Baritone Nathan Gunn has made his name singing opera’s choice baritone roles: Mozart’s Count and Papageno, Puccini’s Marcello, Gounod’s Valentin, and Rossini’s Figaro. And he has performed them in the world’s leading houses from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, to Lyric Opera Chicago, San Francisco Opera, London’s Covent Garden, Paris Opéra and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.
But he has never been content to stay with the standard fare so dear to the hearts of conservative opera fans.
“Performing in new operas is what every singer should be doing. I believe that what I do contributes to putting a new opera’s best foot forward,” Gunn explained. His record proves his conviction: out of the 36 roles he has sung on stage, one-third of these roles have been in new operas, and some he has created for the first time.
Gunn’s San Diego Opera debut in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott this weekend (May 7) brings another role he is creating, the architect Sid Taylor, the extra-marital love interest for the opera’s title character Arden Scott.
If some of his vocal colleagues find it daunting to sing a role that has not been sung before and recorded, that does not boast an established performance tradition behind it, Gunn is eager to take on these assignments.
“I like nothing better than to create a role that has never been sung before—because then it fits me like a custom-tailored suit—and it calls for all of my creative juices to make it come alive.”
The opportunity to work directly with the composer is another advantage of a learning new work. When I asked Gunn to name some of the composers he has worked with, he unleashed a torrent of names: Sting, Jake Heggie, John Adams, Gene Scheer, Tobias Picker, John Musto, William Bolcom, and Jennifer Higdon.
Gunn sang the premiere of Great Scott with Dallas Opera in October, 2015, and he has nothing but praise for Heggie. “He is a singer, and he writes for singers. In his music he wants to make the performers happy.”
A veteran of new opera projects, Gunn observed that he is never quite sure if a new opera is going to soar or crash.
“But it is always a good sign if you feel that opera’s words and music can’t live apart from each other. It’s also important that the entire performing team as well as the director, composer, and librettist trust each other enough to make changes in rehearsal.” Fear of making changes, he added, is one of the predictors of failure.
American opera companies are accustomed to the challenge of filling the house when a new work is presented, but Gunn offered some words of assurance to the opera patrons who shy away from the new and the unknown.
“A lot of Great Scott is pastiche, the performance of parts of a supposedly long lost bel canto opera that sounds like all those beloved bel canto operas.” McNally’s clever title for this imaginary opera—Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei—clearly indicates that the authors were comfortable poking fun at operatic conventions and traditions. This opera’s heroine proves she is a true “daughter of Pompei,” for example, by ending it all with a leap into an erupting Mount Vesuvius. And the usual well-rehearsed stereotypes of the opera world—the scene-stealing upstart soprano, the hunky baritone, the dim tenor—should play to the audience’s comfort of being in on the joke.
Although the role of the diva Arden Scott was written for mezzo-soprano eminence Joyce DiDonato, in San Diego this role will be sung by Kate Aldrich. But most of the Dallas premiere cast in addition to Gunn, including mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, director Jack O’Brien, and counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, have reassembled for San Diego’s production.
“Great Scott is a comedy with touching moments,” Gunn added. “It is also a personal story about the title character facing a turning point in her life. But it leaves her decision unresolved in the end.” A traditional comic opera would have resolved everything in a happily-ever-after conclusion, of course.