Hershey and the Hunk “Nathan Gunn FLYING SOLO” by Hershey Felder, premieres at the San Diego Repertory Theatre

by Pat Launer April 25, 2018
 

 

hershey-felder-as-tchaikovsky-courtesy-hershey-felderHe’s been called a “barihunk” (though he prefers ‘hunkitone’). People Magazine listed him among the Sexiest Men Alive.

Whatever you call him, Nathan Gunn is one of the most acclaimed, exciting and in-demand baritone singers of our time.

The Boston Globe dubbed him “vocally splendid. Gunn’s baritone is an object lesson in beautiful technique, vowels perfectly placed, the color balanced between bright and dark, consistently rich from top to bottom.”

According to the New York Times, he “commands an operatic baritone whose mighty heft and richness confer an outsize authority on everything it touches.”

Go on YouTube and check him out. Listen to him singing opera – bare-chested (“Billy Budd,” “An American Tragedy”) or not bare-chested (“The Magic Flute,” “Don Giovanni”).

The first recipient of the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Award for young singers, he has gone on to perform in opera houses around the country and the world, including the Met and the Paris Opéra. He has sung on Grammy-winning opera recordings. He regularly performs concerts and cabaret shows.

Do not leave YouTube without catching some of his stellar turns with the musical theater repertoire. You’ll be blown away by his “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” his amusing “C’est Moi” from “Camelot” and his magnificent “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd,” which he sang at the New York Philharmonic’s 80th birthday gala celebration for Stephen Sondheim.

Gunn, who hails from South Bend, Indiana, has been general director of the Lyric Theatre at Illinois and the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s director of the American Repertoire Council, promoting new American works. One-third of the nearly 40 operatic roles he has taken on have been in new operas, and many roles he has created for the first time.

“As a musician,” he has said, “I don’t want to be a curator of opera. I want to help create the new ones.

“I like nothing better than to create a role that has never been sung before, because then it fits me like a custom-tailored suit – and it calls for all of my creative juices to make it come alive.”

In his non-operatic ‘free’ time, Gunn has performed Broadway classics with Kelli O’Hara and toured in a comic musical concert with Mandy Patinkin (“A kind of Martin and Lewis show,” he says. “I’m the Martin”). He released a solo album, “Just Before Sunrise.” And he was a special guest artist at the “Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square” – with a live audience of 21,000.

Now, the 47-year-old megastar will be singing for us, at the intimate San Diego Repertory Theatre, thanks to the taste, foresight and artistry of Hershey Felder.

When Hershey first heard Gunn’s sublime voice, the award-winning multi-hyphenate (performer-composer-writer-director-producer-designer) and rapturously received local visitor, was smitten – by the voice and by Gunn’s story.

So, departing from his enormously popular Composer Suite (sellout performances nationwide and locally, as Gershwin, Berlin, Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky), Hershey decided to write and direct a piece about and starring Nathan Gunn, who was seen and heard locally in the San Diego Opera production of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s “Great Scott” – another role he initiated: Sid Taylor, the extramarital love interest for the opera’s title character, Arden Scott.

The new piece about him is called “Nathan Gunn FLYING SOLO.”

A Solo Show, but not for Himself

Hershey has ventured from his own solo shows before, to adapt, direct and design the internationally performed play-with-music, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” He produced and designed the musical “Louis and Keely: ‘Live’ at the Sahara.” He’s currently writing and rehearsing “The Story of My Cello,” a solo work for cello virtuoso Antonio Lysy. And there’s a piece on acclaimed actress Sarah Bernhardt he has in mind. Not to mention a “big, funny musical” about American writer Washington Irving.

But “Nathan Gunn FLYING SOLO” has been a long time coming.

When he saw Gunn ten years ago on “The Today Show,” Hershey realized what a superstar he was and thought, “One day, I have to make something theatrical for him.”

Years later, when they met, Hershey told him, “You need a solo show.”

