Opera’s Gunn to promote American works in Philadelphia

Posted: September 13, 2012

Though Philadelphia operagoers are most used to seeing baritone Nathan Gunn on stage, his new role with Opera Company of Philadelphia will be all but invisible: On Wednesday, Gunn was appointed director of the opera company's American Repertoire Council, a role in which he'll give special attention to the opera company's current 10-year commitment to producing an American opera annually.

For the next three years, Gunn function as artistic advisor to the company's two composers in residence, Lembit Beecher and Missy Mazzoli, and will guide American repertoire choices and assemble both partnerships and creative teams for new works.

"I want our operas to be relevant," he said in a phone interview Monday. "I want to help find and, hopefully, guide composers and repertoire to be pertinent and to communicate as perfectly as this art form can."

At 41, the Indiana-born Gunn has a distinguished international career of 15-plus years - symphonic concerts, art song recitals and opera. He's also known for bringing a theatrical veracity to his operatic characterizations and defying the opera world's frumpy stereotype with bare-chested masculinity: In 2008, he was among People magazine's list of "The Sexiest Men Alive."

Though Gunn's Philadelphia presence has mostly been in works such as Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Britten's Rape of Lucretia, he has elsewhere premiered numerous new American operas, including Andre Previn's Brief Encounter at the Houston Grand Opera and Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy at the Met, which is what prompted OCP general director David Devan to begin conversations with him.

"This partnership is born out of a genuine alignment between our company goals ... in the creation of new opera, and an artist who had an authentic track record as a performer and champion of American works," said Devan, whose decade-long commitment to American opera will include Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain, in which Gunn will star.

The yet-to-be-populated council is part of the company's American Repertoire Program, launched in June of this year; it will include 10 to 12 members, from composers to philanthropists, who are particularly committed to American opera. Gunn, who lives in Illinois, plans to have twice-a-month conferences, sometimes in person, more often by Skype.

Gunn will also be involved in fundraising - happily, he says: "I so understand the need for and importance of outside fundraising. And I'm thrilled to be spending more time in Philadelphia."

The appointment is an unusual one for a singer who shows no signs of winding down his singing career. But Gunn has also taken a professorship at his alma mater the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where he lives with his wife and five children.

Gunn's association with OCP began in 1996, when he was part of the Metropolitan Opera's young artist program. Since then, he has performed here fairly regularly, often alongside tenor William Burden, a longtime friend.

His commitment to Higdon's Cold Mountain came before any talks with Devan regarding American Repertoire Council. Before Higdon began the opera, Gunn had conversations with her about converting her vocal/orchestra work Dooryard Bloom into a chamber music piece, and then broached the idea of heading the cast of Cold Mountain, which is scheduled for a 2015 premiere by the Santa Fe Opera before its 2016 East Coast premiere in Philadelphia.

Most of Gunn's current opera season is American. He sings Rossini's Le comte Ory at the Met early in 2013, and then two American works, Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers at the Dallas Opera in April and Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at its San Francisco Opera world premiere in June. He just finished a recording a disc of songs by Jake Heggie.

"I've always been a little bit discouraged by how apologetic Americans are about their own music," Gunn said. "So often, we look to Europe to tell us what is good. But I think we're past that. I'd like to see a turnaround where we're exporting operas to Europe."

In his own career, his future interests include Heggie's Dead Man Walking, Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire as well as such musical theater works as Sweeney Todd and Carousel. "But at the moment," he said, "it seems that my destiny is more to create new roles and to help get new works produced."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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