Playing ‘Flute’ With Nathan Gunn
Baritone Nathan Gunn has lived a vocal charmed life, of sorts. Not long after he received his bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Illinois, he participated in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Program and, at 24, won, the Met’s National Council Competition. By the time he received a 1997 Tucker Foundation Career Grant, his career was well on its way.San Francisco Classical Voice
With fame propelled as much by his smooth, suave instrument as by his willingness to display his muscle-builder physique in one shirtless role after the other — he has stripped to the waist in four out of the five productions of Britten’s Billy Budd in which he has starred — he was soon appearing in major opera houses around the world.
In the midst of rehearsals for San Francisco Opera’s English language production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, in which he plays the birdcatcher Papageno, Gunn graciously agreed to chat during his lunch break. How he managed to maintain such an even toned, relaxed demeanor through the course of our interview attests to his being at ease in the spotlight.
Have you ever before sung the Magic Flute in English?
This is the third translation I’ve sung. I’ve sung it at the Met in their abridged English version, and when I was at school I did a different version. It actually translates very well.
It very well may, but how does it translate in your mind when you have those other versions vying for attention?
It takes a little bit of time to memorize, but that is to be expected. What I find most interesting is, depending on the translation, the character of Papageno changes. In German, it’s pretty clear what kind of person he is. But with some more, up-to-date translations, he’s different. He can be quirky, or a bit wacky — not just a birdcatcher who spends a lot of time in the forest. But as the translation changes goes, the character changes, and the motivation for some of the things he does has to change, as well.
The hard part of it is that, in my head, I always have, first and foremost, the German! There are some things that I do because I know the person is going to say, “What are you doing?” and I reply, “I’m lying in a faint.” But that’s not in this version. So there has to be another reason why I’m on the ground. Why does he get on the ground?
And you can’t just explain it because “It’s opera”?
That does help.
How is Papageno presented in the German?
He really is an everyman, a simple person who likes simple things in life, and who has a job that puts food and wine on the table. The thing he’s missing in life is a mate, a partner. That’s it. He’s not particularly courageous. He says what everybody else would want to say, and he certainly doesn’t have lofty ideas. He’s a peasant who doesn’t have time for philosophy. He just survives, and that dictates how he thinks.
In this translation, there is no forest. It’s a magical world that’s been created by the scenic designer and stage designer. The way he says things almost makes him more of a city person. He might still catch birds, but he’s more urban than rural. That changes how you move, and how the character develops.
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