Arthur Marks will give you goosebumps and leave you speechless

Joel Oliphint
Arthur Marks performing at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra's 2019 Holiday Pops

Each year during the Christmas season, my wife and I find a holiday concert or two to attend with our kids, but somehow we’d never gone to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Pops until this year.

After taking our seats at the Ohio Theatre on the first Friday night in December, we settled in and found plenty to enjoy in the first few festive pieces. But looking back now, they all feel like a precursor to a performance that I’ll never forget.

The song was “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” a 1930s Robert MacGimsey tune written in the style of an African American spiritual. The words and melody are pretty enough, but it wasn’t the song that got me. I had never heard anyone sing quite like this man. For four minutes, my jaw hung slack. Goosebumps covered my limbs. This guy sang higher than I’d ever heard any man sing, which was both awe-inspiring and confusing. But it wasn’t just the number of octaves he could climb. There was a clarity and purity to his voice, and he sang with feeling. The emotion behind the song seemed to pour out of him and fill every space of the theater, where the audience sat wide-eyed and rapt, then instinctively jumped to their feet and burst into thunderous applause.

My wife and I looked at each other, bewildered and overcome. All we could say was, “Wow.” Who was this guy?

I checked the program: Arthur Marks, countertenor. Disregarding theater etiquette, I took out my phone and began searching the internet for anything I could find on Marks, but other than a PDF of a program from a local church where he apparently sang, my searches came up empty.

Still, I couldn’t get that performance out of my mind, so the following week I reached out to the symphony, as did many others who wanted to know about this mystery singer (audio from the performance can be streamed from the CSO app).

The CSO passed along Marks’ contact info, and on a recent weekday afternoon we met at his workplace — a nondescript church on Johnstown Road in New Albany, where Marks runs a program for adults with developmental disabilities. It’s not the type of place you’d expect to find a classically trained opera singer who spent nearly 20 years on Broadway and toured the country, wowing audiences — including at least one former president — with his otherworldly voice.

Turns out that Holiday Pops performance was a comeback, of sorts, for 48-year-old Marks. He had previously been singing with the Columbus Symphony Chorus, but not many solos, and very little as a sopranist. In fact, until a few years ago, Marks had given up singing entirely. At the top of his game, he walked away.

Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Marks was surrounded by music from day one. His mother, Zelma LaVern Marks, was one of 15 siblings, all singers and musicians. The men had a doo-wop combo, and the women had their own group. Over time, Zelma made her way from teen-bop and R&B to classical music, and Marks followed suit. He would watch PBS specials on opera with his mom and grandmother, and when he watched Looney Tunes cartoons, he’d try to figure out which classical pieces were referenced in the characters’ songs.

“As a little African American kid in a small community, not many of [my peers] are going, ‘I want to hear opera today!’” Marks said. “But I was sort of the odd man out. I really fell in love with classical music.”

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Marks sang from early on and played violin, then viola, and one day, while watching his drum major cousin practice, the band director prompted him to add another instrument. “He was like, ‘If you're going to be here, you're going to play something. ... Pick an instrument.’ So I picked the trombone," Marks said. "I had no idea how to play the trombone."

After making progress on the trombone, the same band director taught Marks to play the bassoon. All the while, Marks continued taking voice lessons and building his musical arsenal while his family signed him up for any performance they could. “My mom would always say — it was one of her mantras — ‘If you don't use it, you lose it,’" Marks said. "I really lived my existence with that mantra in mind.”

Marks and his family knew he had a gift from early on, but something extraordinary happened when he hit puberty. His voice began to change, but he didn’t lose his soprano. “I could hear my voice getting lower, but my voice teacher at the time would still warm me up into the soprano register,” he said. “She just kept looking at me, like, ‘You should be going through the change. You're 13, 14. That should be changing drastically.’ And it never did.”

Later, at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, Marks’ voice teacher gave him vocal exercises so that he didn’t lose his extended range. “If I didn't train it and have the technique behind it, I could totally destroy my voice trying to get up that high. She would even reinforce it by saying, ‘OK, this recital you're going to do three female numbers,’” he said. “It taught me how to deal with that voice under pressure.”

Most countertenors are baritones, Marks said, and there’s often a certain color to the voice that gives away the fact that it’s a man singing. But Marks is a tenor — technically a sopranist — and can hit the high notes with his full voice, sans falsetto. “I explain it this way: If you put me behind a curtain and I sang in that register, your immediate thought would not be a male. You’d just go, ‘Wow, that young lady has a really pretty voice.' And then I step out, and you go, ‘What just happened?’” Marks said. "That's the part I love the most — that I get to throw a wrench in things. … I mean, it's just not normal. There's no other way to say it. It's not normal. There should be no way that I should be able to sing higher than most women.”

Despite that gift, Marks didn’t want to make music his career. He wanted to be a social worker. He wanted to help people. But in his second year of college, his voice teacher told him he needed to seriously consider a career in music, so by the time he finished his undergraduate coursework in 1993, he had a triple major in music, social work and psychology.

Before graduating, though, he got the lead in a Tchaikovsky opera, then auditioned for the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra. Marks knew the two other tenors auditioning, and both were older and more experienced. He didn’t think he had a chance. After all, this was his first ever professional audition. But Marks had yet another vocal skill he’d previously underestimated: breath control.

“I sang the first seven bars — this long phrase — without a breath, and none of the other tenors had done that,” Marks said. “At the end, [the conductor] stopped and said, ‘I want you to do it again, and let's see how much further you can go without taking a breath.’ So I did it again. He's like, ‘You went 14 bars. Do you think you can do that in performance?’ I said, ‘Well, I certainly can try.’”

