Nathan Gunn: : On Words and Music, Work, and Family

Like many successful singers, superstar baritone Nathan Gunn is away from home more often than not. But whether in New York or Munich, singing opera or musical theatre, Gunn appears to embody the values and priorities of his upbringing in the Midwest where, as he puts it, “everyone is a little bit more realistic about their lives” and “there is certainly an emphasis on taking care of your family.”

Speaking of family, Gunn enjoys an ongoing musical partnership with his wife, pianist Julie Jordan Gunn, with whom he has five children. The couple first met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where both are now on faculty. Of their work together Gunn has said, “It’s another language that we have . . . we never talk in the middle of a recital, but when we’re done an hour-and-a-half later, we have a shared experience.”

After debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in The Ghosts of Versailles in 1995 and continuing to sing smaller roles with the company, Gunn stepped further into the limelight at the house when he filled in for an ailing colleague as Guglielmo in a broadcast performance of Così fan tutte in 1997, an event he describes by saying, “It was like having a big audition for the whole world.”

It seems that he passed the audition. Gunn has sung over 100 performances at the Met—including his famous, shirtless Billy Budd—and has also sung to acclaim in London, Paris, Chicago, and San Francisco. Gunn’s commitment to contemporary repertoire is evident in premieres such as the 2013 A Harlot’s Progress by Iain Bell at Theater an der Wien and in his work as director of the American Repertoire Council at the Opera Philadelphia. His performances in Carousel with the New York Philharmonic and Show Boat at Carnegie Hall have made him a hit among musical theatre fans, and he is now a frequent concert partner to musical theatre and television star Mandy Patinkin.

Our conversation via Skype took place earlier this summer with Gunn speaking from his home in Illinois. We began with the topic of education.

U.S.A. Today recently ran a list of what they called the “Top Ten Music Schools in the U.S.” Assuming that going by that list is not a good way to pick a school, how should a singer finishing high school who is looking for a musical education choose a school?
Singers come to singing later than most instrumentalists, and we also have to deal with a wider variety of aspects of music, particularly language and literature. I didn’t actually see that list, but what I think helps a singer most is not only learning how to use their instrument—that’s number one—but also having a well-rounded education where they are versatile in a number of languages and interested in literature and poetry and all of those things.

Personally, I think a conservatory life is not a good idea for a singer because you can only really practice a couple of hours a day without tiring your voice out to such an extent that it doesn’t really help you, as opposed to pianists and instrumentalists who need to be in the practice room for seven hours a day. But for a singer, you need to experience life and be involved in sports. You need to know how to move, how to act. You need to know something about what you’re singing about and have a story to tell people. And if that isn’t a part of your education, I think it’s hard for that person to be successful.

It sounds like you think a balanced academic life is very important for a singer.
Absolutely. This is something we’re trying to do here at the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign]. I’ve taken over what was called the Opera Department and we’ve turned it into Lyric Theatre, because a lot of singers come in not knowing if they want to be involved in musical theatre, primarily, or if they might move into the more classical world of singing.

They might even decide that they’re more of an actor than a singer. For the first couple of years, most of them really don’t know and that’s OK. It’s important to move in a direction that your voice points you to—but also a direction that your passion points you in, and that has a lot to do with what you like the most.

What do you think is the biggest technical mistake young singers make? Is it over-singing?
I think everybody has their own big problem. Some under-sing. Some over-sing. I think, generally speaking, the biggest mistake that most of them have is that they think they can’t sing in English and that words have to be sacrificed in order to make good sound, and that’s something I am completely opposed to. If you’re not telling a story, there’s no point in singing, in my opinion. You’re doing a good job if everybody understands the words you’re saying.

Your teacher, Bill Miller, never used the word “support.” How do you talk about what’s going on without using that word?
He called it a “hook-up.” And I know that has another connotation, but what he meant was coordination of movement. Your body wants to engage in a healthy way. Instead of supporting your sound—or holding it up, or something else that has a connotation of force or holding—he wanted it to be more an active action. You release to breathe in and then you start to work.

He always said, “A great pitcher is not too relaxed, otherwise he’d just drop the ball. He’s not too tight, otherwise he can’t throw.” It’s a combination of all of that, and your body needs to hook up in order to sing properly. He was adamant about that. This down [Gunn gestures from the chin downward] is responsible for phonation, and this up [gestures from the chin up] is responsible for all the articulation.

