Artist Spotlight: Nicholas Phan

American tenor Nicholas Phan, praised by The Boston Globe as “one of the world’s most remarkable singers,” is a remarkably multi-faceted artist. Nominated for multiple Grammy awards, Phan is no stranger to recording projects. His latest high-profile venture is the world premiere of A Year to the Day, a dramatic song cycle with music by acclaimed composer Lembit Beecher and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell. Co-starring violinist Augustin Hadelich, the hour-long piece will premiere digitally on The Violin Channel on Friday, October 7, at 7:00 PM. Phan recently spoke with CS Music about this new work, which examines the life of a musical artist during the pandemic with virtuosic music and poignant and witty text.

How did you find out about this project, and what about the subject and/or music inspired you to participate?

In the fall of 2020, Mark Campbell wrote to me to tell me about this project. I was familiar with Mark’s work as a librettist, first hearing his work when his opera with John Musto, Volpone, was premiered at Wolf Trap in 2004. Lembit Beecher recommended me to Mark for this project. While I had never yet performed any of his music, I’ve known Lembit for many years, having become connected to him through his wife, the cellist Karen Ouzonian, who is a good friend from our summers together at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. I also became friends with Augustin Hadelich during those Marlboro summers, and Orion Weiss (our pianist colleague for this project) is also a frequent collaborator of mine. 

There were a lot of factors that inspired me to participate in this. I’d been wanting to perform Lembit’s music for many years since meeting him, so that desire combined with the chance to collaborate with so many dear friends again was all more than enough to inspire me to take part. Throughout my career, I’ve also been artistically committed to continuing to expand the vocal chamber music repertoire and usually jump at the chance to be part of a new song cycle. All of those factors, plus the subject matter that Mark and Lembit wanted to explore felt so “of the moment”.


Could you tell us a bit about the story that Mark Campbell wrote for the piece? Was the character’s journey similar to your own circumstances during the pandemic? How or how not?

The story of Mark concocted for the piece explores a singer’s experience of the pandemic lockdown. It begins with the chaos of cancellations, explores the isolation and loneliness of the covid quarantine lockdown, and ultimately takes us through this singer’s decision to recommit to his craft as he renews his love for the art form. 

While the exact details of this singer’s journey are not my own, there was much to relate to as I had many similar moments and coping techniques throughout the lockdown. Much like Mark’s protagonist, practicing every day is what kept my spirits at a manageable level and the depression and despair at bay. 

John Dowland’s lute song “Time Stands Still” is quoted and makes an appearance at the end of the cycle as the singer finds his love for music again – that song was one that popped up a lot for me at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Finding myself with a lot of time to read early in the lockdown, I picked up Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing. The song features prominently in the book, and a beautiful recording of an arrangement by Nico Muhly sung by Iestyn Davies was released around that time, too. So, the song was frequently in my ear, and I found myself wanting to sing it a lot in those early days of the lockdown.


How is the preparation or performance of a digital premiere like this different from one in front of a live audience? Which do you prefer, and why?

It is a bit stressful to premiere something in a recorded format before doing a live premiere, as when you are recording and filming, the microscope is on you. You also aren’t able to feel an audience’s energy and how they are responding to a piece. However, as in all recording situations, there is something liberating about it, as well. You can take more risks expressively and emotionally, because if something goes awry, you can always just have a second go at it. 

I love performing live and recording and filming equall,y and think both are important, as they offer different opportunities for both the performer and the audience member. But I think that the pandemic has shown us that there is nothing quite like the magic of the communal, shared experience of a live, in-person performance.


What advice do you have for any other singers interested in creating a digital project like this (whether it’s a premiere or standard repertoire)? What are special considerations they should keep in mind?

I think the main thing is that creating any digital project requires a lot of advanced preparation. The better a piece is prepared, the more smoothly the recording and filming sessions will go. Also, thorough preparation helps a performer feel confident, so that they can take risks and totally devote themselves to telling the story of the music and the text. Recording and filming really does feel like being under a microscope, so you have to do everything you can to focus and deal with that kind of scrutiny and pressure.


Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers, including favorite recent or upcoming performances or recordings?

Just that it feels really great to be back performing live again! As for a recent artistic highlight, I released my eighth album with Avie records, Stranger, this past July. I am really proud of how the album turned out. It features three world premiere recordings of works for tenor by Nico Muhly. Nico’s music is incredibly moving and beautiful, and I was fortunate to work with some wonderful musical colleagues on the album, including the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, pianist Lisa Kaplan, countertenor Reginald Mobley, and The Knights with their co-artistic directors Colin and Eric Jacobsen.

As for some upcoming performance highlights, I am really looking forward to singing the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the New York Philharmonic and Jaap van Zweden in March of 2023, as well as a tour of Handel’s Ariodante to Paris, Barcelona, and Essen with the baroque orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro this fall.

For more information about Nicholas Phan, visit

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock has sung with The Santa Fe Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, The Pacific Symphony, Memphis Symphony, PROTOTYPE Festival and Opera Hong Kong. He currently serves as The Associate Director of Development for Major and Planned Gifts at The Atlanta Opera, and he is a member of the Classical Singer Magazine editorial board.