From his beginnings in South Bend, Indiana, to winning the MONC Auditions, performing on the world’s greatest stages, achieving major success in crossover works, and now serving as a Swanlund Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Nathan Gunn continues to inspire audiences and students worldwide. In this interview, Gunn shares his thoughts on being an artist during a pandemic, his advice to young singers, and his optimism for the future.
CS Music is thrilled to feature two-time Grammy-winning baritone Nathan Gunn as a masterclass presenter during the 2021 CS Music Online Convention and adjudicator for the CS Music Vocal Competition finals in May. Gunn shared his reflections on his remarkable career as he was preparing to leave Chicago to embark on a new project in Florence, Italy. Visibly relieved and excited to prepare and perform his next role after a year of venue shutdowns, he divulged changes that the past year has brought and details about his imminent performance.
A Charmed Career
Gunn found an initial attraction to music (specifically, opera) by being involved in choirs at school and church. “Everyone paid attention to the little boy with the nice voice,” Gunn says. In his junior year of high school, he began voice lessons with a teacher at a nearby university who, after hearing him sing, invited him to perform with the university’s opera department in The Magic Flute. Singing his first lead opera role (Papageno) while yet in high school, Gunn fell in love with this art form.
He chose to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. At the time, Professor John Wustman was immersed in the project of performing all of Schubert’s 598 songs with his student singers. Gunn was granted the extraordinary opportunity to sing 160 Schubert songs (300 performances) as an undergraduate, creating a rich set of experiences to help him master his technique, develop a love for languages, and tell stories through song. During his senior year, Gunn won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has been enjoying an array of performance opportunities ever since.
Gunn remembers stepping onstage to sing Guglielmo in Così fan tutte for a Texaco broadcast. “As a young artist,” he says, “I was up on the stage with Susie Graham, Carol Vaness, Cecilia Bartoli, and Tom Allen.” James Levine had recommended him for the role. “They trusted me enough to do that. . . . I did it, and that was like an international audition. That was really exciting.
“One of the greatest productions was in 2000—Francesca Zambello’s War and Peace at the Paris Opera. Bobby Brubaker and I were the only Americans, and the rest were from the Bolshoi. It was an amazing show.” Gunn immersed himself in Russian language and culture while getting caught up in the history of Napoleon marching into Moscow.
He also enjoyed being part of one of the most famous love stories in all literature. The production’s video recording was a standout, too. “So touching, so moving, so beautiful,” he says. “I was in Paris, my son Dylan had just been born, Julie [Gunn] was there with me . . . it was almost the end of an era in some ways. There were no cell phones and it was just . . . different.”
Gunn is widely acclaimed for his impressive crossover work with Broadway actors, most notably portraying Lancelot in Camelot and Billy Bigelow in Carousel with the New York Philharmonic. “This is American operetta,” remarks Gunn. “I’ll sing this . . . this is wonderful! I didn’t know anybody in that world. That was when I learned how Broadway people work.
“What amazed me is how everyone would show up with a smile on their face. Nobody was grumpy. They would maybe do a show that night after our rehearsals during the day, show up in the morning, continue to rehearse, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ These people love what they’re doing.
“And it must be incredibly competitive, because they really don’t want to lose their job. We had five shows in a row. I, of course, come from a world where you do a show and then you get three days off and you don’t know what to do with yourself. That’s not how [Broadway] works. You do a rehearsal and then you do a dress rehearsal, and after the final dress rehearsal you do the first performance in front of the audience. Then you do another two the next day, and then another two, and then the last one.
“For Camelot, I remember going and doing an HD broadcast at the Met, and then I was in the hot seat on Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report.” Colbert was jokingly accusing the Metropolitan Opera of corrupting youth, showing clips from Madama Butterfly and Carmen with people being killed and sizzling love triangles. “I had to defend it!” Laughing, he continues, “I finished the [Colbert] show and headed down to Avery Fisher Hall [now David Geffen Hall]. I remember getting my costume on just in time to walk onstage for one of the final dress rehearsals.
“One of the things I loved about it was that I met a number of friends . . . and it made me realize in a lot of ways we aren’t that different. I was coming as an American singing what I call verismo operetta from a music education background. But they were coming at it from a theatre background.
“Our worlds intersected and met in the middle. I learned a ton from them about what they held dear, what they were really trying to get across, and I found it as a relief from trying to resonate as loud as you can over an orchestra. I loved it. I’ve done all kinds of crossover things.”
He describes the technical approach to Broadway roles: “I never really thought of it as different. I felt a little bit out of place . . . and the people at the Met would say this to me too—they thought of me more as a song singer than an opera singer. But since I liked words so much, I would gravitate toward Mozart and Britten. If you can be understood when you’re singing, then you’re singing well.
