Baritone star Nathan Gunn dishes on The Magic Flute, motorcycles, metal and making opera cool
The opera world needed a rock star. Instead, it got Nathan Gunn, who happens to be so much more.
“Opera really is like the original heavy metal,” laughs Nathan. “It does have its softer side. However, if you like your music loud and exciting, head to the opera and see Verdi’s Requiem or Otello.
I think Metallica and Verdi are pretty similar, and Rammstein are really like Alban Berg!” If you’re in Los Angeles and like it loud, forget the Sunset Strip! Instead, you can see Nathan in a phenomenal, funny and poignant production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Los Angeles Opera House. Nathan’s run as Papageno commences on January 10th and ends January 25th. He couldn’t be more thrilled either.
Sitting in Kendall’s Brasserie, a classy bistrostyle restaurant adjacent to the opera house, Nathan doesn’t seem like your average opera singer. He’s got long dark brown hair and a strong physical presence. Donning a green sweater, jeans and fashionable glasses, Nathan definitely doesn’t fit the stuffy opera stereotype.
Nevertheless, the man has opera cred to spare. His undeniable baritone has dominated the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. Plus his many roles run the gamut from the title character in Billy Budd to a stint in Hamlet. He’s rocked Carnegie Hall and The Hollywood Bowl, in addition to carrying concert performances With the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
For commendations, he’s also garnered the first annual Beverly Sills Artist Award, and was recently honored with the Pittsburgh Opera Renaissance Award. Not too shabby at all.
However, even with all of his accolades, Nathan’s extremely downto- earth. That’s why he likes The Magic Flute so much. “I love The Magic Flute because it’s one of the operas that Mozart wrote for the people. Emmanuel Schikaneder wrote the words to it, and he had his own theater. He aimed to write something that would sell on a lot of different levels. I really believe that’s something the opera world needs to do a little bit more. We need to remind ourselves we’re not a museum of high art, but we’re actually supposed to be communicating to people on the whole. This particular opera was written for that.” Nathan’s character isn’t even that different from him — well, minus the bird trapping. “I’ve been married for 16 years, and I have kids. The character that I play, Papageno, is a guy who likes simple pleasures.
He catches birds for a living, and he’s been out in the wild a little too long [Laughs]. He basically wants wine, something to eat, enough sleep and maybe a good looking girlfriend at some point. That’s it. He doesn’t care about anything else. He doesn’t want to fight for truth, justice and wisdom. He’s just a guy! It’s refreshing.” As the waiter brings French fries and soup, Nathan continues, “It’s a funny opera because you see the juxtaposition of Tamino who’s a prince and Papageno — the hunter. Tamino’s goal is to be a poetwarrior or philosopher-king. Papageno doesn’t want that. He simply wants to live his life. You see how the two characters play off each other and work together. Mozart was making a bit of a joke. There’s also a ton of inside stuff about Freemasons and a lot of other subtleties in there. You can find those, or you can just enjoy it for what it is.” Such is the beauty of The Magic Flute — neither Mozart nor Nathan are about to tell the audience how to interpret it. There’s an honesty to opera that Nathan highlights and takes pride in.
“When you see an opera, it’s the one medium that expresses this purely human experience of the world without any impediments. All you hear is people vibrating. There’s no amplification.
Everything you get out of that pit is someone making the sound or their actual bodies vibrating.” There’s no veneer in opera, no backing tracks, no amplification and no overdubs. It’s raw, unbridled vocal power, and Nathan’s the modern day king of it. “When you go into the theater, it’s almost as if you’re in the cello itself. We’re the strings buzzing up on stage. The hall is the final resonator, and everyone’s sitting in it. It’s a really interesting form of human communion. You have to be born with a voice that can make enough sound to sing like that, but then you train and sing in a healthy way. It’s no different from other athletic pursuits.
A pitcher, if he’s throwing well, really could have a long career if he takes care of himself.” Nathan’s no stranger to athletic pursuits either. Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, he was a star sports player in high school. “I played a lot of sports as a kid,” he says with a smile. “I always had a good Voice, so I was asked to join different choirs and shows. I felt confident to do it, because if you’re a good football player, you can also get away with being in a choir [Laughs].” He’s unabashedly a guy’s guy too. He’s more likely to be seen cruising on his motorcycle than anything else during his free time. “I have a Triumph. It’s great! My dad rides as well, so we do trips every summer. This business can be all-consuming. I needed something to distract my mind from it.
When you ride a motorcycle, you can really concentrate on that alone.” Another extracurricular activity includes teaching at the University of Illinois, where he and his wife are both professors. That’s something Tommy Lee could never cop too, but Nathan’s more than your average stage star. He recently made a hilarious appearance on the Colbert Report, and People Magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive.
However, none of it’s gone to his head.
Nathan keeps himself grounded because he’s so passionate about each and every role he takes on. He truly becomes the characters, while imbuing his own stamp on them.
In between French fries, he exclaims, “I love to portray the title character Billy Budd and Papageno in The Magic Flute. I really feel like I’m a better person after I’m done with them because they’re such good guys. When you play a character, you have to open up a certain part of yourself to the particular journey of the character. When I do that with Papageno, I look at life a little more simply.
I’m a bit more thankful for the things I have.
It’s childlike in the sense that he really is without pride. He knows absolutely who he is.” In the end, Nathan has big dreams for the opera. “I hope we can pull more people into this that don’t necessarily know about the medium. I didn’t grow up with this art form; it found me. I feel like, if I could get it, a lot of other people could get it. My musical sensibility is not that different from most people. When opera’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it can be pretty boring. They’re slowly taking the sophistication out of it. I just can’t buy into it — that pretense defeats the whole purpose. It keeps people away.
The point is not the medium itself, it’s to communicate a message to the audience.
That’s what I want to do. It drives me crazy when people put up these barriers to keep others out. It was never intended to be that way. In the old days, people would talk through the entire opera, even! They were there to gather and enjoy themselves.” What’s more rock n’ roll than that?