In an interview with the Now's Tom Zillich, Mark Donnelly riffs on singing 'O Canada' and other anthems, his impressive weight loss, playing hockey and his Dec. 29 concert at Coast Capital Playhouse, located not far from his White Rock home.
Is 'O Canada' the first anthem you sang publicly in a sports venue?
"No - at least as far as I can remember. Although I was born and raised in Canada, the first sports anthem singing I did was with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh's AHL team, in 1999, their inaugural season. It wasn't until a Canadian team came in - I believe it was the Hamilton Bulldogs - that I got to sing 'O Canada'."
At a Canucks game, were you nervous the first time you stopped singing our anthem and encouraged the crowd to sing instead?
"No. It was during the playoffs in 2003 (I think), against Detroit. Brian Keating, the Hockey Night in Canada associate director for that game, wanted me to do something special. We decided that holding the mic out would be the thing - but only if I thought the fans were really singing, otherwise we would have dead air. I was pretty confident that they would respond, and they didn't let us down."
What has your anthem-singing gig with the Canucks done for you, professionally?
"It has certainly made me more recognizable. The anthem has become very popular at corporate and private events. I never tire of singing it because I am very proud and grateful that I am Canadian. I sing with the Vancouver Opera also, but my first 'gig,' so to speak, is as a church musician. I direct the choirs at Holy Family Parish in Vancouver, where we sing primarily Gregorian Chant and 16th century polyphony - a cappella florid part songs. The music I do is quite diverse, but it's all the same when it boils down to performance: You have to sing with intention of expression, otherwise you're singing for yourself and not your audience. I tell my private voice students that technique is nothing without intention."
Ever forgotten the words to an anthem while in the spotlight?
"Twice. Once when I was singing for my son Sean's bantam hockey game a few years ago. Everyone thought it was a gag but it wasn't. I was going to do the bilingual version and, just before I went out, we decided to do it all in English. Wouldn't you know it, I forgot the English words where I would have sang the French! The second time was during 'The Star Spangled Banner' before a Canucks game against Dallas Stars. As I approached the end of the second line, I realized that I couldn't remember the third line. I took the breath for the third line and still did not know what was going to come out. It literally came to me a micro-second before I had to sing it, so no one knew I had 'forgotten' the words. Any other times I must have put out of my mind."
You have nine children. How on earth do you find time to do all that Christmas-gift shopping, between concert dates and hockey games?
"We're celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 but doing the gift opening on Jan. 1. This gives everyone time after Christmas to do shopping. It's rehearsals and what have you, before."
What brought you to White Rock to live with your family?
"When Catherine and I decided in 1999 to move back to Canada from Pennsylvania, we were first considering Calgary but a few things pointed back to the Lower Mainland. I really feel like I'm a West Coast boy, my mother still had a house in White Rock she was renting out, which the family and I could move into, and my mother, sister and brother-in-law lived in Ocean Park. My brother, Father Lawrence Donnelly, was reassigned to the Vancouver Archdiocese a couple of years later which brought us all back together. He is presently the pastor of St. Jude's Parish in East Vancouver. That's it, in a nutshell. I'm very glad things worked out the way they did. Unfortunately, my sister, Maureen, passed away last February. She was the glue that kept us all connected. We all have to work a little harder now that she is gone."
Word is you've lost an impressive 100 pounds over the past year or so. How?
"It's 130 pounds - but who's counting. In the spring of 2010, I realized that if I wanted to be around for the younger kids, I needed to lose some weight. I was 370 pounds at the time. Diet was not working, so I decided to work out rigorously. I probably did it too vigorously, as I developed a heart flutter - arrhythmia - and still didn't lose any weight over four months. In June 2010, my wife came home with a book from the library which promoted the HCG diet as 'the diet secret they don't want you to know about.' After a few weeks of research and a rising blood-sugar level, I decided to get going with it. I started Aug. 2, 2010, and I lost 130 pounds in 14 months. There's lots of information - and misinformation - on the internet about the diet. It would take a whole interview just to discuss my transformation through diet, which has been a miracle for me. People constantly ask me if I was worried about whether it would affect my voice, and I said I didn't care. Being six feet under would definitely affect my voice!" You've played hockey since age 12. Why - and what position?
"In Grade 4 I was assigned to do a social studies project on Massachusetts and became a Boston Bruins fan - needless to say, that affection has not survived. In 1972, we got a rink in North Delta and I started playing with the house-league Rangers. Hugh Trann was the coach. I was the goalie. I always liked trying to out-think the shooter. I played goal for the McGill University Faculty of Music team in the early 1990s. Right now, I play defense for the Icemen in the White Rock Senior Hockey League. As soon as I lose another 50 pounds or so, I'm going to strap the pads on again."
What can ticketholders expect at your Dec. 29 concert in White Rock?
"There will be some Christmas music at the Coast Capital in White Rock, but there will also be folk songs, opera, Neapolitan songs and other things we haven't decided upon yet. Some friends whom I've performed with over the years will be with me on stage. Some of the kids will be singing also. Although it will be all acoustic and a cappella, there will definitely be some surprises."
What's next for Mark Donnelly?
"That's a bit of a secret. The current stuff will continue. However, there is going to be some career diversification in store for Mark Donnelly. People will have to check back in the new year for what, I think, are exciting developments."
Tickets are $39.50 for the Mark Donnelly & Friends concert Dec. 29 at White Rock's Coast Capital Playhouse. For info, call 6045367535 or see whiterockplayers.ca.
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