Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

A Talk with Baritone Nathan Gunn

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Nathan GunnBaritone Nathan Gunn's career is on the ascent. Thirteen years after winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition at the tender age of 23, the handsomely voiced artist followed up recent leading roles at the Met, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Pittsburgh Opera, and Aix-en-Provence with this summer's release of his first solo CD, Just Before Sunrise. The disc of contemporary, soft-hued romantic ballads is Gunn's initial release under a new, flexible contract with SONY BMG Masterworks.

Why intimate songs instead of the grand opera arias on which he has built his career so far? Was the decision related to SONY BMG's penchant for crossover projects? That's one of many questions I asked Gunn in a half-hour phone interview that found him increasingly relaxed and at ease as I broached such delicate subjects as his seductive, bedroom voice and the chiseled physique that leads opera directors to encourage him to shed his shirt. (In case you're not familiar with Gunn's strikingly athletic build, a simple Google search for "+Nathan Gunn +naked" reveals why Gunn and his pianist wife Julie Jordan have forbidden their five children to Google daddy.

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Jason Victor Serinus: I've noticed your discography is on various labels. Did you have a contract with any record label prior to your new deal with SONY?

Nathan Gunn: No. Primarily I did recording to recording, and was hired per project rather than for a series of recordings. That allowed me to record with EMI, which I'm going to do again this year, as well as with Telarc and other labels.

JVS: What are you recording with EMI?

NG: An LSO Live recording of Billy Budd with Ian Bostridge, and John Relyea singing Claggart. I have an excellent recording situation with SONY. Last year I also made a recording for Telarc of Kullervo with the Atlanta Symphony. Because the things I want to do with SONY are very different from the opera and oratorio recordings I want to do with other labels, I made an amendment to my contract that allows that. SONY is very good about letting me.

JVS: When I saw you had done a CD of popular song, and realized you had signed with SONY, I thought of Sony's reputation for crossover projects.

NG: Yah, sure. I didn't know that, but I believe ‘ya.

JVS: Oh yes. Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road is one. Was the choice of this project yours or theirs? Is there a specific range of recordings you've either targeted in your mind or agreed to with Sony, and do they involve opera?

NG: Crossover is one those terms that are hard to define. I've always defined it in my mind as playing or singing something that is inappropriate for your voice, and doesn't quite fit. There are a number of recordings that I think should have been left to the jazz singers or the Broadway singers.

I didn't really want to do that. I was originally approached by European Sony/BMG to record a standard arias album. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I love opera obviously, but I really think opera works better as a whole. I don't really like operatic excerpts. Arias are not like songs, which I don't feel have to experienced as a whole.

When I returned to New York and spoke with SONY, I told them that what I wanted to do was what they were doing back in the 1920s. I may have a bias in this regard, because my first teacher was old, in his 80s, when I met him. He sang when radio was king. He would sing oratorios in Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and comprimario tenor roles in the opera house, and then go to the Carnation Breakfast Hour on radio and sing with the Andrew Sisters or Bing Crosby.

One of my favorite all-time singers, John Charles Thomas, sang popular songs. "Home on the Range" was written for him. I think that's still out there, and we have lost touch with that skill. Lines have been drawn between all the disciplines. I'd like to break them down a bit, so that people realize that high art is high art because it's high quality. I wanted to find songs that were being written mostly by people who are alive, and are writing beautiful texts that communicate messages to people now, such as the songs of John Bucchino and Joe Thalken and Gene Scheer. These are substantial and really well crafted songs.

I also find that when I perform music by modern composers, it actually records better, because they would imagine recording them as they composed. Music by Mozart and big symphonies that were written by composers who had no idea that recordings would be possible don't always suit the recording venue.

So this was what was in my mind when I proposed the project to Sony. They said it was hard, because there weren't really categories for it. It's not crossover, and it's not really an art song. But I said that it's something that people would need and enjoy, and they agreed. So we came up with Just Before Sunrise.

Does that answer your question? If I get off track, feel free to just say 'Stop. Go back.'

JVS: We're fine. If I need to stop you, I will.

Christine Brewer just gave a recital in San Francisco. She ended with some songs that Kirsten Flagstad used to sing in the '30s. To me, they were very forgettable period songs that no one but Flagstad sang. I don't know why Brewer even sang them, other other than to follow in her fellow Wagnerian's footsteps.. The person I think of who could do both classical and popular well was Eileen Farrell. Her LPs, I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues, are classics, and her late pop renditions on Reference Recordings and with Bernstein are absolute gems

NG: With singers, I think it has a lot to do with the technical ability to sing different ranges and make words that are understandable. Musically speaking, that singer has to have a real desire to communicate with words and love texts. When you do, it makes songs come alive.