My job, when it comes to technique, is to make sure that this [points to the jaw and face] doesn’t mess with this [points to the abdomen and body]. The jaw is independent and it moves around to make all sorts of words. If you imagine a trumpet player with the [mute] in front of the trumpet, it doesn’t affect his breathing at all. It’s just changing the vowels and consonants.

That looks like a cast on your hand. What happened?
I’m having surgery on Monday. I broke my ring finger, in the dumbest way you can imagine: playing golf. I was driving the cart and my hat blew off and I went to grab it and there was a lip in the hood and I went like that [gestures reaching back] and I completely spiral fractured my ring finger. It’s pretty much severed. It’s actually really gross. This is just to make sure I don’t bang it against anything.

I think you need to make up a better story.
I was saving a small child . . . .

Speaking of sports, you’ve described yourself as a “lifelong jock.” Is there ever a point—for example, if people have dance training and they’re trained to pull the stomach in all the time—where very highly developed abdominals can interfere with a proper breathing technique?
In some ways, not just singers but actors as well are so obsessed with how they look, they stop thinking about how they should do their craft. I think if you’re ever thinking about how you look as opposed to how your body should work to sing, it gets in the way. You can be skinny, chubby, in great shape, not in great shape . . . as long as you focus on, like I said, releasing as you should to breathe in properly, it all works out fine.

You say that now even in the era of the HD diet?
Luckily, I think that as much as that is a factor, in the end most singers I know care more about how they sound than how they look. So it’s never going to turn into Hollywood. [Laughs] Which is great. You get to look at people who actually look like human beings instead of stick figures.

You did a lot of Schubert at school, in particular because at the time John Wustman was attempting to perform all of Schubert’s more than 600 songs. What are some of the lessons you learned about interpretation from that immersion?
Schubert composed his songs when he was inspired by texts. For me, that was really important. I’ve never been just a sound guy. I enjoy beautiful sounds, but after a while they become boring. You can have the greatest singer out there, but if they’re not saying something, I tune out.

It taught me how to memorize. It taught me German. And it taught me how to act. To stand on a stage and deliver a text to an audience that was maybe half German speaking and half not, you had to really put your brain into a place where there was a whole drama going on in your head.

I do a lot of recitals now, and no matter what theme Julie and I come up with, it always comes back to the fact that good music is good music. We sometimes program so that if I sing a folk song or a song by Billy Joel or a song by Sting or whomever—if it’s good, it’s good.

Franz Schubert shouldn’t be considered sacrosanct. He was a young man who was a beautiful songwriter, but he was still a human being who was trying to write a song that was meant to communicate to somebody. So, I find juxtaposing something that would be a little bit more readily available to today’s audience helps them understand the other stuff that I put in there that I’ve had years and years and years to study and they only get 15 minutes. I guess what it did—it humanized music that otherwise many of us think of as on a pedestal.

Why is it that you don’t like to use the term “crossover” when you talk about singing musical theatre?
It comes a little bit from my education with Bill Miller. He was performing at a time where there was no such thing as crossover. He sang oratorio and comprimario tenor things and he sang on the Carnation Breakfast Hour in Chicago, which was a radio show when radio was king, and he would have to sing everything from “O sole mio” to “Every Valley” to “Imagination Is Funny” with the Andrews Sisters, and it was just considered singing. It wasn’t considered one or the other.

When it comes to crossing over, there are certain things I don’t sing because my voice doesn’t fit that. But for me to sing Billy Bigelow in Carousel, that’s not crossover. That was written for me. And if I don’t sing it well, it means I’m doing something wrong.

Why did you withdraw from the production of Show Boat at San Francisco Opera? And do you have any advice about how to cancel—why, when, where—without burning any bridges?
I had been burning it at both ends for quite a while. The last season I had been home for less than two months. It was time for me to spend some time at home. It was a decision my wife and I made together. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re now running the Lyric Theatre program here in Champaign, and there was a lot of work to do to change all of that. We have family there; Julie is from the Bay Area and I usually stay with my in-laws, so it was a tough decision.

