‘If you try to change fate, bad things happen’

Mark Rucker talks about playing “Macbeth,” teaching voice and the dangers involved in trying to alter fate

Baritone Mark Rucker is closely associated with the Metropolitan Opera. He made his Met debut as Amonasro in Aida and has since been heard at the Met as Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino, Tonio in I Pagliacci and as Rigoletto for the Met in the Parks.

He’s performed all over the world – at Netherlands Opera, Greek National Opera, New York City Opera, L’Opera Montreal and many other companies – including Opera Carolina. He returns to the Blumenthal stage in November to sing the title role in Verdi’s Macbeth.

You’ve played Macbeth before. How many times?

Oh, six or seven. I just finished playing Macbeth for Toledo Opera.

Yes! With Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth. You’ll both reprise those roles next month in Charlotte. What are you doing to prepare for the role? (Or maybe you don’t need to prepare since you just performed it.)

We’ll have the same cast and the same director. If – God forbid – there were a different Lady Macbeth, I’d have do something different because I’d be playing against someone else. Her reactions would change what I do. But I adore Othalie and am happy we’ll be sharing the stage again.

What do you love about working with Othalie?

I get so much back from her. You never feel like you’re acting when you’re performing with Othalie. But of course, you are. You’re playing people you’d never want to be in real life. Plus, Othalie’s just a great gal.

What do you love about the character, Macbeth? Or do you?

Ha! Loving the character – that’s a stricken statement. I love to play the character. It’s fun. I get to play off things that don’t exist.

What I’ve come to understand about Macbeth is that he’s, first, a soldier. What he’s doing goes against the code of the soldier. He’s sworn his allegiance to the king he ends up killing. I don’t think of him as evil, though. And I don’t think he sees himself as evil. He thinks he’s justified.

It’s the same with Iago [from Shakespeare’s Othello]. A lot of people see him as pure evil, but I don’t. He thinks he’s justified.

Is Lady Macbeth pure evil?

No. She’s ambitious. At the time Macbeth was written, it wasn’t uncommon to kill to advance yourself. If you made it to a certain age, you were just lucky. Lady Macbeth is the driving force who gets Macbeth to do what he does.

In Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese film version of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, Lady Macbeth doesn’t utter a single word through the entire film. She just sits there. Her face is almost entirely still, yet you know what she’s thinking. It has a very ominous feel.

The witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king, but they also tell Banquo his children will sit on the throne. They don’t say when this is going to happen, though. Lady Macbeth says to her husband, “Let’s make it happen.” Let’s make fate, in other words. But if you try to change fate, bad things happen.

You’ve worked with Maestro Jim Meena many times before. What do you enjoy about working with him?

This is one of the highest compliments I can give someone: I never have to look at him. I never have to break character when he’s in the pit. And if you have to turn [to the conductor] to see where the beat is, you’ve broken character.

He’s one of the best conductors I’ve ever worked with. He’s also an incredible musician and a wonderful human being. You get his heart; you feel the music when he’s conducting. He just knows when I need something.

What’s an example of that?

I had trouble breathing one time during a performance, and he just knew it. Jim knew to slow the tempo a bit; he knew I needed a better breath. It was nothing we had discussed. It was intuitive. I hadn’t been able to attend rehearsals because I’m teaching now – at Michigan State University as a professor of voice. Even though we hadn’t rehearsed together, he could read me. And this isn’t just because we’ve known each other a long time – and we’re both older than dirt (laughter). It’s been like this since we began working together. Jim’s also one of my dearest friends.

You’ve performed in Charlotte before. What do you do when you’re in town? Do you have any favorite restaurants?

When we’re traveling, we seldom go out to restaurants. We always get a place that has a kitchen. I’m a homebody. After the opera, I usually come straight home and watch TV. I’m not a tourist kind of person. My wife [Sadie Rucker] is more of that person. And I’ll go wherever she takes me.

We’ve been married for 33 years. She knows my voice better than anyone. She’s a wonderful musician and my accompanist.

I love Charlotte, though. The audience there is very intelligent. You just know Charlotte audiences love opera, and they want it done right.

Do you have a favorite role you’ve played?

I’ve done Rigoletto the most, so that’s probably my favorite.

Is there any role in your long career you haven’t played that you want to play?

Andrea Chenier, from the [Umberto Giordano] opera of the same name. Did you see the movie Philadelphia?

With Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington? Yes.

There’s a scene where Tom Hanks’s character, who’s dying from AIDS, is trying to tell Denzel what it’s like to live in the closet. At the same time, he explains his love of opera. I think it’s one of the strongest parts of that film. Hanks’s character is listening to an aria from that opera, “La Momma Morta,” sung by Maria Callas. It’s unbelievable.

I used to say I wanted to play Othello, but I don’t have the voice for it. It’s a tenor role, so it’s [Placido] Domingo and those guys.

Can you conceive of a life where you’re not an opera singer?

Yes! (Laughter)

That was an easy answer!

I’m kind of doing that now. I adore teaching, and I didn’t know I would when I started three years ago. I have some wonderful students. I get more excited about their development that I do about performing. If I had to stop singing but could somehow still teach, I’d be happy.

Is Zaikuan Song [a grad student at Michigan State who plays Banquo in Opera Carolina’s Macbeth] one of your students?

No, he’s a student of Richard Fracker’s – a wonderful teacher. But I get such a charge of sharing the stage with Zaikuan. I once started to chuckle, as I thought: How old am I?!

See Opera Carolina’s production of Macbeth Nov. 7, 9 and 10. For tickets, call 704.372.1000 or visit carolinatix.org.