Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

A Talk with Baritone Nathan Gunn


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.