“It was a very easy transition. With music theatre you have to be able to go from talking to singing seamlessly. You can do a lot of stuff with your voice that’s healthy even though it sounds ‘on the edge.’ So I didn’t really change much, no.”
Contemporary American Opera
Gunn admits feeling drawn to contemporary works by American composers. While loving classic opera and song literature, he believes some of his most important work is premiering new roles in operas by living composers. When defining a new character, he researches source material, talks with the librettist, and uses his people-watching skills to create meaningful mannerisms specific to his character.
“Once I meet the other singers,” he shares, “it transforms . . . their ideas change how I think about my character. I’m adjusting depending on where they’re coming from. That continues until it closes. From a practical point of view, all this work is hard to do until you know the notes. So . . . learn the words, make sure the music is down so you can adjust when you show up for rehearsal [and] it’s second nature. It’s terrible when you’re looking for pitches!”
In 2018, Gunn accepted an offer to become a Swanlund Chair at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and co-director of the Lyric Theatre. There he has founded the first-ever BMA in lyric theatre.
“I was asked to redesign the opera department to make it more relevant to students,” he shares. “So I asked Kelli O’Hara, Mandy [Patinkin], and Marin Mazzie what seemed to be missing. They all said the same thing: musical skills.
“[Companies] want to get younger and younger people onstage for these younger and younger kinds of shows. They do eight shows a week and they have to get cortisone shots in their throats because they don’t know how to sing, or they don’t know how to learn to make the changes necessary because they literally have no musical skills. That’s super important.
“I’m tired of this huge division between American opera and American music theatre. You’re starting to see a blending with a lot of composers where it’s hard to tell what [genre] it is, so we decided to create a bachelor of musical arts in lyric theatre. It’s not opera, not a music theatre program. It’s more than that. You get all the dancing, acting, musical requirements, more voice lessons, and piano skills.
“We also workshop new pieces. We workshopped a piece called p r i s m that won the Pulitzer the year before last. All of our students participate. Our graduate voice students usually sing [lead] parts, but not always. We have DMAs and undergrads that will be involved in new works.
“We produce Crazy for You the same year we do Rape of Lucretia, p r i s m, or a new music theatre piece. We want them to be able to do all of it [opera, music theatre, and jazz]. That allows them to grow as musicians. It’s important that they all take Italian because it’s the language of music. When someone says, ‘Please be more legato,’ what does it actually mean?
“We keep it somewhat boutique—the department is not that big—about 15 majors each year. We like it that way. It’s a lot of work. We have six shows going on because we have to have small casts. The biggest mainstage one [this season] is Turn of the Screw.”
Our Challenging Year
Gunn’s response to the pandemic’s challenges included growth in his knowledge and mastery of microphones, video editing, and other technological skills. “Not being able to get together is a problem,” he says. “You can’t perform with someone online because of latency.
“You have to be in proximity—that’s just the way it is. I’m teaching more than ever. Everyone expects me to teach the doctoral students, but I like the freshmen and sophomores because I get them for a couple of years and instill a sense of healthy singing, then send them to someone else. It’s nice to see these kids develop over a couple of years.
“Everyone’s adjusting, following the rules. They want to perform! The hardest part is isolation. Some have had to take a semester off and go back home with mental health issues. That’s really sad to me. As you know, when you teach voice, you see these kids all the time.
“When you’re a performer, that job becomes how you identify yourself. A lot of your personal sense of worth is tied up in it. Since the pandemic I’ve thought, ‘What am I now?’ I think a lot of performers are dealing with that.
“In the end, it’s been kind of good. I’ve discovered that we get so siloed and myopic about what we’re doing . . . now there’s a whole wide world of possibilities outside the world of opera (or what I think of as opera). Part of why I’m doing this project with Hershey Felder [a concert pianist, actor, and producer of a new arts broadcasting company, Hershey Felder Presents—Live from Florence] in Italy is that I’ve discovered it’s not about preserving opera, it’s about communicating with other people—however we can, in whatever limited ways we can. And that’s actually what I care about.
“It’s not about singing the note the best way or being the best Papageno or Billy Budd or whatever role I’m doing. It’s really about connecting to an audience in real time where I can communicate something that is more distilled than having a conversation or writing something down. It has the wonderful element of emotion combined with well thought-out words and music. It’s really important for all of us.
“I think it changes people’s lives and it changes the world. It hasn’t been until recently that I rediscovered that. It’s like going [back] to the beginning: why did I want to be a singer? That was it.
