The dashing American baritone Nathan Gunn is currently starring in Billy Budd in the landmark production by John Dexter at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Benjamin Britten’s opera, based on the novella by Herman Melville, revolves around the clash of good and evil embodied in the young, charismatic sailor Billy Budd and the malevolent master-of-arms John Claggart. The Met’s staging of this gripping work of 20th-century music theater, with Britten’s evocative music, was last revived 15 years ago. Gunn talks to T+L about the role, his life as a singer, and the essential part travel plays in it.
Q: Billy Budd is one of your signature roles. This revival is the first time you are portraying Billy at the Met.
A: Yes, I have sung it at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and have performed the role in San Francisco, Munich, and Bilbao, but the Met’s production is cornerstone. The realistic design of the ship, an 18th-century British naval vessel, shown in cross-section, allows for the action to take place on various decks and quarters. One can’t recreate all the riggings but at points in the opera the ship opens up and audiences see it expand to a height of more than three stories. But what is wonderful is that like a ship of that era the set is made of wood. It provides a great acoustic. And because the set is far forward, we are very close to the audience.
Q: What is challenging about the role?
A: Musically, I feel as it if it were written for my voice. I love singing it. Billy is a complicated character. Superficially, he seems the embodiment of goodness. Yet, after he has been sentenced to death, in his ballad we witness the range of Billy’s very human emotions, from fear, feeling abandoned, to strength, acceptance of fate. His character represents the choice of breaking free from a cycle of vengeance and hate. What is so interesting is that this idea of regeneration can only be fully expressed in the performing arts because their nature is to blossom, then bloom for that time on stage, and then be nothing.
Q: And after New York, you travel to California to sing Papageno, the lovelorn bird-catcher of Mozart’s fantastical The Magic Flute at the San Francisco Opera in a new production designed by the artist Jun Kaneko. Later you sing the role in concert performances at the Ravinia Festival.
A: In San Francisco, we will sing the opera in English translation in a new production, designed by the artist Jun Kaneko. There is humor and wit as well as humanity in Magic Flute. Singing the work in English—and as a native English speaker—allows me to bring subtleties to the part that audiences can pick up on. I don’t consider myself particularly funny. In order for Papageno’s role to come to life a bit, I steal stuff that I have seen kids do. Kids are funny.
Q: Speaking of kids, you and your wife have five children. How do you manage life at home and on the road?
A: I travel a lot. There was a time when we all traveled together—that’s seven of us, children ages 10 to 17, including twins. In Europe, it was especially difficult because it was rare to find cars big enough to accommodate all of us. We’d have to rent a mini-bus or two cars. Now, the children come along on individual, short trips with me and they rotate. They all have favorite cities. The kids have learned to appreciate other cultures, food, and differences. When I am working on an opera, I get to stay in one place for a longer period of time, which is great. In that way, you aren’t a tourist. And I eat what the locals eat.
Q: What are you looking forward to?
A: The Santa Fe Opera has commissioned an opera based on the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It premieres in summer 2015. Gene Scheer is writing the libretto and Jennifer Higdon is composing the score. He is a remarkable dramatist and she is an amazing composer. I will play the role of Inman, the confederate soldier, and cannot wait!
Mario R. Mercado is the Arts Editor at Travel + Leisure.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera