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A Conversation With Tenor Nicholas Phan


18 Apr 2012

Nicholas Phan

As springtime comes into full bloom, rising star American tenor Nicholas Phan, named one of NPR’s Favorite New Artists of 2011, prepares for two exciting firsts.


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Following performances with David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony of Bach’s epic Mass in B minor (March 31 and April 1), Phan heads to Georgia for his role debut as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Atlanta Opera (four performances, April 28-May 6). A few weeks later, Phan makes his New York Philharmonic debut, singing the solo tenor part in Carl Orff’s lusty scenic cantata Carmina Burana, led by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos (three performances, May 31-June 2). In other spring highlights, Phan will reprise the role of the Evangelist in Bach’s St. John Passion with the Chicago Bach Project (April 4), and will sing Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe in a recital with pianist Jeremy Denk, presented by the Chicago Symphony (June 3).

In the brief Q & A that follows, Phan discusses why he considers his upcoming Mozart role debut such an important career milestone, and whether he’s afraid of those three high D’s he’ll be singing in Orff’s enduringly popular work.

A conversation with Nicholas Phan

Q: Have you sung at Atlanta Opera before?

NP: Actually, this will be my third time there. I did a double bill of I Pagliacci and Carmina Burana with them, and a production of La Cenerentola with Jennifer Larmore. My role debut in April as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni is only the second Mozart role that I’ve performed on stage. I made my European debut at Frankfurt Opera singing Don Polidoro in Mozart’s opera La finta semplice, a few seasons ago in 2006.

Q: Why is singing your first Don Ottavio so important for you?

NP: It’s a milestone for me because after singing so much Bach and Handel for many years, my voice is definitely progressing towards singing more Mozart. I was 22 when I started working professionally, and my voice then was much lighter. But it’s gained richness and weight, and it’s growing into this slightly more lyric repertoire. Artistically and musically speaking, Mozart is very much in line with the Germanic tradition of Bach and Handel that I’ve been specializing in these past few years.

Q: Mozart is such an important composer for many singers.

NP: I’ve been dreaming about singing Mozart since I first began singing. These Don Ottavio arias are the first ones I studied in college, and I’ve been waiting the whole time since then to do this role!

Q: What makes singing Mozart so special?

NP: Mozart was a composer who was at his best when writing for the human voice. His music is the perfect balance between the divine and the human, and as a result it feels uniquely special to sing it. Mozart’s music has a wonderful sense of completeness: it’s passionate, yet restrained; it’s expressive in the most pristine way; it’s messy and clean all at the same time.

Q: How do you approach this character of Don Ottavio?

NP: Well, he’s not easy to pin down. A lot of people view him as weak, but I think he’s idealistic – idealistic to a fault. He represents an ideal of what nobility should be. He believes in it, 150%, and in this sense he’s the perfect foil to the character of Don Giovanni. What’s fascinating about his journey is watching him struggle with his ideals versus the reality he sees in front of his own eyes. Resolving that dichotomy is the central challenge for this character.

Q: And his music?

NP: He sings two arias, both of which I’m really excited about because they are so great. There are different versions of the opera, and sometimes one of the two arias is cut. In the version we are performing in Atlanta, both of his arias are going to be included, which I’m really happy about.

Q: So it’s Mozart time for Nicholas Phan!

NP: Yes, Mozart is where I want to go next. It’s always felt natural in my voice, but now it’s time to explore his roles. From a vocal standpoint, people think that it’s light music, but it’s not – it’s dramatic music. Your voice needs maturity and heft to do it justice. Beyond that, it’s where I’ve always wanted to go artistically.

Q: As an artist who frequently gives recitals and concert performances, how different does it feel when you do opera?

NP: I love the complexity of the stories that come together on a recital program, and Mozart is the operatic equivalent. His characters are so richly drawn and have so many layers. And there are so many details of the story to tell through the music. When I think about the operatic work I want to do, it’s these kinds of roles that appeal to me. Thankfully, the tenor roles Mozart wrote are rich in that way. And there are lots of Mozart tenor roles – plenty to keep me busy and grow into. I can do the princes now and the kings later!

Q: You also make your New York Philharmonic debut this spring.

NP: Yes, I sing the tenor solo in Orff’s Carmina Burana. For this aria – about a roasting swan about to be eaten – I have to sing three high Ds! I’m never scared of it, thank goodness. I have fun with it, and when people hear me they invite me to do it again. In 2012 I’ll do it with the New York Philharmonic, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic – and I did it with the NSO in September 2011 – and all with Frübeck de Burgos!

Q: Carmina Burana is very popular, but there are some people who have a very strong aversion to it.

NP: It’s actually a great piece of music. It’s totally fun, and classical music should be fun, too.

Q: Anything else on tap already with the New York Philharmonic?

NP: Yes, I’m going back next February for their big Bach festival, and will do the Magnificat with Masaaki Suzuki. I love his recordings and am really looking forward to working with him. I’ll always be coming back to Bach – it’s core music for me: it’s central to my repertoire and to my soul as an artist.

Q: Will the Dichterliebe performance in June at Symphony Hall in Chicago mark the first time you’ve done this song cycle?

NP: No, I’ve done this cycle once before with Mitsuko Uchida. It was actually the first time for both of us performing the cycle in public. I’m really excited to give it a spin for the second time, with Jeremy. I really love this piece! It’s the pinnacle of the song cycle/art-song repertoire. I studied it for ten years before I felt ready to take it out into the public for the first time.

Q: Tell us a little about it.

NP: Schumann’s Dichterliebe is about a young poet dealing with a break-up. The cycle is split in half: the first six songs are about happy times, but he’s dumped in the seventh song; the last nine or ten songs are all about dark times, though he finds a kind of resolution in the end. These are challenging, dramatic songs. And they are in the middle range, which makes them tough for both high and low voices who sing the cycle – most high voices who sing it find it a bit on the low side, and most low voices who sing it find it a bit high. But the story is filled with uncomfortable material, so the challenging range somehow feels perfect. And I definitely like the challenge!

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Nicholas Phan: upcoming engagements

March 31, April 1
Saint Louis, MO
Saint Louis Symphony / David Robertson
Bach: Mass in B minor

April 4
Chicago, IL
Chicago Bach Project / John Nelson
Bach: St. John Passion (Evangelist)

April 28, May 1, 4, & 6
Atlanta, GA
Atlanta Opera
Mozart: Don Giovanni (Don Ottavio)

May 31, June 1 & 2
New York, NY
New York Philharmonic / Rafael Frübeck de Burgos
Orff: Carmina Burana

June 3
Chicago, IL
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Recital with Jeremy Denk, piano

June 8
Saulgau, Germany
Bach Collegium Stuttgart / Helmuth Rilling
Bach: Mass in B minor

June 9
Stuttgart, Germany
Bach Collegium Stuttgart / Helmuth Rilling
Bach: Mass in B minor





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