Mark Rucker, the internationally famous baritone singing in the Portland Opera's production of Pagliacci, is full of hilarious stories about his life on the classical stage.
There's the time one of his fellow cast members was accidentally stabbed – and hospitalized – when the director attempted to show another singer how to make a fake knife look scary (the police showed up with a list of the opera's characters and it took awhile to convince him those weren't real people).
Some people no doubt wonder why Rucker -- who's received rave reviews for his role as Tonio on the current production and is highly celebrated from New York to Paris -- is on the stage at all.
Despite the long history of African Americans and Afro-Europeans who have rocked the world within the art, many people think opera is for White audiences despite the art's history rich with gifted singers of color.
Rucker's high school mentor Lena McLin had a hand in making sure he would be one of them.
"I believe today that she arranged for me to get hurt so that I would be forced to not play football anymore," he says with a laugh.
"One day she said to me – I think I was a junior – she said, you're going to sing at the Met," he says. "At the time I didn't even know what the Met was, so I thought she's just a crazy old woman.
"Well, I made my debut at the Met in 2004 and she was in the audience."
Rucker is a Chicago native who sang in church for years under the direction of his conductor father and organist mother.
The Metropolitan Opera House, one of the greatest in the world, is just one of dozens that regularly ring out with his celebrated deep tones. Rucker and his wife Sadie travel from continent to continent throughout the year for his singing engagements in major roles, including Tonio in Pagliacci, the title role in Rigolletto, and the Ethiopian King, Amonasro, father to Aida.
The Portland production of Pagliacci, which plays through Oct. 2, features Rucker as the spurned suitor in a many-sided love triangle that ends in violence.
It's a plot that wouldn't be out of place in a music video or a Hollywood movie. In fact, Rucker says, most people know more about opera than they think they do.
For example, one of the songs in Pagliacci in fact was used in a Rice Krispies commercial a generation ago, and whenever the singer begins it onstage the whole crowd starts to titter, Rucker says.
"People think they don't know much about opera, until they're sitting in the opera and all the sudden that theme comes up," he says.
"My favorite is 'Rigolleto,' where they have gone through the entire opera and all the sudden comes pum-pum-pum battadadum, pum-pum-pum battadadum —a huge murmur comes over the audience because they have spent the entire opera not recognizing any tunes until they come to this one."
That's because Bugs Bunny sang it in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Another common misunderstanding, Rucker says, is about race and opera.
"You can't do anything -- even stage-wise or acting-wise or operatic-wise -- you can't do that without bringing something of yourself into the picture," Rucker says.
"If let's say I am doing – I don't do Othello but something like Amonasro in Aida – that has a connotation to it that there's a racial animosity there, you can't help but feel where that is even in your own life."
Rucker doles out significant praise for the diversity that the Portland Opera brings to its stages, which draw talent from around the nation for its regular opera season.
Still he tells a story about an African American grade-schooler he met during a speaking visit who asked whether opera singers made good money – then expressed surprise when Rucker said 'yes.'
"So when I think of it, African Americans, one reason they need to come to the opera is not solely for themselves, it's for the children. It's the idea that you can be something other than what society has dictated what is.
"I think there is much to be learned by how many Black artists and painters and things are there that nobody knows about, because who goes to the art museum? How many dancers – we've got huge dance troupes full of Afro-Americans that nobody knows about because nobody tends to go," he says.
"Well there's an education that as an adult, I can take advantage of , but I can learn so much more by watching a child of mine, sitting in a chair in an audience, seeing the colors that happen in opera, or seeing the colors that happen even in a play."
Pagliacci/Carmina Burana continues Sept. 30 and Oct. 2 at the Portland Opera. For more information go to www.portlandopera.org , or call 503-241-1802.