You need to have a small group of friends or close people who, when you ask them, you can get an honest reaction. I was talking to Mandy Patinkin about this recently because we do this show together and we had to cancel something in Ravinia because he’s filming down in South Africa and he’s thinking about taking some time off. And I said, “Mandy, that takes a lot of courage” because we as performers think, you take time off, you’re done. If you don’t stay in the rat race, you’re never going to get hired again, which is not true. But that’s the feeling. Like maybe if we stop, we’ll never start again. So, you need that small group of people to say, “All right, I think this makes sense.”

You need to stop. Slow down. Have some time off. Have some rest. Work on some things you’ve been wanting to work on. Get those creative juices flowing again so you’re not just doing patchwork constantly or showing up just barely having learned the music you’re supposed to learn. Or putting a program together [by saying] “OK, I’ve learned this and this and this.” Why not take the time to put together something new? I’ve been at this about 20 years now. Sometimes you need a vacation.

You have said in talking about the character Billy Budd, “Everyone responds to beauty.” Were there ever coaches or training at any point where you felt like “this person is letting me slide because of how I look” and you had to find in yourself or another coach to push yourself harder to make sure that you progressed to the level that you wanted to? I’m asking this because I’ve seen young, pretty singers sort of stall out.
I understand. I’ve always been very self motivated. In a funny way, the people that I’ve been warned before I work with—“That person, they’re very difficult,” where they have a reputation of being difficult—I love those people! Maybe I’m one of them, I don’t know. But I don’t like wasting time. I love to work. It’s another reason Mandy and I get along so well, because we work until we’re not making progress. I’ve always been attracted to people like that and musicians like that. If I had advice for a young singer, it’s always a balance. Be wary of the person who compliments you too much and be wary of the person who criticizes you too much. I think you need something in between.

Many young singers stall out because the business is tough. What you don’t expect is how hard it is to have a relationship and travel all the time and not have a home and to deal with finances. It’s particularly difficult on women if they want to be married and have children. For me, I’ve managed to have a home and five kids. My wife and I work together, which makes it sustainable. But it’s different when Dad has to leave for work than when Mom does. And it also takes a different kind of man.

I’ve had this with colleagues of mine where they find a person they’re in love with and they’re happy, and he doesn’t quite understand why she continues to work if he makes a good living. [He thinks], “Why don’t you stay at home now?” [And she says], “Well, I have to sing and do this.” And then it causes all sorts of problems. Some young singers who have tons of promise stall out for reasons not because of singing but because of the business and what it does to a person.

This question is the flipside of the one about people being too easy on you because of your looks. Claggart responds to Billy Budd in an immediately negative way, and that happens in theatre—someone who basically hates you because you have the lead. How do you handle being on the receiving end of that kind of energy? Do you just tune it out?
I definitely tune it out. It’s like what I tell my students, you have something to offer. Never try to tell somebody your interpretation of a song. Just open yourself up and let it out there, and some people are willing to receive it and some people aren’t. In general, we’re going to be a lot more successful than most politicians, so count yourself lucky.

There are enemies in every business. I’m not going to tell you who it was, but I was talking to my agent and I’m like, “You know, Caroline [Caroline Woodfield, Opus 3 Artists], sometimes we talk about this, and I want to throw up and other times I want to beat him about the head.” And she said, “Oh, dahling, in either case, I will hold your coat.” And I thought that was great. Some people get under your skin.

I definitely don’t read my press. When people blog and all that, I don’t read it. There are a couple of reviewers who hate my guts, and that’s OK. You can’t make everybody happy. Now that I’m working in academia, you’ve gotta have a thick skin to be in this world. Holy smokes. My skin is getting thicker and thicker, which is making me weirder and weirder, but that’s OK.

Opera depicts horrible people a lot of the time. As Stephen Colbert said in his interview with you, Bohème is about a bunch of degenerates. Who is the darkest character that you’ve ever played, and is there anything you want to say about The Death of Klinghoffer situation? [The cancellation of the Met’s broadcast. See Bulletin Board, “Is This Acceptable Censorship?” p. 8.]
The Klinghoffer thing, I think it’s too bad. I think there’s no place for censorship. I’ve run into this myself with a couple of pieces I’ve wanted to do here at the University of Illinois when certain people that are sensitive to certain issues make it more of a problem than you’re willing to deal with, so you just have to cancel it. Censorship, to me, is doing something wrong in order to do something that you think is right. In the arts particularly, it’s a tough situation.