The maestro told Marks he had the gig, and he burst into tears. Before the first production wrapped, the symphony had already hired him for next one, "Carmen."

Marks went on to earn a master’s degree in music therapy while bouncing back and forth between the worlds of opera and musical theater (Marks also dances, because of course he does), even though those genres tended not to overlap. “Back then it was a no-no. You're either an opera singer or you’re a musical theater singer. You're legit, or you're not legit,” said Marks, who nonetheless kept one foot in each world, working with the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as Music Theatre Wichita, which cast him in several shows, including "The Pajama Game" and "The Sound of Music" (Marks landed the role of lead nun).

Those theater gigs led to contacts in New York, some of whom would ask him, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you in New York?”

By 1997, a friend convinced Marks to sleep on the sofa in her New York apartment while he looked for an agent. He found two, one of whom convinced him to audition for a dinner theater gig in Akron, Ohio, of all places. Marks was skeptical, but he did it and landed the gig. Little did he know the choreographer and director of “Rent” was also at the audition; soon enough, he got a call to audition for the part of Benny in "Rent." He landed that one, too.

“That absolutely blew my mind,” he said. “I made it to Broadway. My second audition in New York, I'm on Broadway.”

All along, though, his mom’s voice was in the back of his mind. He was using his gift, just as she instructed. But she had another mantra, too: Don’t screw it up.

“My uncle, who I'm named after, was a very, very talented singer, and he had an opportunity to have a really big career and sort of blew it. That was an example for me when I was growing up,” he said. “My mom kept saying, 'Don't mess it up. Don't be like your uncle Arthur. Stay grounded.’”

Marks stayed humble and worked on and off Broadway for nearly 20 years, joining touring productions, at times, including performances of “Chicago” here in Columbus, as well as a show in Maine that was attended by former President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, who requested to meet Marks after the show.

According to Marks, who played the role of Mary Sunshine — a character thought to be a woman but who is revealed as a man at the end of the show — Barbara Bush told him, “'You have the voice of an angel.”

“And I could see her husband behind her, President Bush, and in that nasal voice he says, ‘I still don't believe it.’ He just could not grasp it. He was absolutely convinced that I had a body double.”

In 2011, Marks was performing in a touring production in Sarasota, Florida, and his partner, whom he planned to marry, came along to visit family there. During the intermission, Marks noticed his cellphone was blowing up with texts and missed calls. It was the worst possible news. His partner had been in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver.

“I drove down there, but by the time I got there, he had already passed,” Marks said. “It was one of the hardest things that I'd ever gone through. ... That sucked the joy out of my performing. I literally lost the ability to get in front of people and find joy, or to impart joy to them so that they walked out of the theater smiling. It was just really hard for me to do it. And so I walked away.”

In the summer of 2015, Marks traveled to Columbus to visit his friend Tracy Ediger, a physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a singer in the Columbus Symphony Chorus. After some arm-twisting, Ediger and Columbus Symphony Chorus conductor Ronald Jenkins convinced Marks to sing in the chorus for a weekend performance. Afterwards, Marks attended a reception hosted by Jenkins. “I saw the joy they were experiencing,” Marks said, “and it was very infectious.”

Marks had also been applying for social work jobs across the country, and when a job offer came through to run a program for adults with developmental disabilities at Cross Point Christian Church in New Albany, he jumped at the chance and moved here in the fall of 2015.

Marks sang in the symphony chorus occasionally, but it wasn’t until 2017 that Jenkins asked Marks to sing a few arias from Handel’s “Messiah” on his own. “It was just beautiful. I was amazed,” Jenkins said. “I was joking with him and I said, ‘So if I was hiring a soloist to do ‘Messiah,’ you could do the soprano, alto and tenor.’ And he said, ‘Well, actually, I could probably do the baritone role, too.’ And not in a bragging way! That's just how wide his ranges is. It's way over three octaves, and it's just sensational.”

Jenkins kept slowly nudging Marks closer to the stage, often through songs at First Community Church, where Jenkins led music. “He gave me the push that I needed, and he was very kind and generous and ginger about it,” Marks said. “It wasn't like, ‘You're going to do this whether you want to or not.’ No, he was just very sweet about it and would say, ‘Arthur, I need people to hear you.’ … It brought me back.”

“My mom passed away two years ago,” Marks continued, “and the first gig I did with the symphony, she came down from Kansas City and got to see that. And she was like, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. You thrive on the stage, whether you're in front or whether you're in the chorus. You are living.’ And it was true. I knew that's where I needed to be.”

Marks sang during last year’s Holiday Pops, but this year’s featured solo would be different, accompanied only by subtle “oohs” and “ahhs” on “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” He would be out front in the spotlight, showing Columbus his voice.

The pressure gave Marks anxiety. Leading up to the performance, he had a nightmare in which he sang the tune, and afterward the theater fell completely silent — crickets. “It’s a weird thing, so I didn't know how people would respond. They may go, ‘Whoa, that was way too much for me,’” Marks said.

But rather than silence at that debut performance, the crowd — myself included — erupted. “It took my breath away. I went offstage, and I kept seeing [Jenkins] call me back on. … The stage manager was like, ‘He wants you! Go!'” Marks said. “So I came back, and then the roar... I will never forget that roar. I've had some responses from the work that I've done in the past, but from a city that didn't know I existed, to respond in that way to something that I really believed in and felt great about was... oh, my gosh. There's no way to even put it into words."