Nathan Gunn is the whole package. He possesses a natural and magnificent baritone voice that is even from top to bottom. Although it sounds like he just woke up one morning and could sing perfectly, there is a secure technique behind his obviously God-given abilities. Further, his performances are uniformly consistent and his acting ability makes him believable in every role he tackles. The fact that he is one of the star Barihunks doesn't hurt either.
“I first sang the role in college at the University of Illinois,” said Gunn in a recent phone interview. “It was challenging for us. There weren’t any recordings or traditions to help us learn the music and get a handle on the characterization.”
Gunn sings a lot of contemporary works. He feels new operas are an exciting challenge that should be an important part of every singer's career. He revels in the freedom of being the first to create a role. “Nobody is expecting me to sound like so-and-so or this or that recording.”
As to The Aspern Papers, he said that the biggest challenge is the conversational nature of the writing. There are extended passages for his character, including one scene where he tells the long and complex story of Medea, who murders her own children to take vengeance on their father. Gunn is marvelous in this scene, and it might make a good set piece for him to extract for either orchestral appearances or solo recitals. And his recitals are eclectic, to say the least: for a recent Cliburn Concert appearance, he paired Schumann's Dichterliebe with “Home on the Range”.
Gunn had quite a lot to say about The Aspern Papers and his role.
“The rhythm is very tricky but harmonically it is not so difficult,” he said. “The score is difficult because the singers and the orchestra interact more like in chamber music. You trade off leadership in a well-written opera and The Aspern Papers moves around seamlessly. You have to know when you join in because it has already been going on before you become a part of the action. It is like handing off the baton in a relay. If traditional opera is football, then The Aspern Papers is like soccer—it never stops. There are peaks and valleys, but it just continues to the last notes.”
That student performance of the opera was 20 years ago. That's a long time for someone who is constantly learning new music. “When I came back to it, much of it was fuzzy in my memory,” he said. “I didn't remember the end at all. Of course, I was a student then. The opera was a reach for us. We were student singers and the orchestra was a student orchestra and we all did the best we could.”
The Dallas production is certainly different from that experience. This is a world class production with the top singers in the world, the no-longer-a-student Gunn included. The Dallas Opera orchestra is marvelous and Graeme Jenkins is one of the top opera conductors in the business. You really couldn't ask for more, and the TDO production has received universally great reviews.
Gunn had a wrinkle to add. “Personally, I think that The Lodger is in love with Aspern. The only time he sees something attractive about the niece is when she is seated at the piano and playing Aspern's music. Maybe this is not full-out gay in the way we think about it today, but he is certainly obsessed with Aspern. Of course, he is a musicologist who is an expert on Aspern and you can easily become obsessed with your subject—you actually have to, really. You only become a musicologist because you want to study what you love.”
This is the torment for Gunn's character. He knows this opera must exist, even though all the experts say the very idea is nonsense. He even knows where it is and who has it hidden.
If you were The Lodger, what would you do?