upright against the constant force of gravity. Karin enhances my coaching by analyzing singers’ postures and movement patterns as they sing and then recommending physical self-corrections to focus and release their true sound.

Tying together clients’ physical/mental consciousness underlies the success of both my singers’ and Karin’s full-body fitness work. A singer’s awareness of how things ‘feel’ brings more powerful and longer-lasting results than words and diagrams alone. Karin and I guide each singer to become fully conscious of physical sensations in their entire body as they sing. It’s the first step to sensory self-awareness, which is necessary to recognize and correlate even the most subtle physical corrections, both above and below the neck. With repetition, these adjustments become ‘hard wired’ in the nervous system to become new, automatic responses.

OW: Tell me about your relationship with Karin Fantus. How did you meet? How did you start collaborating, and what makes her the ideal collaborator for this project?

PM: Six years ago, I went looking for a physical trainer to work with my wife Thea [Musgrave] following routine surgery, someone close by we could trust with delicate rehab. I looked no further than down the hall from my apartment, where I found Karin! She teaches therapeutic exercise in an elegant exercise studio, only steps away.

When we met, Karin was vocalizing again (decades after getting a Music degree). So, we wound up doing a trade; voice coaching session from me in exchange for Karin’s guidance to analyze and improve how I use my body. As a former violinist and violist, there were bound to be holdovers.

In just a few sessions with Karin, I truly learned how to walk, climb up and down stairs efficiently, and how to get up from a sitting position, all using my core muscles, which I had not been using properly until that point. And I felt great! Most striking was that we taught our crafts in a similar way by focusing on each client’s unique needs while letting them control their progress through their sensory awareness and the feel of things in their bodies.

Karin loved to sit in on my masterclasses for opera singers, so the next obvious step was to lead sessions together, which we did in person starting Dec. 2019, shortly before lockdowns forced us to explore the opportunities, techniques, and benefits of teaching on ZOOM. She is an ideal collaborator. Together, we work to activate full body support for singing in the fastest, clearest, most understandable, and most efficient way.

As I listen to experienced OVBW singers, I hear echoes of the great singers I sang with onstage at the Met. All these years later, it confirms that the energy in their voices was directly related to their efficient body alignment and support, feeling the grounding of their vocal instruments as they sang often difficult musical lines fluidly, note-to-note, and totally in their characters. For the past five years, we have dedicated our collaboration to find ways to coach experienced opera singers to do exactly that.

OW: You have a very unique background that includes performances at some major opera houses in a number of different roles. How did you first fall in love with opera? What was the spark/first experience?

PM: I’ve been a musician since the age of 5 (piano and violin). At 12,  I was given Tebaldi’s 1952 “Aida” recording, which I wore out, playing it over and over again. Experiencing the dynamic power of opera, with all of it focused on revealing a human story, was overwhelming! Moreover, the range of nuance, color, power, and expression throughout Tebaldi’s performance moved me to my core.

When I was 13, I got the chance of a lifetime to sing on the stage of the “Old” Met (Broadway at W. 40th St.) as a boy soloist in the presence of greatness: Renata Tebaldi’s Mimì, Jussi Bjoerling’s rich surrounding halo of sound as Rodolfo, Mario del Monaco’s incisively heroic Manrico and Chenier, Leonie Rysanek’s soaring and thrilling Senta, Birgit Nilsson’s clarion Brunhilde and Turandot, and Richard Tucker’s indefatigable Don Alvaro and Cavaradossi.

Each of these artists produced and projected their unique vocal timbres and deeply personal feelings through the music! I could actually feel that they were fully supported and integrated with their bodies. Each embodies the vocal and musical traditions and values that make opera as thrilling, honest, and visceral as a primal scream! As our art form evolves, I see myself as a keeper of that tradition by preserving that body connection as we increase attention to acting, scenic spectacle, and directorial concepts. Of course, we must move forward vocally and musically, not backward.

