A Talk with Baritone Nathan Gunn

ARTICLE INDEX

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.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

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.