Established as one of the most sought-after baritones, and loved by his public, Nathan Gunn is living a very prolific phase of his career. His artistry has reached an incredibly wide audience with his Papageno: he has brought this character alive for many years at the New York Met, in the acclaimed Julie Taymor's Magic Flute – one of the most popular productions of recent seasons.
On the operatic stage, he has played the title roles in Billy Budd, Il barbiere di Siviglia and Hamlet. These are only a few of the numerous pieces with which he has engaged. In addition, he is famous for giving life to new characters in world premieres – such as that of Clyde Griffith in Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, first seen at the Met.
But the opera house is not the only place in which one can see him at work: he is a brilliant musical theatre performer. Some of his latest accomplishments are a semi-staged performance of Camelot with the New York Philharmonic and Show Boat at Carnegie Hall. When not on stage, he devotes his time to training younger talents: he is an inspiring professor of voice at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Gunn has a busy summer programme ahead. Among his many music commitments, he will sing in a concert in Central Park on 12 July, and he will be Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro at the Ravinia Festival in August. In November, he will be back at the Met: he will play Guglielmo in Così fan tutte joining a fabulous cast including Danielle De Niese and Miah Persson, conducted by William Christie.
With the numerous roles he has portrayed, Gunn confesses that Britten's Billy Budd is the character he likes to embody the most: "I love him. He brings out the best in me." In 2007 he recorded a fine version of Britten's opera together with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding – and Gunn was playing his favourite role. But, as mentioned above, there is another character to which his audience especially associates him: Papageno from The Magic Flute. How does he keep it still so lively after so many successful performances? Gunn highlights the human rather than the fairytale-like side of this character: "I love the role of Papageno for a variety of reasons not excluding the beauty of the music. Without Mozart the role wouldn't be nearly as interesting. Papageno, though, as a character is someone I admire because he knows who he is and is okay with that. He is a person who lives in the present. He likes his work. He likes girls. He likes wine. And he likes food. He also would love to have lots of kids. The way I keep it 'fresh' is by doing what Papageno would do and live in the present. Every time I perform the role I do it as if it's for the first time."
I am intrigued by his engagement with one of the most captivating roles in the Mozart repertoire. As a follow-up to my last question, I wonder how it has been to perform The Magic Flute over the years with different casts, and to different audiences: "Every artist I've worked with in this opera has brought something unique to the role. These unique qualities help me to further develop the role of Papageno by finding new and interesting things about him that I may have overlooked before."
He emphasises the fact that the process of creating a character is a never-ending one. I am particularly curious of his performative approach. How does he go about preparing the dramatic aspect of his roles? And does he usually work closely with the stage director or the choreographer? "I start by believing that every note and every word that is uttered by the character is for a reason. When I say something as a character I must believe that he means to say what he is saying. I get away from what he 'means' and believe that when he says, for example, 'I'll die without you' he actually believes he will 'die' without 'you.' Also, I listen. In order to create a character I have to act as a person would act. I need to listen to those around me. I need to smell smells, be hungry, be grumpy, etc. I need to think, 'hmmm, maybe I drank too much last night so I have a slight head ache... or something...' anything to make him real."
Gunn is now an internationally recognized artist, and has performed in the most prestigious opera houses both in the States and in Europe. His early music experiences have been very important for him, and he recalls fondly of the man who first trained him vocally: "I was taught to sing by a man named William Miller. He was a professor emeritus from the University of Illinois. I met him when he was in his early eighties and studied with him until his death in 1998. Before meeting him I didn't really know how our bodies worked to produce a healthy singing voice. Always before meeting him (which was when I went to college) I had sung in shows at my high school and a bit with an opera workshop at Indiana University South Bend. I never had considered studying music or becoming a singer until around the age of 16 when I heard (of all things) a recording of The Magic Flute for the first time."
Gunn's mention of shows other than opera is telling. Together with his musical theatre activities, he is also part of the fabulous cast featuring in the first complete recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Allegro. How does he experience the contrast between performing in an opera and in a musical? "The biggest difference is focus. Operas tend to focus on beauty of sound and musicals tend to focus on telling a story. I believe, though, that when done correctly both of those things should happen with both opera and musical theatre."
A versatile artist, then. And not only that: as mentioned above, he combines his career as a performer with that of a university teacher at Urbana-Champaign. "My wife, Dr. Julie Gunn, and I have lived in Champaign, Illinois since 1997. We were approached by the School of Music here about three years ago and asked if we'd be interested in joining the faculty. We weren't sure at first if this could work given our busy lives working and raising a big family, but having enjoyed more and more giving master classes over the years we thought we'd give it a try. The University of Illinois I believe is unique in their understanding that a person like myself is not going to be about to be responsible for a large number of students while I'm travelling around the world performing, but what they do know and what they want is for me to come back to Champaign between my travels and let the students know what's going on in the business so they can be better positioned to get work as they leave school. Coaching these students has become a real joy for me. I love to see them 'get it' and to watch them grow in confidence and skill. It has also helped me better understand my own methods because I've had to verbalize them."
Gunn is living his career in a time of great technological changes in the opera world. Nowadays, many music lovers are able to experience operas through DVDs and live broadcast in cinemas, or public screenings in squares and so on. For Gunn, the intertwining of operas and different types of media does not mean a change of artistic approach: "If anything, these new ways of experiencing opera have played to my strengths."
In addition, Gunn exploits all the possibilities of different kinds of media. In particular, he keeps an online journal on his website: "My father has always encouraged me to keep a journal and I have so writing about my experiences is not something new, but it was a friend of mine that asked if I'd consider writing an online journal so he could know what I was doing when gone. Friends who aren't in the business also enjoy some of the stories that I put in there which are often a result of what mood I'm in."
Our conversation ends with a look at the future: what kind of repertoire would he like to explore in the coming years? What are his ambitions? "I enjoy very much creating new roles and I'll continue to do that as long as I sing. Onegin and Don Giovanni are two roles I can't wait to sing my teeth into. I'll be trying Onegin for the first time next summer. I also have plans to sing 'The Lodger' in Dominick Argento's The Aspen Papers that I'm really looking forward to as well as Gaylord Ravenal. Another interesting new piece is called The Gospel of Mary Magdalene where I'll play the role of Jesus. On the recital stage, this coming April I will be giving a free concert here in Champaign at Smith Music Hall with my mentor and colleague, John Wustman, to celebrate his 80th birthday. We will be performing Die Schöne Müllerin in the afternoon and Die Winterreise in the evening. As you can see I'm very enthusiastic," he concludes with a smile.
Photo Credits: Bill Phelps; The Metropolitan Opera; Bill Phelps.
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