Baritone Nathan Gunn calls himself “old-school” when it comes to recitals.
“That’s just how I was raised, and I’ve been trying to break out of that mode,” Gunn said in a recent interview.
“Old-school,” in this sense, means that the performer doesn’t actually speak to the audience or interact with them in any way other than the music being presented. That’s the traditional format — the idea being that the music speaks for itself, maybe with the aid of some printed program notes.
But more performers, like Gunn, are learning to talk to the audience. And he’s embracing the change.
“[That makes it] more of an evening, a conversation,” said Gunn. “It’s also a very effective way of making music, and the point is to communicate to other human beings.”
Gunn will be singing, and speaking, at the University of Louisville Comstock Recital Hall this Saturday evening, as part of the Speed Concert Series. He’ll be accompanied by his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, who collaborated with him on choosing the songs for the program.
One of the most in-demand baritones working in opera today, Gunn has been seen on stages throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera, and the Royal Opera House. Many critics see him as part of a “new generation” of opera singers who not only have beautiful voices but deliver strong acting alongside movie-star looks. In 2006, The New York Times cheekily suggested that he might also capable of singing with his shirt on, a nod to his occasional bare-chested appearances in various opera roles.
Presumably, he’ll be fully clothed on Saturday as he performs Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” a song cycle written in 1840 that tells a sad, romantic tale.
“If you know the story, he’s this guy who’s in love with a woman who doesn’t love him, which probably makes up 95 percent of all German art songs on the planet,” Gunn said.
Gunn decided, in a fit of “art song humor,” to follow the thoroughly tragic “Dichterliebe” with the song “Everything Happens To Me,” usually associated with Frank Sinatra.
“We’ll see if anybody chuckles, cause it’s sort of funny … yeah, it’s nerdy, I know,” Gunn said.
The program will also include some American art songs by composer William Bolcom, some cowboy songs arranged by Julie Gunn, and a still-to-be-decided ballad.
Gunn said he enjoys doing recitals because he gets to be in control of the musical quality, as opposed to an opera, where there are so many other variables at play.
“You’re dealing with a gajillion different things. You’re dealing with your colleagues, you’re dealing with lights, you’re dealing with costumes, you’re dealing with a large-scale event. What I love about recital is that anything can happen,” Gunn said.
And anything does. In a recent appearance with Broadway singer and actor Mandy Patinkin (he and Gunn have toured with a two-man show), Gunn completely forgot the words to “Over the Rainbow.”
“And I just stop. And he looks at me and he’s like, ‘Do you want me to sing it in Yiddish?’ And I’m like, you know this in Yiddish? And he starts to sing it in Yiddish. And those are the sort of moments that you cannot plan,” said Gunn. “And I’m telling you, that’s what most people loved.”
Nathan Gunn appears on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. at U of L’s Comstock Recital Hall, as part of the Speed Concert Series. More information, including ticketing, is available here.