Band of Gypsies! – Bass-baritone Mark Delavan Tells how a Family that Travels together Stays Together

By James Bash
Mark Delavan (San Francisco Opera)

It’s hard enough for a singer to develop an international career in opera, but imagine maintaining a family as well as a career in that demanding field. The courageous or perhaps crazy international stars who have embarked on this daunting course might consider the path of Mark Delavan. While most opera singers find it best to travel solo and leave their families at home base, Delavan, who sings the role of Wotan in the San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, prefers to travel with his family.

Delavan, his wife, pianist Karen Linstedt Delavan, and three young sons (ages five, eight, and ten) have been in San Francisco for the past few months, since rehearsals started for the Ring cycle. Because they travel as a family, they have rented a home with a lovely view that befits the glamorous lifestyle of an opera star.

“You wouldn’t call my life glamorous, if you saw all of us at the airport,” said Delavan. “It’s more like a comedy show.”

Like most singers in the opera business, Delavan trained long and hard to perfect his art and become a successful singer. But no conservatory or university has a 101 class on becoming an opera star and raising a family.

“There’s very little information on this subject anywhere that’s of any value,” noted Delavan. “I think that the only source would probably be Gypsies. So when we tell people what we do, we call ourselves modern-day Gypsies. ”

The Delavans own a home in New Jersey that he describes as a comfortable place but not huge. Last year, Delavan got the kitchen upgraded, but his schedule often limits the time he and his family have at home.

“On a rare occasion, we are home for a couple of months,” remarked Delevan, “and just when we’ve start thinking about looking at a bigger one, we are off and running again. This has been a particularly difficult year in terms of travel. Since October, I don’t think that we have spent a full month at home.”

Over the past year, the Delavans have traveled to Germany, Spain, Denmark, and England, because of his work. International exposure can be great for kids, but with a family on the road, how do you educate them? For the Delavans, Karen takes care of the homeschooling.

“I’m married to Wonder Woman,” said Delavan. “Karen plans months ahead. She will take a week’s worth of assignments, copy them out and place them in a little folder. Then she takes the rest of the books that she needs and ships them to our next address. She’s amazing, and her method works really well.”

Since Karen is fluent in German, she has been teaching that language to their kids. The boys have also taken Spanish lessons, but they skipped out on Danish.

“The Danish told us, ‘please don’t try to learn our language,'” recalled Delavan. “‘You’ll pull a muscle and then what are you going to do.’ Oh well, they all spoke Danish anyway.”

Any family with four young kids has to let off some steam, so one of the first places the Delavan entourage visits when they arrive in a city is the nearest park that has a playground. However, extended bouts of inclement weather can cause problems. That’s what the Delevans found out when they were cooped up in an apartment in Berlin. Their boys were acting like boys and the neighbors below (who ran a business from their home) repeatedly complained about it.  Overall, it was a nightmare scenario that Delavan hopes will never occur again.

Besides parks, the Delavan family regularly visits museums and other cultural sites. When they are in the States, they make it a habit to visit the public library. While in San Francisco, they intend to visit the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts, Japantown, and tour the city. They also plan to travel to Half Moon Bay and Sausalito, where Mark and Karen were married.

According to Delavan, the operatic Gypsy guild is very small, but it includes Nina Stemma’s family. Stemma, who sings the role of Brünnhilde in the San Francisco production, has three children who travel with her regularly.

Delavan also enjoys the family of baritone Stephen Powell and soprano Barbara Shirvis. The Powells have two boys who are similar in age to the Delavan’s, and they got to meet last fall during the Pittsburgh Opera production of Falstaff, in which Powell did Ford and Delavan, the title role.

On occasion, Delavan’s boys have had the opportunity to act in an opera. In 2007, Delavan’s youngest made an appearance as the ghost child in the miracle scene at the end of Suor Angelica. Two of his sons played nephews of his character Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana at the Chicago Lyric in 2009. The oldest of Delavan’s trio of boys (he also has an adult son from an earlier marriage), played the character of Robin the Page in Pittsburgh Opera’s Falstaff.  Now, in the San Francisco production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, all three are going to be Nibelungs.

Another important quest for the Delavans, is to find a church in the city where he is singing.

“I don’t want to be controversial,” explained Delavan, “but you have to have a spiritual base to make this work, and churches are great sources for babysitters. They don’t need to speak much English. The language of play is international, and telling the kids to get ready to eat or go to bed is pretty elementary.”

For Delavan, one of the biggest reasons to travel with his family is that he gets to spend a lot of time with his kids. While rehearsal times may vary, he usually gets to see his children every day, and after the show has opened, he usually gets large blocks of time to be with his family.

But even though traveling with his family is the best solution for Delavan, he acknowledges that there is no perfect solution for every opera singer.

“For most of our colleagues, the singer travels and the spouse and kids stay home,” said Delavan. “But we decided that that we had seen enough marriages in this business end and that we didn’t want to become another statistic. We knew that for our marriage to work, we wanted to be in the same house for extended periods of time. Willie Nelson has a song* that says ‘one night of love don’t make up for six nights alone.’ As simplistic and vulgar as that sounds, we’ve found that we have to spend time together, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”


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