Out of Character

The baritone had his eye on a football career

the tenor was a rock singer. But opera was in their genes.

November 08, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

What's a former football player doing in Puccini's Tosca? The same thing a former rock singer is doing in it - having a lot of fun.

The football player is baritone Mark Delavan. As the villainous Scarpia, he'll throw - or make - a pass at the sopranos alternating in the title role of Baltimore Opera Company's production. The rock singer is tenor Frank Porretta. As Cavaradossi in two performances, he'll try his best to thwart Scarpia's evil plans.

Delavan and Porretta are likely to heat up the stage of the Lyric Opera House during the weeklong run of Tosca that begins Saturday, as they did in other works with the company last season.

The New Jersey-born baritone was the vocal standout in Aida, bringing an exceptionally warm, full-bodied tone and vivid phrasing to the role of Amonasro; the New York-born tenor rocked the rafters with bright, potent sounds as Calaf in the second cast of Turandot.

In addition to initially non-operatic career goals, the two men have in common tall, athletic builds and very full heads of hair. More significantly, they also share the same familial environment.

"Frank and I are a very singular breed," Delavan, 43, says during a break between rehearsals. "We're both from operatic families. My mother and father were opera singers, and so were Frank's."

Not surprisingly, both sets of parents encouraged their sons to explore operatic music. Not surprisingly, it was a tough sell.

"I remember my father bugging me a lot to sing," Delavan says. "But I wanted to be a football player or maybe a businessman."

The baritone did play football in high school and junior college, but decided he didn't quite have what it takes for a sports career. He switched to studying art and, "as an afterthought," music.

Delavan, who had done a fair amount of singing in a choir his father directed, agreed to appear in an opera for the chance to earn scholarship money (which didn't materialize). His debut came in a college production of a double-bill of Gian Carlo Menotti works.

"I figured it would be worth it to shut my father up," the baritone says. "This way I could say I had tried opera. The operas weren't great, but I had a couple of high notes to sing, and I was hooked."

Delavan went on to hone his craft in the San Francisco Opera's young artists program and an apprentice program run by noted bass Jerome Hines.

In Porretta's case, he could not miss operatic influences at home if he tried.

"I just went with gravity," he says. "My whole family sings. I have two brothers - one is a baritone, the other a bass; and two sisters - a soprano and a mezzo. We're a whole opera company.

"There was really no pressure for me to be a singer, though. But in high school, I found myself doing all the musicals - I had the tall, dark and tonal market cornered."

From musicals, Porretta headed into the rock arena, serving as lead singer and keyboard player for a number of different bands.

"I was really proud of the last band I was in," he says of a group called Freefall. "I think we had a good chance to make it, but one member got cold feet. In rock, someone always gets his shorts in a twist, and the chemistry of the band changes."

The breakup of that last band left Porretta depressed but not for long. He thought about classical singing and started studying with his mother, who, like his father, had retired from a successful opera career. Then came a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York.

"I didn't hate opera," Porretta says. "But it took a while to get hooked. When I go, `Oh wow,' it's over Aerosmith, my favorite band. [Lead singer] Steve Tyler is my favorite vocalist, period."

But Porretta eventually discovered two tenors who sparked an `Oh wow' response from him - Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco. Hearing those clarion-voiced, mega-watt singers proved a pivotal influence.

"I had no idea you were allowed to sing like that," Porretta says. "I started playing around with producing that kind of sound. The first time I tried it for my father, he keeled over."

Previously, Porretta had focused on light tenor repertoire; once he discovered the full-throttle Corelli/del Monaco approach, it was on to the grand Verdi and Puccini roles: Aida, Tosca, Turandot.

Years of heavy rock singing seem to have paid off for Porretta, whose vocal stamina has made him popular with opera companies ever in need of powerful, long-lasting tenors.

"I'm strong like bull," Porretta says with a laugh, imitating a Latin accent. "I'm a big person and a very loud singer. One thing I am is durable."

And daring.

Last spring, Porretta tackled one of the toughest assignments for a tenor outside of the Wagnerian repertoire - Verdi's Otello.

According to conventional wisdom, a 30-year-old singer has no business fooling with that assignment, an opinion echoed by some of the reviews he received. But Porretta is undeterred.

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