TAMPA — As a teenager, Mark Rucker neither expected or even wanted to sing opera. Colleges were recruiting the star halfback to play football. He didn’t want anyone throwing cold water on his dream, even for international stardom doing something else.
His choral teacher had other ideas.
"She came up to me and said, ‘That’s not what you’re going to be doing,’" Rucker, a well known opera singer, told the Times. "She told me, ‘You’re going to sing at the Met.’ I didn’t know what the Met was. I thought it was like a museum."
This weekend, Rucker stars in Opera Tampa’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. He does so looking back on a long and distinguished career, the kind his teacher predicted.
Rucker is a true Verdi baritone, a rare and treasured rung (think Sherrill Milnes) between lyric and bass baritone, able to break into the tenor range with power and stamina. His rich, dark voice has led to roles mainly in tragic operas, playing Samson in Samson and Delilah, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, the villainous Scarpia in Tosca and the title role of the jester in Rigoletto, which he has played twice at Opera Tampa.
"Most of the roles have depended on voice type," he said. "I like roles that have dimension acting-wise, and most of them are classified (as tragic). They are most comfortable for me vocally."
He did take a comic turn as Tonio, the fool, in Pagliacci. But conductors want to his rich powerhouse voice going to Verdi operas, including playing Macbeth in Bologna and Trieste, Italy, and Belgium. That acting impulse has taught him sympathy for the villain of one the darkest Shakespearian opera.
"He struggles," Rucker said. "He spends an enormous amount of time in the opera trying to deal with what he has done, trying to convince himself that committing murder to make himself king is okay. His wife said it’s okay, we’re going to get everything we wanted. I’m not convinced he wanted everything she wanted. But maybe it wasn’t in him to try to fight it."
Rucker was born and raised in Chicago. His mother was a singer; his father directed the church choir. After two knee surgeries forced him to reconsider football, he began turning his attention to voice. Besides opera, he has performed with numerous metropolitan symphonies across the country.
After Macbeth, he’ll head to Buenos Aires for Verdi’s Aida, and to London’s Royal Opera House for Simon Boccanegra. At home in Okemos, Mich., he teaches voice at Michigan State University. His wife, Sadie, is an accompanist, teacher and traveling companion. They have two grown children.
While voice will always trump acting ability in operatic casting, Rucker said, "I work at acting quite a bit. I do want them to go away with the idea that they didn’t necessarily have to look at the (translated) supertitles to get what I’m talking about."
He’ll play opposite Jill Gardner as Lady Macbeth, who has also played the role with the Michigan Opera Theater and Chautauqua Opera.
"She’s a wonderful singer and a fantastic actress," Rucker said. "We’re having a good time with it."
That chemistry is vital, since she is the play’s prime mover.
"If it was just him," Rucker said, "he probably would have heard what the witches said and gone, ‘You know, I don’t think I need to do this.’"
He is glad he listened eventually to his choral teacher. When Rucker made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2004, in Aida, he made sure to invite her.
"She was on the front row," he said.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.