 




JVS: You have been typecast a lot, because you have this gorgeous body and appear in all these operas with your shirt off. In fact, I seem to have unintentionally followed the shirt-off route from Billy Budd in San Francisco to An American Tragedy at the Met.

Nathan Gunn and Patricia Racette
NG: You know, Pat Racette was supposed to take off some of her costume with me too, but she chickened out.

JVS: [laughing]. She's just a wonderful artist. But getting back to your artistry, when I listened to the recording, the first thing I thought of was some of the classic Broadway baritones, like John Raitt and Alfred Drake. The first thing I said to myself was that you could easily have held your own with any of them. The second thing was, and you'll pardon me, but your voice has this ‘Honey, just lie back and I'll take care of the rest' quality. [Nathan chuckles].

NG: I think that's a good quality.

JVS: Oh, it's fabulous. In fact, way back, way before I met my husband David, I discovered a recording of Sir Thomas Allen singing Brahms, and said it was the voice of the man I wanted to marry. So, after playing your recording, I put on Thomas Allen again and said, 'Hmm, tastes have changed.'" But anyway…

NG: Wow. Thomas Allen. What an artist!

JVS: Yes, his Brahms is just gorgeous.

NG: Yes, it's absolutely gorgeous. Have you heard his Winterreise?

JVS: No. I have it, but I never got a chance to play it.

NG: It's just great. I remember when I first tackled it, I wrote him before I actually worked with him, and said, "You know, this is a piece of music that begins at such a low point. How do you approach it?" He replied, "Think of yourself standing in six inches of snow, and every time you take a step, you sink down further. Yet you still have hope that at some point, you'll be able to get out of it. And it just gets worse and worse."

That's the kind of imagination and imagery he put into all of his music. He's such a great musician. And such a beautiful voice.

JVS: What he said could serve as a metaphor for Schubert's life.

NG: Yes, true.

JVS: So many of his songs have that downward pull, but then they can also express joy.

NG: I know.

JVS: I'm curious. Did you always have this wonderful, unforced resonance in your voice? How old are you now?

NG: My birthday is the end of November. I'll be 37 years old.

JVS: So you were winning competitions in your early 20s? Was that resonance and ease there before you began voice training?

NG: I guess it was. I really believe that everyone has that capability. My teacher was real old school. His teacher Dudley Buck's teacher was Jean de Reszke [also the teacher of Bidu Sayao]. I'll think of it in a minute. What I learned was what was taught 100 years ago or more. He called it nature's way of singing. For the first six months, I was only really learning how to breathe. How to breathe – that was it. Then came how to move the muscles in your throat and mouth so you can make words while still having what he called, not support, but a 'hook-up' always active to get in synch. It was really all about singing freely and singing healthily – that's all he taught.

When you do that, you hit a natural resonance that sounds like you. Some people are very afraid to sound like themselves because they have walls all built up around them. They would prefer their singing voices sound different than their speaking voices. But I was taught to maintain the kind of freedom and natural sound that we probably all have from the beginning.

JVS: I noticed that you're on the board of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation. I consider her one of my spiritual teachers. I discovered an old Seraphim LP of hers when I was in college. I put on "Dich, teure halle" and was stunned. I'd never heard such ecstasy in singing. How did you end up on the board? Did it have to do with the quality of your voice?

NG: I think a little bit. They approached me about it. I've always been a fan. I wish I could have heard her live, but that would have been impossible. [Lehmann stopped concertizing in 1951, and died in 1976 at the age of 88]. Their focus is on recital and beautiful singing, which are something I try to promote. So I agreed.

JVS: Do you have many recitals scheduled? I see mostly opera on your website.

NG: Yeah. I can't put my actual recital schedule on there until the venue says it's okay. I think I have maybe a dozen recitals scheduled this year. The programs depend on the venue. For example, in Zankel Hall this year, I intend to do a sacred and profane kind of program with that very interesting, kind of bloody part of Catholicism, and that kind of earthy and spiritual stuff.