In 1953, the original Amahl, Chet Allen, was on the brink of a voice change, and Gian Carlo Menotti was auditioning for replacements. That’s how I became the understudy at the old NYCO at City Center that spring season. I sang orchestra rehearsals under Thomas Schippers, with Clara Mae Turner, who was replacing Rosemary Kuhlmann as The Mother in Menotti’s NBC TV opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” While I was covering Amahl, I also sang in the children’s choruses and became even more fully smitten with opera!

Three fabulous seasons at the Met followed. I sang many solo roles, in choruses, as well as sang onstage with some of the greatest singers of the day; like Shepherd Boy in the new Tebaldi-Tucker-Warren-Mitropoulos “Tosca,” “Chenier” with Del Monaco and Milanov, “Bohème,” “Carmen,” etc. I loved it all and stayed to the end of every performance, sometimes listening from the wings or the rafters.

OW: At what point did you know you were going to take this career path?

PM: My voice was changing by 1956, and I had to cancel out of my final “Tosca.” I was advised to “keep my mouth shut” for 3 years (rather than “ruin” my voice). So I refocused on my stringed instruments and my Juilliard education. Three years later, I looked for a teacher to help me regain the musculature which had supported my soprano voice, even as it was descending in range while gaining amplitude and richness. Unfortunately, I never found that teacher. I am telling you this because I became the teacher that I needed then! So you can understand how important the work Karin and I do with singers is to me personally.

By June 1975, I had already played two seasons as Principal Violist of Lyric Opera of Chicago and had been a Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara for ten years, teaching viola, opera, and music history. Miraculously, all the diverse elements of my background, as well as my hopes and dreams, came together at Virginia Opera, which I built and ran alongside the brilliant founding President, Edythe Harrison, and the terrific stage director, David Farrar. We built up Virginia Opera with extraordinary vocal talent. My first “Traviata” there in 1975 featured Diana Soviero in her first Italian Violetta, Jake Gardner as Giorgio Germont, and Raymond Gibbs as Alfredo.

For the following four decades, I couldn’t have been happier casting and conducting opera after opera. In hindsight, I realize that if I had grown up to sing opera, I would only have sung the roles that were right for my “fach.” But as conductor, I got to sing all the roles and choose the casts and directors, and put the whole process together organically for 36 seasons! That was an incomparable total experience in opera.

It is truly hard to describe, for those who haven’t experienced it, how thrilling it is to conduct an opera from the pit with full orchestra, chorus, and solo singers. First, you have the best seat in the house, with both singers and orchestra directly in front of you and nobody in between. Then, to guide the flow and intensity of the drama through the music and instinctively support each singer—whom you have worked with through a three-to-four week rehearsal process—eliciting the best possible integration of voice, drama, and music is like nothing else in this world! You are both “transported” to live in a fully created but alternate universe for each performance and also fully “alert” and “aware” of all the elements that comprise it, keeping it on track and reaching for ever higher goals for each truly live performance! To lead and support so many talented people at the same time has been a wonderful and unique experience, as well as my truly sacred personal mission.

OW: What are some of the great challenges you have encountered throughout your career in opera? How did you overcome them, and what were the valuable lessons you learned along the way?

PM: If a door closes on one path (singing opera) to your passion, other paths (conducting opera) will get you there. [Another lesson was] how to produce quality opera on a limited budget. I used my background and instincts to cast less established singers whom I knew would deliver excellent performances. In my auditions, I would make sure they were open to suggestions and growth. And then I worked with them and supported them thoroughly in coachings and from the pit!

Early on at Virginia Opera, we brought in Danny Newman, the “subscription guru” of Chicago Lyric Opera, who advised us to bring in a name artist like Beverly Sills to sell our initial 1975-6 season. I knew we could never afford her to be there for long enough to have a really integrated production. So instead of “instant opera” with established and expensive stars, we created our own stars and delivered fully rehearsed and crafted productions. That’s what I believe opera is all about, and it’s exactly what we did for the next 36 years — giving our younger, less experienced artists great opportunities for building their skills and careers while our audiences enjoyed the thrill and energy of being part of an exciting discovery process!

