2015 Best Male Performer in an Opera: Mark Williams as George Gibbs in Boston Opera Collaborative's "Our Town"

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. 

NOTE: If you were nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com

Photo Credit: Kate Lemmon

Photo Credit: Kate Lemmon

Mark Williams touched our heart with his earnest and tender portrayal of the "boy next door" as George Gibbs in the Boston Opera Collaborative's Our Town. Mark's bright and nuanced tenor voice, combined with his emotional acting, made this opera stand as a testament to the enduring power of Thornton Wilder's original play.  In his Interview, Mark tells us about his George Gibbs, his favorite opera roles, and some of his guilty pleasures. 

Hi, Mark, and thank you for joining us for an Interview.  Can you start by telling our readers a bit more about yourself?

It’s a true pleasure to be in such good company! I’m a tenor who lives here in Boston. I moved to Beantown four years ago to attend New England Conservatory for my Masters degree, and now I’ve been working full-time for the NPR radio show, From the Top, now as a producer. In addition to singing opera, I really like to read, watch basketball and soccer, and enjoy good food in good company.

Talk to us about how you choose to pursue opera.  What is your training or background?  How did you become an opera performer?  Have you tried musical theatre or plays?

Maybe it’s strange, but I’m not sure there was one moment when I “chose” to pursue opera. It was more of a gradual shift for me, maybe. I started out singing in choral groups, and I was quickly pushed into musical theater in high school. I guess there weren’t many guys doing that where I went to school, so there was a low bar! I did A Chorus Line and The Music Man in high school, and I loved the stage. I had a great voice teacher in college who pushed me to try more opera arias (I was still interested in musical theater as well, and I performed some, but mostly for fun), but I must say I wasn’t all that serious about it until my junior year of college, probably.

Through college (at the University of Virginia), I sang in some wonderful choirs, and I was super involved in my a cappella group, but I really wasn’t doing all that much classical solo singing. I reached a point where I’d been receiving enough encouragement to make me want to give it a try, though, and so I applied to a few conservatories in my year off after graduation. I had no idea what I wanted to do, or what I was in for!

Who is George Gibbs in this opera of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town?  How is he similar or different from you?  What did you discover about him?

George starts out as an exceptionally confident, popular teenager, despite not being the sharpest tool in the shed. He’s really an all-American boy. He’s class president, the son of a doctor, and a knockout baseball player. However, it’s Emily, his girlfriend, who knocks him back to earth – he decides his achievements are less important to him than what Emily ultimately means to him. He decides to forgo agricultural school to get married to her, possibly at the expense of more long-term security.

I definitely feel a connection to George’s youthful spirit and reluctance to growing up. I think I discovered that George is a crucial character in the story because he highlights the central theme of Our Town: humans don’t appreciate life while we live it. Unfortunately, he’s a classic example of this kind of living in the dark, and it’s not until (spoiler alert!) Emily dies that he fully grasps the transience of life.

What have been some of your favorite roles?  Why?  Which would you perform again?  Why?

My favorite role so far was Peter Quint in Britten’s Turn of the Screw. It was the first time I was given the opportunity to be a villain on stage, and I loved the challenges that came with being a ghost who came back to emotionally manipulate a child. It sounds terrifically creepy, and well, that’s because it is. But I learned a lot about what it means to be a villain. They have real thoughts and feelings and motivations. You can’t just say, “I’m going to act like a villain.” That doesn’t work.

The cast of Boston Opera Collaborative's  Our Town  (Photo Credit:  Dan Busler ). 

The cast of Boston Opera Collaborative's Our Town (Photo Credit: Dan Busler). 

In a completely different realm, another thrilling experience was performing in Steven Stucky’s opera The Classical Style in Aspen, Colorado, last summer. I played a character called Henry Snibblesworth, who was a PhD student in Musicology. The whole opera was a farce on Musicology. Amazing! I’ve never gotten to be such a super-nerd on stage, and I had one scene that was a reworked version of the “catalogue aria” from Don Giovanni, except instead of a long list of women, I gave a full account of the state of affairs of classical music. I would definitely do that again, if only for the hilarity.

What is one thing that you wish that your friends and family understood about opera?

Opera is about universal human experiences. It might seem larger than life, and of course it is – the stories can be absurdly dramatic, with murders and affairs and love triangles galore – but ultimately every expression is about feelings or moments in time that all humans are capable of living. It tells simple truths in complex ways.

What are some of your guilty pleasures?

I must admit that I’m a huge fan of nature documentaries. I watch them like other people watch their reality television. What can I say? I can’t get enough of the drama, the intrigue, the wonder! There’s so much in nature that’s stranger than we can imagine . . . Okay, so now that that’s out there, I can also admit that I love The Walking Dead, The Office, and New Girl. And Breaking Bad. And my favorite podcast is Radiolab. It’s addictive.

If you could go on a road trip to anywhere (accessible by a car), where would you go?  What would you drive?  Who would go with you?

I would probably take a tour of the National Parks in America. I’d take Babe the Blue Ox, otherwise known as my trusty Subaru. And I’m guessing my girlfriend Danielle would tag along.

Tell us a little bit about your hometown.  What are some of your fondest memories?

I’m from Durham, North Carolina, which is now a vastly different town than the one I grew up in. (It’s revitalized and hip!) But I still have fond memories of soccer tournaments, chorus concerts, bowling nights, Duke basketball watching, and lots of video games. You know, like a pretty typical childhood.

Why do you think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a classic and timeless story?  How did you relate?

Our Town really is about how we’re never aware of the sweetness of life as we live it. It’s about finding gratitude. I’m always looking for ways to ground myself in gratitude and live in the present. Art is one way I aim to do that by celebrating the miracle that is human experience – through reflection, through awareness, through intention.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

In late March 2015, I’ll play Basil in a revival of an American operetta called Evangeline, taking place with the Longfellow Chorus in Portland, Maine. Then, in June 2016, I’ll be taking on Idomeneo in Boston Opera Collaborative’s Idomeneo. This summer 2016, I head to Austria to take part in the American Institute of Musical Studies program.

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Thank you bunches!