When I was in Aix-en-Provence this summer, I went to this tourist place called the Cathedral of Images. It's this old abandoned limestone quarry with a roof inside a mountain that they've converted into this artistic experience. This year, the theme is Venice. You go in, and they project these incredible images onto the walls of this vast quarry. You walk around while music plays and just experience it. It's really effective. But at Zankel in the early spring – and only in Zankel can you do this – I want to create what in my mind is a modern recital experience that would incorporate something like that and a female modern dancer onstage to meld some of the yin and the yang and give everyone a broader, bigger experience. It wouldn't be a normal lieder recital, but rather a whole experience.

That's one venue and one kind of recital. But there are many recital places in the Midwest where they can't do something like that. There, I want to mix German lieder with songs on this disc with a little Charles Ives and maybe a little Tom Waits, and show the similarity in quality between all these kinds of songs. I'm pretty fortunate in being able to do this.

 

 




JVS: Do you do the coat and tie routine, and do you speak with the audience?

NG: I generally don't speak with the audience because it makes me a little nervous [chuckling]. I don't know why. I try to stick with just singing, and make it just a singing experience. I usually do wear a coat and tie. I'd like to move away from that a bit, but it is somewhat of a formal occasion, and I want the audience to realize that it demands real attention. I wouldn't be surprised if I move away a bit from that and dress in a more modern formal way. But for now, if it's in the evening, maybe I'll put on my Armani tuxedo and maybe wear a straight tie instead of a bow tie.

Presenters often want formal dress as well. People are slow to change, and formal attire makes some people comfortable.

JVS: The Nehru jacket seems to be a step away from the usual formal dress.

NG: I want to warn you that I have a car that's picking me up at 12:30 and I'll have to run off.

JVS: Moving right along.. I'd love you to comment on some of the songs and what they mean to you personally. One of them you put in specifically because of your wife. Is it a song for the two of you?

NG: It's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" by Jimmy Van Heusen. It kind of reminds me of how we met, and finding the person you love. It also describes a little bit what she looked like. For whatever reason when I sing it, I always think of her.

Another one that's one of my kids' favorites, SONY felt was hard for people to understand. For me, it's a poem that I've always loved. It's "Jam Tart," the Auden poem that Gene Scheer set. I love it. I love all the words, and the images, and the stream of consciousness part. The combo playing it is really a beautiful thing.

Which leads to me into of all things, what for me is probably the most fulfilling to actually record -- the musical experience of it -- "The Secret Marriage", the Sting song. Of all things, you would think, how could Sting have the most interesting tonal texture in the music? But that song, for whatever reason, I find so poignant and so moving. And the words are so beautiful, which is another reason I wanted to do it. I think it speaks to many levels. If you want to talk about crossover, I think it speaks to everybody. Crossover music is kind of boring, but crossover text is interesting. I love that song because it speaks to everyone. It doesn't matter if you're married to a man or a woman, and it's not done because of some legal paper or because someone is getting money from a dowry or because it's arranged, but because you love someone.

"Just Before Sunrise" I love. I've known it for a long time, and I've been wanting to find a venue for it. I thought this recording would be perfect. It sets the scene for the entire album. It describes what is a very personal thing for me, which is finding (every once in a while in this chaotic life) that moment that is peaceful and quiet. I think I had said once that it kind of feels like that moment between heartbeats, when you're not breathing in and not breathing out, and everything is settled and okay and peaceful. Those moments come and go, and you get glimpses of them all the time. It's kind of Buddhist as I think about it. It's kind of the point of life, when you can take everything in and your heart is exposed and you're available to people.

I love all of these songs. "This Heart That Flutters" was a catalyst for everything else. It's beautiful music, written by Ben who is living on the upper West Side. It's modern, yet still communicates to people in a way that I think vocally and textually describes what I do best.

JVS: Let me squeeze in a final question. A lot of women and gay men fawn over you. That whole thing – the Franco Corelli phenomenon, where if anybody has a good body and good legs in the world of opera, where so many people don't, people go wild – how has all that attention been for you?

NG: I'm one of those people who… Director David McVicar once said to me, ‘Nathan, I don't think you realize how attractive you are.' It never struck me. I guess I don't view myself that way. I don't think too much about it, I guess. I love people, and that's why I do what I do.

If what you call fawning over me and how I look brings people into the theater, that's okay by me. I think of it as a complement, and I think of it as flattering. And it kind of ends there, I suppose.

JVS:Fabulous. What a perfect way to end.