A Minute With...

Nathan Gunn, opera star and voice professor

5/7/2012  8:00 am

On Tuesday night (May 8), “The Voice” (on NBC) will crown this season’s winner of the popular singing competition. Among the finalists is Chris Mann, the only contender among the four who has opera training. Nathan Gunn, a voice professor and operatic baritone who has starred in productions at the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, sings pop songs as well (his most recent CD covers Billy Joel, Sting and Tom Waits), and has the kind of physical appeal that could pave the way to crossover fame. (In 2008, People magazine named him “one of the sexiest men alive.”) Gunn discussed Mann’s prospects for success in opera, and differences between classical and popular fame, with News Bureau news editor Dusty Rhodes.

We tend to regard opera singers and pop singers as two completely different species. Aside from repertoire, what are the defining characteristics of these two species?

image of professor nathan gunnPop singers sing very different technically than opera, or classical, singers. Much of what a classical singer does is learn to use his voice in a healthy way that maximizes resonance and beauty (hopefully). A well-trained singer doesn't need lights, soundtracks, dancers or other distractions to do his job. A pop singer, today, is more about a show than about the music or the voice. There are some pop singers who could have been opera singers if their voices were large enough. Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby are good examples. Ella had incredible facility and pitch definition, and Bing had incredible beauty of voice.

Rate Chris Mann’s potential as an opera singer. He sounds operatic, but maybe we just don’t know any better. Could you envision him on a legitimate opera stage?

Chris Mann couldn’t sing an opera. No one could hear him without a microphone, and he doesn’t know how to sing through his passagio (the break between his lower and upper registers). He is basically a tenor with no high notes. Listen, for example, to the late Luciano Pavarotti sing “Ave Maria” and then to Chris Mann. The difference is astounding.

There have been other opera singers who have crossed over into pop – Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban, for example. How does Mann compare to those two?

Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban are actually not opera singers. Bocelli tried once and no one could hear him. Because they have small voices, they record easily and well. This is probably a reason for their success.

You seem to enjoy performing a wide repertoire, including pop tunes. What do you look for in choosing the pop tunes you sing?

I look for a melody that can stand alone, without the words. This usually means I will sound good singing it. Leonard Cohen songs are usually something I don’t sound good singing because the songs rely primarily on words, rather than a combination of both.

Has the popularity of TV shows such as “The Voice” and “American Idol” affected either the quantity or quality of students who study vocal music?

No, there are still many people who wish to sing classical music – more so than ever really.

What’s your opinion of shows like “Idol,” “Voice” and “America's Got Talent”?

I like the shows. I also like “Dancing With the Stars.” I think it’s excellent entertainment, although, sometimes the judges can be unnecessarily mean. It would be interesting to have a classical version of one of these shows and see if people found it interesting.

Do you ever wish that you had pursued pop arenas instead of the operatic stage?

No. The pop world isn’t challenging enough musically for me. I really love poetry and storytelling, so the world of opera and art song is a really good fit.

Do a white suit, hair gel and eyeliner make a guy sing better? Or worse?

Well, I get all that stuff in an opera so maybe it does help. Do tights count?

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