Nathan Gunn. Photo by Bill Phelps
For years, baritone Nathan Gunn has garnered critical acclaim for his operatic roles in productions ranging from Billy Budd to Cosi fan tutte. Now, he is applying his talent to Just Before Sunrise, a new solo CD that's a collection of romantic, intimate songs. Gunn recently talked with Windy City Times about the album, his family, fitness—and Prince.
Windy City Times: Tell me about your background.
Nathan Gunn: I grew up in South Bend, Ind., and was educated in a private school called Stanley Clarke, where they had music classes but I was also involved in sports. I then went to St. Joseph's High School, where I was again active in sports and music; in order to make extra money, I would take voice lessons and try to sing at weddings [ and similar events ] . Then, my mother found a voice teacher who introduced me to classical music. The first thing I heard was Mozart's The Magic Flute—and it really struck a chord in me, and I thought seriously about pursuing music. I got involved in a opera workshop at Indiana University at South Bend High School. I [ ultimately ] tried to get into music school, and I did. That was the beginning of it.
WCT: Let's talk about the CD. I'm curious as to how you chose the songs that ended up on it.
NG: What I decided to do from the beginning was to not [ sing ] things that had been recorded before—no aria excerpts. I wanted to do what people used to do: sing songs by people who are alive and who are writing beautiful songs about things today. I also said [ to Sony ] that I wanted to record it in a way that would be listenable to the audience, whether they were going in to work to cooking.
The next thing I did was go through music. David Lai, the album's producer, introduced me to a number of composers I hadn't met before because they were mostly Broadway guys. I decided I wasn't going to eliminate a song I liked because of who wrote it; that's why there's a Billy Joel song, a Sting song and two Tom Waits songs there—the songs are beautiful. Then, there was a weeding-down process. For this particular record, the song that struck a chord for me was [ the Ben Moore song ] This Heart That Flutters; it set a tone for the rest of the album.
WCT: I have to admit that, at first, I thought your voice would be too big for some of the songs on the album, but the songs do come through as being intimate.
NG: Good! That's exactly what I wanted to do. [ Laughs ] When I was a young artist at the Met, Jimmy Levine said, 'Nathan, this is your first year. Things are going beautifully and you're very musical. You think a lot about the words. But at Metropolitan Opera we need you to make music between forte and fortissimo.' That was [ weird ] because I like using the entire palette.
What I discovered about recording is that I can use a whole other range of dynamics and colors; it can almost be like you're whispering. I thought that there might be a whole group of people who might enjoy that.
WCT: What was it like working with Kristin Chenowith [ on the song It Feels Like Home ] ?
NG: She's a doll. Obviously, she's blonde and cute—and she's really charismatic. What you may not know is that she's very musical and serious, and she's a really hard worker. I thought she'd be perfect for this song, because I can play the straight man to her—but I really admired her musical ability and preparation. I can't say enough good things about her.
WCT: You're a family man. You've been married [ for 15 years ] and have five children. How do you do it?
NG: You have to embrace chaos a bit. [ Laughs ]
The life of a traveling minstrel is not the easiest. We put down roots in Champaign, Ill., a long time ago, and that kind of anchor is good for a family. Also, the fact that I'm only one of seven people in that family who has to leave adds a bit of stability. The kids are all great and have big personalities; they certainly keep me in line.
WCT: Do you ever read reviews?
NG: Yeah, sure. You have two choices: You can never read any or you can read everyone's [ reviews ] . I've gotten to the point where the choices I make musically on stage are really mine. I know not everyone agrees with [ the choices ] , and that's OK. I'm open enough for people to have varying opinions, although sometimes it's hard because people can say pretty mean things about you. It's all good in the end, though, as long as I know I'm giving it everything I've got.
I never change what I do because of a review. You don't have enough performances to change what you do.
WCT: Now, everything I've read refers to you being handsome, hunky, etc. Do you ever feel that the description of your physicality takes away from your music?
NG: No, I don't think much about it. I'm getting used to it, because there are a lot of handsome guys out there who sing. It's very flattering—and if it's something that brings people into the theater, that's great.
WCT: I have a fitness-related question. A friend of mine wanted to know how you did leg extensions across the stage in Sweeney Todd while singing.
NG: [ Laughs ] I don't know. I actually do a lot of things to stay in shape. I've been involved in martial arts my whole life, and right now I'm studying aikido. However, the exercise I do that travel really well comes from strength and flexibility exercises my 10-year-old gymnast daughter does. I do those with her—and, let me tell you, they kick your butt. They work your shoulders, your core muscles and your legs.
I also run, although I don't run a lot; jogging is hard on my body. I'm not built for long distances. I don't lift weights; lifting has always put my body out of balance a little bit.
I actually need [ those exercises ] . You know that mindset that one gets before an athletic event—where you're focused? I push my body until I feel a little pain helps me get into that mode. [ To compare, ] I'm naturally introverted, so I have to motivate myself to get on stage.
WCT: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?
NG: Grace Kelly; she was absolutely gorgeous. Actually, you know who I would love to do something with? Prince! I think he's a genius.
Nathan Gunn's solo CD, Just Before Sunrise, is out on the Sony Classical label. He is also scheduled to perform Aug. 17 at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park with the the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus.