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Q&A: Nathan Gunn on Life in Song

Nov 20, 2013 Theatre

American baritone Nathan Gunn is in hot demand at opera houses around the world and still manages to squeeze in being a professor at the University of Illinois and director of Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Council. This Sunday he makes a one-night-only appearance at Aotea Centre to perform alongside good friend and star of screen and Broadway Mandy Patinkin. Gunn spoke to Frances Morton from Vienna about life as an international opera star, the New Zealand favourite that might just slip into the programme and singing about 9/11.

How did you come to do this tour together with Mandy Patinkin?

I’d seen him in different shows and heard him in concert before and it wasn’t until Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebration at the New York Phil that we actually sung together. At Avery Fisher Hall there just aren’t enough dressing rooms. I was upstairs in a little room and Mandy was my roommate. We’re up there talking and it turns out that we had a lot of musical things in common.

You’ve got quite different backgrounds. What was it you connected over?

We both love communicating through music. He comes at it through a very actor/musical theatre point of a view. I come from a classical point of view. Each side has its own hang-ups. The classical side, we sometimes get hung up on the details and forget about the point and his side forgets about the details. What we bring together is a sort of balance. And we get along.

That’s a bonus. I imagine in your industry there must be big characters and intense situations?

Oh my god, yes. And people who have a reputation for being difficult generally are the ones I get along with the best. It’s not because they’re difficult, it’s because they like to work hard. I know Mandy is the type of guy who he’s there, he works. I’m the same way. He has his Homeland thing going on. And he has another show [The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville opening December in New York]. So when we finally find a time to get together we work, work, work. It’s some of the most honest collaboration I’ve ever had.

Do you fight over the songs?Gunn

No. We don’t fight. But we sometimes surprise each other.

He said you sound like a god and he sounds like a garbage man. You’ll take that right?

Ha. Yeah. Sure.

Do you have a favourite song to sing in the programme?

Honestly I can’t say I do. Every song is my favourite song. They all have something different in them. One of the things Mandy is great at and has taught me is he thinks about, ‘Where is the audience at this point?’ and we kind of need a little levity now or this is the time to put in something the more serious. It’s done by feeling. Each song, when we do it right and put it in the right place presents itself in such a way that it’s your favourite song at the time.

My mother-in-law is a music teacher and used to take her high school choirs all over the place. She went to New Zealand and learnt a song that when the rights for gay marriage passed everyone in the house started singing it. You know it?

Pokarekare Ana.

Yes. She was like you’ve got to learn it and sing it, it’s a beautiful song. Well, I might just learn that and convince Mandy to learn it too.

When I spoke to Mandy he said he was going to take a road trip with his wife. Are you and your wife [accompanist Julie Jordan Gunn] planning to tag along?

I’m in Austria right now. I’ve got five children and try to bring them on different trips. I was going to bring my son here but it’s a really long stay and the material in the opera I’m doing now [A Harlot’s Progress] is not really appropriate for a 13-year-old. It’s really raunchy. So I decided not to. I said how about Australia and New Zealand instead. He was like, ‘Yes!’ What we’re trying to do is plan one of those rafting trips in the area where Lord of the Rings was filmed. I can’t wait.

You live in Chicago. How do you cope with travelling so much?

I’ve been doing it a while. It’s a lot easier now than it was before because of Facebook and Skype. I suppose you get used to it. I do travel a lot but I do what I love. Then there is the side of me that runs the American repertoire programme at Opera Philadelphia that I like doing very much. And the University of Illinois where my wife and I are both professors. We’re redesigning the opera department to make something that is more up-to-date. Opera singers need to be able to do act, be able to do musical theatre, the whole thing.

Is that because opera is fading?

Nope, not at all. The classical musical theatre that was all pre-microphone stuff is starting to be recognised as operetta. It’s nice to be able to hear something like Camelot done without amplification.

Does that mean the acting is a bigger part of the course?

Exactly, which helps them be better opera performers. These days people can go on iTunes or their iPods and listen to whatever recording they want to hear. You can always hear beautiful singing. When they go to the theatre I think that what modern audiences want is a personal connection with the person on stage. Performers have to sing it well and also communicate something. That’s a big change I’m a part of at the moment. So the Illinois Opera Theatre we’re going to change it to the Lyric Theatre at Illinois. Not just opera but also musical theatre is going to be involved and new pieces. It’s fun. But it’s a lot of work.

gunn magicfluteIn December you’re performing The Magic Flute at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (pictured left). How do you prepare for that?

I’ve done that production a couple of times so I know it. What I love about that is it was the first simulcast from the Met – Julie Taymor’s English version of The Magic Flute. I did it and because of that there are all these YouTube videos and DVDs out there. Kids love this production. They come along dressed up.

You’ve also recently recorded on an album of songs about 9/11. Do you have your own 9/11 story?

I wasn’t actually in the States when it happened. I was in Brussels and – it’s weird how those moments make you remember everything you’re doing – I remember sitting on a couch reading Moby-Dick. A colleague of mine called. We were doing a comedy at La Monnaie, the opera. She said, ‘Are you watching this?’ I said, ‘What?’She said, ‘Turn the television on’. And we had opening night that night. Of course it was cancelled. Everything was cancelled. No-one’s going to come see a comedy.

Then we were flying back to the United States and it was the only time ever I have flown in and customs was empty. All you could see – this is a week after it happened – there was constant billowing smoke coming from the south end of the island. It was awful.

Is the music to reflect and remember? What’s the purpose of putting these memories to song?

I think the songs hold up by themselves. It’s like when someone writes song about D Day or Pearl Harbour and that person’s particular loss. There’s a Charles Ives song I sing that is basically about his brother going off the World War I. You get a glimpse of his life and the memories that he has. He says, ‘Tom’s not here. He’s over there, over there.’ It’s kind of like that. You know what the songs are about. They’re touching. They’re about love mostly, and lost love, but they’re connected to a particular event that is – in at least our minds – probably the biggest event we’ll experience in life. It was a huge moment. It’s world changing. On 9/11 the world stopped. The songs are basically about individual experiences. They’re beautiful. There’s nothing patriotic about it.

Are there any goals in your career you’re yet to achieve?

It sounds terrible but I’ve never really set any goals. I respond to the world as it comes. At this moment I’m doing everything I want to do and enjoy doing. That’s my goal.



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