This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
The legendary baritone shares which musicians he admires most, how tragedy helps shape his characterizations, and why Grand Rapids audiences are so dear to him.
Blackmail. That’s what launched Mark Rucker’s thirty-four-year career in opera.
In High School, Mark played football. He had a music class, but his heart belonged to football. One day, his teacher walked up to him and said, simply, “You’re going to be an opera singer.” Time would prove her correct. Rucker would go on to dazzle audiences with his rich baritone for decades, from Covent Garden to Carnegie Hall. But he didn’t know that yet.
“Leave me alone, you crazy lady,” Mark replied, by his recollection. This was not the response his teacher was looking for.
“She proceeded to fail me in music class,” relates Rucker. “In order to keep me from being able to play football.” His teacher made a proposal: sign up for chorus, get a better grade, and regain eligibility for football. “I thought, ‘this is not something that should be allowed.’” But this was no average teacher. “When they built the new building, they gave her the shovel,” says Rucker. “She had power. I didn’t have any. So, I said, ‘OK, fine. I’ll join chorus.’”
This makes more sense when you learn that his teacher was the legendary Dr. Lena McLin, niece to Tommy Dorsey, and a cultivator of talent who critic Howard Reich called “the woman who launched a thousand careers.” McLin’s roster of famous students includes R. Kelly, Chaka Khan, Da Brat, Mandy Patinkin, and many others, including Rucker.
“When I debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2004, she was in the front row,” says Rucker. It’s clear McLin’s tough-as-nails approach and belief in his potential had a profound effect on his life, as well as his own perspective on teaching music. “If it hadn’t been for this woman, I wouldn’t be talking here,” he says.
As a teacher in MSU’s School of Music, Rucker carries on that tradition of serious tutelage. “But not quite as aggressively,” he says with a smile. “I give as much of myself as I can. I’m somewhat of a conservative teacher, in that I don’t push people to do more than they should do when they should do it.” He’s careful not to damage his students’ voices with overly strident instruction, as this can be a problem in musical academia. “It’s my honor to be able to teach them. They come to me with their hearts, and I give them mine.”
Whether he’s teaching aspiring professional singers, or composition students who must take one vocal performance class, his approach is the same. Even if they never become singers, they still have a role to play, says Rucker. “They might become a lover of the art form. That’s as important as having the singer on the stage. Without having those people in the audience, there is no stage.”
The audience has a special place in the veteran singer’s heart. When reflecting on performing with Opera Grand Rapids, his first and fondest memories are of the people offstage. “I have memories of one of the most fantastic audiences I’ve ever seen. They were so involved in what you were doing. They didn’t see Mark Rucker, they saw a character. And they appreciated it.”
But Rucker does reserve some of his admiration for some of OGR’s most well-known faces. He counts our opera as indescribably lucky to have been helmed by Maestro Robert Lyall, followed by Maestro James Meena. “They’re two of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he says. “You will never meet a more exciting conductor than James Meena. They don’t exist. Even if you don’t want to come for the opera, you’ve got to come to see him.”
Rucker can’t say enough about his respect for the nuance and grace his fellow performers bring to every show. For performers, life doesn’t stop its ceaseless march for a production. Tragedy must be taken in stride—it is over and through life’s vicissitudes that performers often forge bonds, and even draw their power. He recalls one such bittersweet memory:
“I was doing Rigoletto, and the young lady who was singing Gilda, her mother was dying. She would go back every weekend to see her. And I was trying to figure out, ‘how do you make yourself do that?’ I remember having to try and stay in the act, because she’s dying in my arms. She was starting to cry, and I couldn’t help myself, but I told myself to stay in it. I remember at the end, we were both just crumbling. And I said to her, ‘you know what? We have to bow. Get up.’” But something crystallized for Rucker. He realized at that moment that the title character himself was enduring a similar tragedy. “Until you’ve experienced something, it’s hard to relate to that kind of pain.”
Recounting the incident, Rucker easily brims with the emotion of that evening, trapped on stage between grief and an expectant audience. “That night, I remember gaining so much strength from her. It led me to another place in the character. Even today, I want to find new things about a character. I never want to be the same. That gave me an insight into the character that I use to this day.”
When his own father passed away, Rucker was in a production of La Traviata with James Meena. He left the rehearsal briefly for the funeral, but returned shortly after. He remains grateful to Meena for having faith in him to return and carry his performance forward. “I used the same thing I used when I did Rigoletto.” He channeled the grief into his performance, and stayed in character. It was a difficult era, but the singer let the work be his guide.
This way of working through one’s darkest days has never left Rucker. In great operatic tradition, it will be part of his legacy, as he passes it to his students. When they come to a lesson with personal problems, such as a breakup, Rucker’s approach is a synthesis of all he’s learned on stage, with a dash of his old teacher’s seriousness of purpose: “I’ll say, ‘I don’t care. Right now, we’re working. After the lesson is over, we’ll talk about your girlfriend.’ Right now, we work. Because that’s the one thing an artist needs to be able to do.”
The singer has lived this truth many times. And ultimately, that truth is about more than opera—it’s about cultivating the soul of an artist. “I’m still working that way. I tell my students the same thing. You’ve got to use what you’ve got and work through it.”
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