That kind of censorship really bothers me, but there are other kinds of censorship. Like, you can’t do certain things at Carnegie Hall because it costs too much to get another stagehand. The unions are a huge censorship on the arts because if you want to have an extra stand onstage it costs an extra $30,000 of union labor, so they can’t do it. Ahh! It drives me bananas. I’m getting off topic.

Who is the darkest character you play?
I can think of a few dark ones. This guy James Dalton that I did in The Harlot’s Progress at Theater an der Wien was a real piece of work. Giovanni seems to be the biggest nihilist of all of them. Of all the characters I’ve played, he might be it. That belief in nothing and succumbing to that sort of desire to do evil. If I had to say dark in a sense of depressed, it’s probably the character in Winterreise. Where he starts off, if you had to describe it like walking through snow, he starts off in six inches of snow—and by the end, he takes a step and he thinks it’s going to be OK, and it’s deeper, and he takes another step and it’s deeper, and it’s deeper and deeper and darker and darker. That’s a tough one. It can get you in a pretty weird state.

You’ve worked with some of the greatest musical theatre performers in the business—Kelli O’Hara, Mandy Patinkin. What can classical singers learn from these singers?
We help each other. That’s what I’ve learned, whether I’m singing with Audra [McDonald] or Mandy or Kelli. They focus almost entirely on telling the story, sometimes sacrificing pitch, rhythm, [or] beauty. What I focus on—sometimes too much—is beauty of sound, accuracy of rhythm. Some of my colleagues—and I think this is why they don’t do musical theatre well—focus mostly on making a lot of sound. So what you get from them is just “I’m thinking about resonance,” and it’s just loud. If you just focus on making a lot of sound, it won’t be particularly beautiful and you won’t be telling anybody anything because you’re going to sacrifice consonants and everything else.

Mandy and I, over the past three years, have really helped each other. He thinks about production and beauty a little bit more. I think more about telling the story. And in the end you get a really great product because we’re both singing our best and telling the best story we can, and I think audiences really respond to that.

So to answer your question, I think what we can learn from musical theatre is that we’re telling a story, we’re not just instruments. And what musical theatre can get from us is that you’ve got to sing the right rhythm and the right pitch. All the time. That’s what the composer wrote. There are variants a little bit, not a lot.

Mandy Patinkin had a great line in an interview the two of you gave. He said, “We’re not geniuses. We’re the mailmen for geniuses.”
It’s true. I read an article [about child geniuses] that said, “A person is not a genius. An act or a work is a work of genius.” And I thought that was really fascinating. There are composers, librettists, and writers out there that create works of genius. And they can’t do anything without us.

John Wustman said this to me once. I was going to do the Barber piece, the one that was written for Leontyne Price [“The Monk and His Cat” from the Hermit Songs]. And I asked if I should get the recording of him playing it with her singing it, and he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because he wrote it for her.” And he said, “He wrote it, but he doesn’t know how it goes.”

It’s funny. I work with a lot of new composers, and many of the composers that I work with say, “Wow, that’s not what I was thinking, but it’s better.” And that’s why there are performers.

What has changed for you, as a family, since accepting the teaching position?
We’ve taken on a lot more responsibility, which is great, but it takes up a lot of time. We do it because we love this community and we love our art form and we care a lot about the musical education of students. I don’t want to say it’s not our primary [focus]—well, it’s not. We’re really performers. But it’s turning out that we’re educators and administrators more and more, and I think that comes from a feeling that the future of the art form is something that we have to help provide a platform for, for our future performers.

I realized from talking with Mandy—and Kelli and Audra and Kristin, and all my colleagues in the opera world—that people aren’t really being trained to do what they’re going to be asked to do. You’re not just going to sing opera. You have to act. You have to be believable. You have to sing in English. In musical theatre, you may only sing eight bars for an audition, but you’re going to do eight shows a week, and they need to have the foundation by which to not hurt themselves. That has become a stronger calling in both of our lives.

Now that we’re working at the university, it’s nonstop. I can’t tell you how many meetings, and teaching, and fundraising—it doesn’t stop. That’s OK. Julie and I love being busy. It’s only doable because our kids are 12 and over. They can actually fend for themselves. If I tell them where the money is, they can order sandwiches. [Laughs] If they were 6, that would not be OK.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at