Race Issues Muddle Opera's Harmony

Feb 24, 2017

During Black History Month, WKAR explores issues, events and perspectives involving the black experience.

WKAR’s Jamie Paisley spoke with African-American opera singer Mark Rucker who started in Chicago under a teacher with interesting classroom discipline techniques.


When it comes to Mark Rucker's introduction to one of his mentors, there's one object that comes to mind.
"Like, she had this huge set of keys." recalls Rucker. "If you didn't sing the way she wanted, you might have to dodge those keys!"

He's talking about the woman who got him into music back during his High School years in Chicago,the Reverend Dr. Lena McLin. But Rucker’s path to singing was a bit of a long one.

"I was playing football in High School, I was a halfback." says Mark Rucker. "I was also playing saxophone and she wanted a band. And so we had a little band and we brought the band to play with her choir. Well, I was standing there, I was kinda humming the words to 'Close To You" as her choir was singing. She stopped the choir and said 'SING!' looking at me! And I said 'well, no!' She said, 'yeah, sing!' And I sang and they all laughed and I was dejected. About a year later, she walked up to me and said 'You're gonna sing at the Met.' I thought 'This is a crazy little black woman. Get away from me.' I made my debut at the met in 2004. She was in the front row. And so I couldn't look at her after that, because I was afraid of what she might say I was going to do next. But she is, without a doubt, one of the biggest supports in my life."

[Music from the art song 'Silence' by Rev. Dr. Lena McLin, as performed by Mark and Sadie Rucker.]
The pair has even recorded an album of Rev. Dr. McLin’s songs and will also include a few of them on their March 1st concert at the Fairchild Theater at MSU.

In a bit of a two-for-one package, the MSU College of Music also gained Sadie Rucker, Mark’s wife who joins the college as their vocal arts outreach coordinator.
"It was Dean Forger [of the MSU College of Music] who had put together this idea to have a vocal outreach program." says Sadie Rucker. "Just recently, one of our outreach programs went to a school and there were a number of minority students in the school. And two of our outreach graduate students are African-American. And the comment afterwards was 'This was so wonderful to see two African-American men singing opera, performing a variety of things. It was sort of eye-opening for those that thought 'Oh, this is not even a possibility for me.' Yes it is!"

And Sadie's husband, Mark Rucker, as an African American who has gone on to sing Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, he exemplifies that possibility. However, Mark Rucker says some problems with color-blind casting in opera remain. "I had been asked to do [Gershwin's all African-American opera] 'Porgy and Bess' on a tour. And I would have made more money then I had made for two years doing it. But I knew if I took it, it'd be a lot longer before I ever saw Rigoletto. And it's one of those things, you get typecast. If you're an Asian soprano and you come in for an audition. I don't care if you should be singing Gilda [from Rigoletto], they'll say 'Hey! Butterfly!' you know? If you're a Hispanic mezzo, well you've gotta do Carmen, you know? I mean, it has always been a problem. It didn't just start being a problem, it's always been a problem."

But does Rucker think it's getting better?

"I think in some ways, it is." muses Mark Rucker. "I think in some ways in the arts it's better. It's certainly better at MSU. And it's better in some ways in the world of opera, but the world of opera is in trouble! You know, we're looking for ways of getting to that public."

New MSU College of Music Professors Mark and Sadie Rucker perform together a recital, including songs of his old teacher from Chicago, Rev. Dr. Lena McLin Wed March 1st at the Fairchild Theater more info at music.msu.edu.