By Christopher A. Pape
Nathan Gunn is a handsome man; People Magazine agrees as he was voted one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” in 2008. But beyond that, he is one of the most in demand operatic baritones in the world. Yet this boy from the Midwest having sung all over the world – loves and continues to come back to New York and the Met, where he began his career.
We sat down over lunch and talked of opera, musical theater (his new passion) and what he loves about our fair city. The whole time he was a pleasure to speak to. Make sure to catch Nathan at the Met for his upcoming performance in Le Comte Ory by Rossini and at Avery Fisher Hall for a concert staging of Carousel, which he performs with Kelli O’Hara. I hope you like the piece as much as I liked interviewing him.
Resident (R): How did a boy from the Midwest get into opera?
Nate Gunn (NG): One thing you find out in this business is that when it comes to opera they are looking for voices. I was always asked to be in choir and musicals so my mother suggested I take voice lessons. Then one day, my vocal coach told me about an opera workshop and asked if I’d like to sing Papageno, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and that started the ball rolling.
While studying at the University Of Illinois – I was a five-year senior – I sang in my first vocal competition. Although I didn’t win it, one of the judges ran the Young Artist Program at the Met and the National Council Auditions and told me that I should sing in the Met’s competition. And I did and won, which brought me here to New York.
R: You won the regional level?
NG: No. I won the whole thing.
R: Wow! That’s amazing!
NG: They asked me to be in the Young Artist Program and I accepted; I went from a little town in the Midwest to New York and it was scary.
R: That’s fantastic. What roles did you learn and what is your repertoire?
NG: Rossini, Mozart and Britten are probably the three composers that I sing the most. I sing a lot of Bel Canto roles and I also love new operatic pieces. I just love creating roles, whether they are new or old. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot with some of my Broadway friend like Kelli O’Hara and Mandy Patinkin and that’s opened up an entirely different repertoire for me; I love singing in English. Preserving the American Songbook is very important.
R: You have two big events this month; can you tell us about that?
NG: I’m very excited. I’ll be at the Met, in their production of Le Comte Ory – a pure Rossini role; it’s the first time I’m performing it. I’ll be at Avery Fisher Hall with the NY Philharmonic in a concert staging of Carousel. It’s very hard, for someone like me, to sing on Broadway; our schedules just don’t match up; that’s why I’m looking forward to working with Kelli in this Carousel concert.
R: Who has been your favorite person to work with?
NG: While I’ve never worked with him on the stage, Placido Domingo, as a conductor is fantastic; one of my operatic baritone heroes, who sang a lot of my repertoire, but is a couple of generations older than me – he’s a friend of mine – Sir Thomas Allen. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Susan Graham, Renée Fleming and Joyce DiDonato, who are all fantastic. In the world of musical theater, Mandy Patinkin and I did a show together; I love working with him and he’s 1000% all of the time.
R: Favorite Opera?
NG: Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. The story was a novella by Herman Melville. It’s a great story and a great opera; sung in English and I feel so lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to sing Billy. I actually won the Grammy for a recording of my Billy performance.
R: Turning to a slightly different question: you’re not a native New Yorker, but tell us what you love about the city?
NG: I’ve spent so much time in the city. I do have to say I love Chicago; it’s a beautiful town, very Midwestern. I do a lot of charitable work there; the city is close to my home – I live in Champaign, Illinois. My wife and I spend much of our time working with inner-city schools; we teach them the importance of the arts.
But when I come to New York, it’s like coming home. Every time I come here, I head straight to a dinner; I love matzo ball soup and listening to people argue or send their order back because the bacon isn’t crispy enough.
When I come to perform at the Met, I know all of the security guards; I know everyone that works backstage and they all know me. I love having all of my colleagues here; the Met is the gathering place for operatic performance. •