You’ve encountered the scene in countless cartoons and comedies: an opera singer lets loose an earthshaking high note and champagne flutes shatter, monocles crack and the chandelier explodes as the power of his or her voice wreaks havoc on the concert hall. Whether or not this parody is really based on reality, listeners in the WQXR Café said they half expected to see a shattered glass or two when Nathan Gunn performed the music of Kurt Weill recently.
Gunn unleashed his full, rich baritone with a stadium-filling sound but he also filled the room without overwhelming it. It's all a process of ongoing calibration, he explained afterwards. "The venues that I usually sing in are usually so big that there’s never any big in it. It’s just audible,” he said. “So for me to be able to make big is fun.”
Gunn added that he and his pianist, Julie Gunn (who is also his wife), will sometimes transpose down a piece to a lower key for smaller spaces, a common practice that takes some of the edge off the sound. Conversely, some keys just yield a stronger effect. "The reason why I think a lot of the opera arias were written in the keys that they were is because you use that higher part of your register, it’s louder,” he noted. “It’s just more audible."
These days, Gunn, 42, can be heard in venues of all sizes, from the War Memorial in San Francisco (3,146 seats) and New York's Metropolitan Opera House (3,800 seats) to the intimate Café Carlyle, where he sang a three-week cabaret run last year. His versatility means he can sound comfortable in roles like the Count in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Lancelot in Camelot as well as the title character in Britten’s Billy Budd, a signature role that he performs at the Met this month (his 2009 recording of the opera with the London Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy).
As much Gunn's his voice has received acclaim, opera fans have frequently made note of his dapper appearance, which earned him a place in People magazine’s “sexiest men alive” issue in 2008 (he shared the honors with Gordon Ramsay and Todd Palin, among others). It was Gunn's famously shirtless production of Iphigenie en Tauride at Glimmerglass Opera in 1997 that helped to set off a new breed of baritone known as the “barihunk." Opera directors have capitalized on this fact ever since.
Still, Gunn is more likely to be found rehearsing and teaching than posing for any calendars: both he and his wife are on the music faculty at the University of Illinois, where they teach voice and accompaniment, respectively. After the Café Concert, the couple chatted with WQXR staff members about the nuances of piano timbres and improvisation. Below watch the Gunns’ performance of “This is the Life,” from the 1948 musical Love Life, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner:
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Production & Text: Brian Wise