FEATURE: From school plays to rock bands to opera – Mark knows the score
Music lovers passing a village church this week might have heard an entrancing sound echoing across the fields.
A powerful baritone voice, soaring through one of opera’s best-loved passages – the duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.
If they had peeked around the door they would have seen one man, singing his heart out, alone with a backing track.
Singer Mark Saberton has been borrowing the keys to the parish church near his home in Great Waldingfield because he needs a big space in which to practice.
Mark, who often performs in the chorus of English National Opera, is now understudying a major role and must be ready to take over at a few hours notice if the starring singer is ill.
“I’m covering Zurga, the lower voice of the Pearl Fishers duet,” he says. “I’ve been rehearsing in the church all week.
“You need the space, and the acoustics, because in a small space you push your voice too much.”
It’s a long road from supporting roles in school musicals to singing with one of the world’s leading opera companies.
And for Mark, 49, it came with twists and turns that included playing bass guitar in rock bands – a sidestep miles away from the sweeping emotion and high drama of opera.
But he first stepped into the limelight in a circus-themed musical at Stoke by Nayland Middle School, playing a failed escapologist.
“That was before my voice broke. I remember singing on a ladder by the microphone. I can still remember the first verse of the song – I could probably still sing it,” he says, before thinking better of it.
Moving on to Great Cornard Upper School he was in Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, and played the high priest in Jesus Christ Superstar.
“I never got the main parts, I was a bit shy with acting,” he adds.
Mark, whose parents John and Valerie are both retired teachers, started out learning the piano. He passed the Grade Eight exam at just 15.
He then took up the trombone. “When I’m singing I still think of the position of the notes on the slide ... I always think in B Flat.”
At school he admits he was distracted from his maths and physics A levels by music and sport.
“I was playing in orchestras and a jazz band, and was bass guitarist in a glam rock band called The Caged.
He also played football for Boxford Youth, and rugby for Sudbury Colts.
Studying for a music degree in Liverpool, he joined another rock band.
“We were called Attic Head and played in most of the clubs in Liverpool. We were influenced by underground 60s music, it was an early new wave sound.
“I also busked, playing trombone with another guy – we made loads of money.”
Unsure of where his working life was going after university Mark headed for London and – after a brief flirtation with music tech – got a job in a record store.
The Music Discount Centre on The Strand was staffed largely by aspiring musicians and among his fellow assistants was Wynne Evans, now the very familiar face and voice of the Go Compare TV ads.
“I got back into classical music because of the enthusiasm of the people who worked there.
“A singer friend suggested joining a choir and to my surprise I finished up getting into the London Symphony Chorus which is one of the top amateur choirs.
“Suddenly I was thrust into singing in the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, and touring abroad. I also started having singing lessons.
“One summer I worked as pit manager at the Royal Opera House.
“The production that sticks in my mind was Tosca with Placido Domingo. When he was doing his off-stage bit, screaming because his character is being tortured, he turned round to me and went ‘good?’.
With sights now set on a singing career, Mark did concert and operatic courses at The Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow.
“I was still a bit shy but had a really good director who helped me emotionally. I came out of my shell – I realised singing and acting meant baring the soul.
“While I was there I played Leporello in Don Giovanni, a big role with a lot of pressure. Once I‘d done that, I realised I could do it.”
While in Scotland he also managed to audition – unsuccessfully – for Blind Date then drive four hours to perform in a concert the same day.
He was now in his 30s, and getting work as an unknown singer is never easy. “I wrote to everyone, rung everyone. You have to be pushy. I‘m still a jobbing singer, but I have a lot of contacts now. ”
He prefers playing baddies like Scarpia, the evil chief of police, in Tosca.
His ideal part is one into which he can hurl everything ... heart, soul, the lot.
“Mephistopheles in Faust is a great role. I love roles you can just wallow in and just let go.
“The one I’m covering now with ENO is a lyric role which is quite tough on me. I have to think about the singing as much as the acting.
“Even if your character is getting angry you have to be relaxed inside. “You must also have an eye on the conductor. It can be stressful, but I usually find once I get into a job I become confident and it flows.”
Non-lovers of opera used to snigger because singers’ looks often didn’t match their character. These days you won’t see a stout, middle-aged soprano playing delicate, 15 year-old Madam Butterfly.
But Mark is a uneasy about the growing trend for directors to focus on appearance. “I think we have gone too far the other way.
“It’s more important to have vocal pyrotechnics and a wonderful voice. I love to hear voices that fill a theatre.”
In productions, of course, things don’t always turn out exactly as they should.
Mark recalls a frantic dash around the Albert Hall when playing a customs officer in the first acts of La Boheme were combined with helping to change the sets later on.
Having finished singing he lost track of time in the bar celebrating the birth of a colleagues’s baby only to see on the monitor that the set change was already going on.
One of his career highs was as a soloist and chorister in The Beggar’s Opera at the Royal Opera House.
“A friend was working on the staff for the production. They were looking for a male chorus with various criminal-looking characters.
So my Royal Opera debut was not only to do with my voice and acting ability but the fact I apparently looked like a thug!”
Next year Mark is on tour in Lakme with Swansea City Opera, stopping off at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, in March.