I quickly realized our budget development and efficiency would be best served with more performances to earn back the money spent in our full rehearsal periods. Performances that meant going beyond Norfolk. Eventually, we settled into a three-city performance structure. We brought multiple performances of each Norfolk production to Richmond and Fairfax, and sometimes also to Charlottesville. We developed a touring Young Artist program, reaching out across the Commonwealth of Virginia to draw interest and audience to our Main Stage productions. This enabled us to expand and balance our budget as we continued to grow.

With multiple performances in each city, as well as newspaper coverage, our artists sang eight to ten performances of their roles and got at least 10 reviews for their budding careers. To raise money in all our cities, we had a 100-person Board representing our three regional centers, which, as you can well imagine, brought its own challenges. And not only did we travel and set up the productions in three completely different venues, but we mounted three different marketing and fundraising campaigns to go along with them. I was able to take our complete production of “Porgy and Bess” (directed by Arvin Brown) to opera houses in South America, giving multiple performances at Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Teatro Solis in Montevideo, and Teatro Municipal in São Paulo. Someday I will write the book!

OW: What were some of the highs of your journey in opera? How did that shape your career and life?

PM: Meeting Thea Musgrave in 1970 (we married in 1971) was yet another stroke of fabulous luck on many levels. Not only is she a great dramatic composer in ALL of her works—whether orchestral, operatic, choral, ballet, or chamber music—but she brought me out of the smaller musical world of Santa Barbara and back to the great urban centers where her works were being produced: London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Being able to introduce and conduct many of her operas in Virginia (“Mary, Queen of Scots”- American Premiere, 1977; “A Christmas Carol”World Premiere, 1979; “Harriet, the Woman called Moses” – World Premiere, 1984 and “Simon Bolivar”- World Premiere, 1992), and in New York for City Opera (“MQS”- 1981), for a Royal Opera run of “A Christmas Carol” at Sadler’s Wells in Dec. 1981, as well as excerpts from “Simon Bolivar” at the Proms in London at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995 were all certainly highlights of my career!

OW: Which artists in opera (composers/singers/conductors/directors) have inspired you the most throughout your career? How did they inspire you, and what did you learn from them?

PM: Before I met my wife, I had never known a musician with so much integrity and total dedication to her work. To this day, Thea is never put off by any distractions, such as “networking,” interviews, praise, and even great reviews! I’ve learned a lot from Thea about focusing on what’s important. Living with her over the past 50 years as she created so many groundbreaking compositions has certainly broadened my understanding and also my taste in music.

Jean Morel, conductor of the Juilliard Orchestra (who also conducted at the Met), knew how to rehearse musical details carefully in rehearsal and then conduct transcendent performances as if from two completely different perspectives. From that, I learned rehearsals are where the intense woodshedding is done and performances were about making music in real-time. Also, at Juilliard, my violin and viola teachers, Joseph and Lillian Fuchs, both played their instruments with dark, rich, and very operatic tone and dramatic line. Right up my alley!

All the singers at the Met I’ve already mentioned dazzled me. Each magnificent voice and musical personality brought unique feelings to their interpretations, especially when compared with others performing the same roles. As an opera conductor-to-be, I learned to assess and support the unique qualities of each singer. Then I could mesh their strengths and weaknesses in with the vital energy of the orchestra and intensify the dramatic flow and meaning of the piece. Each artist always brings something unique.

One of the most indelible memories of this full integration of voice, character, and orchestral music from those Met days was Hermann Uhde’s Klingsor, who delivered penetrating nihilistic evil into the opening scene of Act two of the otherwise peaceful and religiously serene “Parsifal.” Both in his alert physical responses and vocal projection and color, alongside his revealing portrayal and integration of Wagner’s scoring in that scene, he was the personification of scheming evil in the world!

I have also learned from and been inspired by many of the 100’s of singing artists I worked with at Virginia Opera. Each one brought a unique perspective to their role that I sought, built upon, supported, and integrated into our performances together.


Behind the ScenesInterviews