“I’m a big introvert. I never wanted to walk onstage. I’m shy at parties. I’ve learned how to deal with it and to be the same as when performing: gracious, kind, listening to the other person. I’ve tried to be loving instead of worried about how they view me or embarrassed or anything.
“I found that I communicated best in the words of great poets with tunes from great composers. I add flesh, blood, and air to it—that was where I belonged. It was about communicating. It wasn’t until all of this [the pandemic] happened that I had a long moment to reflect on that.”
The Fourth Wall
Gunn described an instance when his passion for breaking down barriers between performers and audiences reached a peak. While recording the Grammy-winning performance of Billy Budd with the London Symphony Orchestra, he says, “I was really against wearing a white tie and tails. They fought me. It was tradition, history.
“I finally won, so Billy and his buddies wore dress slacks, turtlenecks, and sport coats and as they moved up in rank, they had fancier and fancier dress. What I noticed immediately is that the audience, now dressed like the sailors, connected. There was no barrier at all. They want to know who we are.
“Julie and I talk during recitals. Sometimes we don’t mean to—we’ll just talk onstage and people love it. They get invited in, breaking down those barriers, even when it comes to what clothing we wear.”
What most delights Gunn about singing is “the feeling of doing it. I like how it feels to sing healthfully and have your body resonate the emotion you’re feeling in words that are perfectly sculpted so that you don’t have to come up with them. You just have to remember them. It’s hard to describe to people who don’t do it.
“Plus, the act of living absolutely in the moment. You’re not thinking about the future, you’re not thinking about the past—you’re thinking of, maybe, a split second of where you’re headed, so you have the road map, right? But being there and as honestly yourself as you can possibly be, that’s what I like about it.”
Onward and Upward
Days after this interview, Gunn flew to Italy to partner with Felder to perform the world premiere of Felder’s PUCCINI, a story of a young singer obsessed with the music of the Italian master. Gunn was particularly excited to sing a bit of the role of Scarpia from Tosca, which he has never performed onstage. Equally meaningful for him was the mission of the venture: to help small opera companies during the pandemic. Since shutdowns began, Felder started producing short musical films that regional theaters could use to help stay financially afloat until venues reopen. Joining Gunn for this virtual performance, which premiered on March 14, were soprano Gianna Corbisiero and tenor Charles Castronovo.
Also in conjunction with Felder was Gunn’s one-man show, “NATHAN GUNN FLYING SOLO.” Of this production, Gunn says, “‘FLYING SOLO’ is basically autobiographical. I met Hershey a couple days after my dad had this accident. He fell and broke his neck and was paralyzed, so I got him to Chicago into a rehabilitation institute.
“He’s recovered pretty well. Hershey got to know my parents and he thought it would be fun to tell a story about this kid from South Bend growing up in this normal Midwestern family and ending up this international opera singer. How did that happen? As Hershey always does, it’s tied in with a personal story.
“We’re a Scottish family . . . becoming the chief of the clan now that my father’s been incapacitated . . . and taking care of him. It was an absolutely beautiful show about quirky characters in my family, and my first coaching with Renata Scotto—we do a bit on that—it’s hilarious. It was great. I loved it. We’ll probably do more of it.”
Advice to Young Singers
When asked what advice he’d give to himself at 18, he responds, “Don’t take it too seriously. You’ve got to have a sense of humor about all of this. And be sure you’re motivated by love for the people you’re singing for and the art form.
“Don’t do it for fame, glory, money . . . don’t do it for any of those reasons. If you have that with you all the time, you can take being on the road 10 months out of the year. You roll with it. You deal with what comes in a way that is meant to happen.”
He believes that modern singers need “wellness, flexibility, and creativity. You’ve got to adjust, you have to be healthy mentally and physically (which has a lot to do with technique for a singer, right?). If you do it the way nature intended, you won’t get vocal problems. And you have to be creative. It’s OK to imitate for a while but, in the end, everybody wants to hear you and see you—not a cheap imitation of somebody else, but who you are.
“If you are that, you can’t lose. Be yourself. It’s hard to get across to undergraduates, I find, because they’re worried about their job, money, being accepted. It’s that stage of life. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else.
“What’s going on in the world can be really depressing for people—performing artists, particularly, because they’re not able to perform. The world’s not going to be the same as it was. I personally think it’s going to be better. We just have to stay positive and let it play out.
“And keep working! Now’s a great time to hunker down and fix all the stuff you don’t like about what you do! So, use it. It’s a gift. And try to remember that that’s the case.”
For more information about Gunn’s exemplary career, see NathanGunn.com.