Peter Mark is a familiar name in American opera and beyond, building respected opera companies in Virginia and conducting for an array of other entities here and abroad. He is Artistic Director Emeritus of Virginia Opera, and was key to getting Lyric Opera Virginia, which started in 2011, launched and off the ground. Now, he and his wife, composer Thea Musgrave, have (at least officially) retired, and will be dividing their time between Los Angeles and New York, giving those of us in Southern California a better chance to get to know them both.
I had the privilege of attending part of Peter’s Opera Masterclasses ‘From the Conductor’s Perspective’ on Sunday, September 15, at a lovely private home in Beverly Hills. This was a very well-planned affair, attended by students and opera buffs for an all-day event (sessions 1-4pm and 5-8pm, with a catered reception provided by their generous host, Mrs. Lillian Lovelace, afterward). Maestro Mark said at the event that he’s looking at various approaches to the format for future workshops, but this seemed to work well, with participants performing in both of the two sessions, comfortable surroundings, and an appropriately small but rapt and appreciative audience.
Playing an essential role was David Wilkinson, active here and across the country, and a well-respected faculty member at Pepperdine and USC. Wilkinson yet again showed himself to be a sensitive, solid collaborator, with all the chops required to handle the arias’ often nerve-wracking piano reductions.
Peter himself is a friendly and engaging guy, but cuts a powerful figure, moving with sureness and confidence, with beautiful posture. Mark uses a lot of creative imagery and body movement, sometimes moving the singers like action figures to help them find a different approach to a line or note, even poking a finger up under the cheekbones to remind about forward placement, which proved itself remarkably effective in the moment.
The workshop’s title is true to purpose — there’s plenty of useful wisdom that can help singers get a sense of what a conductor needs from an opera star or even a concert soloist. Using clear, everyday language and keeping the focus on the music, he helps participants get a sense of what will and won’t carry in a larger hall, how to start and finish a line so it partners with the orchestra (“Then I know you’ve listened to the music and integrated with it.” ), while performing with vitality: “Find a shape and go for it, or it won’t sound spontaneous.” He moves easily from Puccini to Wagner to Bellini to Mozart with clear understanding of the different approaches each style requires. This is the sort of deep knowledge that only comes from years of practical experience, as well as an obvious passion for the music. He understands and respects the history behind these great works, but also wants to make the live anew with every performance — a fence that many find difficult to straddle.
Peter also doesn’t shy away from stigmatized or less pleasant issues when they matter: when one student sounded “strangled” in a difficult passage, he mentioned it, faced it head-on with her, and then helped her. When a heavy singer showed hesitancy about movement, there was no point in avoiding the issue, so he got pragmatic: “Lose the weight or don’t. But you have the deal with what you have now.” Even phlegm, the age-old enemy of the vocalist, couldn’t hide for long: he addresses it directly, giving the singer a way of dealing with it in the moment, rather than offering a moment to clear it away. These obstacles, minor or major, are a fact of life, and Mark maintains focus on the realities of what singers have to do to get the job done.
But best of all, Peter Mark’s upbringing in the singer world (he started out as chief boy soprano soloist at the Met, and worked with a lot of greats when he was still at a tender age) shines through in terms of the abiding respect and connection he shares with singers, and his genuine concern for each participant’s success. He really wants to help, as evidenced by thoughtful touches as well as the content of the workshops: a clearly printed program was provided so attendees could keep track of who’s who, and the maestro took time before each singer’s turn to introduce and really present them to the audience, including some details about where they studied and what they’ve done so far. Peter prides himself on being able to get to a singer’s issues quickly, and this proves absolutely true — over and over. As expected, there’s a lot of stop-and-start, but unlike some masters, it doesn’t come across as either impatience or perfectionism — he’s on your side throughout, and looking out for your future performances, not just what you’re doing today.
This man is a delight, and we’re lucky to have him. We’re told that there may be another masterclass like this one in November — stay tuned, and get there if you can. Whether you perform or just observe, you’re likely to come away inspired to greatness.
For a peek at Peter Mark’s “conductor’s perspective”, see the guest post he shared with us on the Singerpreneur blog last month.