February 18, 1999
Harvard
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HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

Something to Sing About

Risinger Pursues scholarship, teaching, and the opera stage

By Sally Baker

Assistant Director, News Office


Mark Risinger, Allston Burr Senior Tutor at Kirkland House, sings a work by J.S. Bach in the Junior Common Room. Photo by Rose Lincoln.

A decade ago, Mark Risinger was working part time at Widener Library, taking piano lessons at the Longy School of Music, and serving as factotum in Mather House. This month he made his debut with the Boston Lyric Opera, playing the Duke of Verona in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. And last week he was named a recipient of the 1999 Award for Vocal Excellence from the Opera Guild of Fort Worth.

For Mark Risinger, that's life.

"I have not had a clear-cut agenda at any point since I graduated from high school, or at least not one that's come to fruition," said Risinger, Allston Burr Senior Tutor in Kirkland House and a lecturer on music. "There is no way I could have looked into the future, even 10 years ago, and predicted where I would be and what I would be doing right now."

Still, a sense of inevitability infuses Risinger's biography from his first steps as a baby in Tyler, Texas, through his intention to become an English professor, right into the Lyric Opera wings. As a vocal professor told him once, "If you have to sing, eventually it'll catch up with you."

Risinger's parents say he took his first steps while they were singing along to a recording of Handel's Messiah. "It sounds too good to be true," Risinger said, "but my father is a Baptist minister, so I guess I have to believe him." Almost before he could talk he was matching pitch with a singing toy top, and by age 3 he was singing in a children's choir directed by his mother.

His interest in opera began in the sixth grade, when he read portions of Beverly Sills' autobiography. By the time he was in junior high he and one of his former elementary school teachers were driving to Dallas together for performances of the Dallas Opera. She lent him a stack of Metropolitan Opera recordings from the '40s and '50s to take home and sing to.

"I was ridiculed to the ceiling by my brother," Risinger said, laughing. "He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard." (Risinger's brother, Andrew, now is organist and associate choir director of the West End Methodist Church in Nashville and has a burgeoning career as an organ soloist.)

When Risinger was in high school the family moved to Corsicana, Texas, a town about five times the size of Gladewater, where he'd lived for several years. At least 20 members of his high school choir signed up to go to Dallas to see a Metropolitan Opera touring production of Verdi's A Masked Ball featuring Luciano Pavarotti. "I'd come from a place where it had been just Ms. Hudspeth and myself driving to Dallas on our own, and now I was part of this big group of kids who were really excited about going to hear Pavarotti sing," Risinger said.

He enrolled at Baylor University and was told that he should go into music education instead of vocal performing. Instead, he became an English major, and, while he continued to sing in choirs and to take music lessons from time to time, Risinger essentially felt that he'd left any notion of a career in music behind.

But after finishing a master's in English at Rice University, Risinger was disillusioned with the direction literature studies had taken, and he didn't think he would be happy working toward a doctorate. In 1988 he came to Cambridge. After a year of working at Widener and in Mather House he signed up for seminars with music professors Christoph Wolff and Lewis Lockwood.

Risinger was admitted to the musicology Ph.D. program, became an active member of the University Choir, and eventually became music tutor in Kirkland House. In 1994 he received a Knox Fellowship to do dissertation research on Handel at Cambridge University. While there, he got an e-mail message from the Master of Kirkland House asking him to serve as acting senior tutor for one semester. "A few e-mails and one very long trans-Atlantic call later, I said OK," Risinger said. "That was four years ago."

Back at Harvard, Risinger auditioned for local choruses such as the Handel & Haydn Society and Boston Baroque and received concert offers from all of them. He began voice lessons with Susan Clickner of the New England Conservatory of Music in 1996, two weeks after receiving his doctorate. Since then he has sung in The Magic Flute for the Britten-Pears Opera in England, in the Lowell House Opera's 1997 production of Rigoletto, and, last year, in Virgil Thompson's The Mother of Us All at the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y. He is slated to sing in Mozart's Idomeneo and The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. He also is a member of prestigious Emmanuel Music in Boston. And next month he will participate in a voice competition that may earn him a debut with the Fort Worth Opera.

But Risinger says he is ambivalent about pursuing a career as a full-time singer. At Harvard, he says, he has found a way of life that combines his interests.

Two terms ago, for instance, Risinger taught a seminar on literature and music for music concentrators, and he currently is teaching a sophomore tutorial on the history of Western music. The course was created by Assistant Professor of Music Adelyn Peck Leverett, who died two years ago and whom Risinger calls "one of the most important influences on me in early graduate school."

"It has meant a lot to me to be teaching this course," Risinger said, "because I feel this connection with her, still." He says that he also has received Christoph Wolff's unalloyed support and that of a number of other members of the Music Department.

It especially pleases Risinger that this May he will be soloist in an Emmanuel Music performance of J.S. Bach's "Cantata No. 86" conducted by Wolff. The same weekend (on Friday, May 7) he'll perform on campus in the ARTS FIRST festival along with a number of his students with the combined Holden Chapel choirs and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra as bass soloist in the Verdi Requiem.

"It's nice when my two worlds intersect like that," he said.

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College