Denfeld News

Dec. 2, 2011
Duluth News Tribune

Denfeld music director looks fondly on career
By Christa Lawler

If Denfeld High School’s longtime choir director Mark Overland was the kind of person who dwelled on endings — and he claims he is not — this weekend would be a major milestone.

Overland will be in the orchestra pit for the last time during a high school musical production when the students stage “A Christmas Carol,” which opens at 7:30 p.m. today. Overland is retiring at the end of the school year after 20 years as choir director at Denfeld and 27 years of teaching in Duluth.

“I don’t even think about it,” Overland said. “Musicians never think about the end of anything. They’re always thinking about doing this next thing.”

Overland’s children are grown and live outside of the state. He and his wife Catherine Overland, a teacher at Lowell Elementary School, plan to travel. Overland said he also hopes to direct local productions and to perform with the Twin Ports Choral Experience when he is in town.

“When you’ve done this for 27 years, it’s time to turn the keys over to someone else and start a new chapter,” he said.

Overland said “A Christmas Carol” is his 26th show in the Denfeld Auditorium. He has paired with director Liz Larson for 10 years of shows, and in the process they have developed a relationship in which neither ever has to finish a sentence. Larson does think about endings, and when talking about Overland’s retirement she warned that she might start “leaking” — as in crying.

“What Mark does better than anyone I’ve met or worked with is instill in his students the freedom and joy of singing with abandon,” she said after a recent rehearsal. “And if you take a minute to notice, he still has a twinkle in his eye and that only happens when it’s real.”

Katy Helbacka, artistic director at Renegade Theater Company, was in the Denfeld choir in the late 1990s and “Mr. O” assigned her a solo traditionally sung by a male to accommodate her voice, which she describes as a “man alto.”

Actor Andy Bennett credits Overland with broadening his interests to include musical theater. Overland cast him as Danny Zuko in the summer all-school musical production of “Grease” in 1996.

“It was kind of an amazing experience,” Bennett said. “The plays (we had done) hadn’t sold that well. It was a much different experience to have more than 1,000 people in a room applauding for what you had done. I got hooked.”

Jennifer Madill Hagen, who owns Madill Performing Arts Center, was tapped by Overland to write choreography for show choir performances — productions she likened to the TV show “Glee.”

After high school, Madill Hagen has continued to call on Overland for help with singing roles. After a starring role in “Cabaret” this past summer, Overland paid her a compliment that meant more than the rest.

“He came up to me and said, ‘You did it. I knew you had it in you,’ ” she said. “I was very shy about singing because I was a dancer. He would always try to get me to trust it and do it. He was crying when he said, ‘You did it. You finally found your voice.’ … That was it for me.”

Asked to pick a defining or favorite moment of his career, Overland was at a loss.

“Every year is a highlight,” Overland said. “You start with a group of people in September and they aren’t the same people they are in June and July. Every show you do is a highlight.”

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