Though Hershey wrote the piece and will direct it, the musical direction duties will be taken on by Michael Bagby, who has a doctorate in vocal coaching and accompanying from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where Nathan is an alumnus and a tenured professor of voice.

Gunn’s wife, pianist Julie Jordan Gunn, also holds a doctorate in vocal coaching and accompanying from the same university, where she’s now an associate professor in collaborative piano. She’s often Gunn’s accompanist, but not this time. Bagby, one of her students, takes over the keyboard. Over the course of his career, Gunn has brought his family with him as often as possible. (He and Julie have five children, ranging in age from 16 to 23).

Hershey is rhapsodic about Gunn’s vocal prowess, and he’s not unaware of the baritone’s rugged good looks and buff physicality.

“His voice is glorious,” Hershey says. “He has an amazing instrument. He’s a classical leading man, but every director tries to force him to take his clothes off. I’m trying to keep it classy,” he quips.

All that attention on his physique, Gunn reports, started in 1997, when the female director of a production he was cast in told him he would “get totally wet onstage and would be bare-chested. Six months before the production, she said I should start going to the gym.”

Hershey seems to be more interested in his story and his spirit:  “Nathan is Scottish with a bit of a Jewish soul,” he says.

Gunn’s story concerns how he spent his life, like so many other men, trying to please his father. His dad was the elder of the Scottish Clan Gunn.

“His father was the Clan Chief,” Hershey explains. “He was a very healthy, robust young man who one day three years ago, fell backward and broke his neck. Gunn had to take over the role of elder, and in the process, he had to learn what it means to be his father’s son.

“Nathan told me that, when his father saw him perform, ‘He sat quietly and watched, but I’m not so sure he approved.’ His father was very tough on him.

“The story is very emotional and moving,” says Hershey. “Some of it is extremely funny. People will also start to cry.”

Because “music is inherent to him,” it’s woven throughout the piece.

“There’s some opera singing, but mostly, you’ll hear musical theater and pop songs and rock and roll,” says Hershey. “The first number is ‘Has Anybody Seen My Gal’ [‘Five foot-two, eyes of blue’]. It was the first song he ever learned.

“This is the story of a normal person finding himself at the center of the world. He just opened a trap and astonishing sound came out. And then everything in his personal life changed.”

At its core, the piece is a father/son story. A family tragedy that springs from his father’s literal and figurative fall – from strong paterfamilias to someone incapacitated, and in need of help and assistance.

During the course of the play, Gunn portrays his father and his mother (“a tough Irish broad,” says Hershey, “hysterically funny”).

Other characters he inhabits include tenor Placido Domingo, one of his idols, and a less likely singing sensation, John Denver.

“At the end,” Hershey promises, “he will wear a kilt. And the issue of what’s worn underneath may come up,” he teases.

Hershey has found Nathan to be “a strong, tough dude. He has such a powerful voice, so well produced, that he has no problem singing one day after another.”

That kind of “one day after another” is unheard-of in opera. Singers give one performance and then they have days to rest before the next one. Gunn has discussed some of the differences between performing opera versus concert, cabaret or musical theater.

“In opera,” Gunn has said, “you’re dealing with different languages all the time, and dealing with not being miked. I find the mic allows me to use a kind of palette I’d normally use for a recital hall of 600 seats, as opposed to the Met, which has 4,000 seats, where singers are pretty much on Loud and Loudest all the time.”

Hershey agrees, suggesting that “a small mic allows the singer not to push as hard. The San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Theatre [550 seats] does not have natural acoustics. The miking doesn’t change the voice. It just gives it a little wetness.”

Opera singers characteristically give 50-75 performances a year. In typical theatrical productions, with eight shows a week in musical theater, 56 performances would only require six weeks’ time.

“He hates the opera schedule,” Hershey says of Gunn. “He sings opera and then he has nothing to do for five days.”

Always a Zillion Irons in the Fire

Hershey himself performs 315 times a year.

“I’m never not onstage. I can’t afford to stop. I have to support ten families,” he says, referring to the full-service production company he has helmed since 2001. Many of his close-knit team of designers are from San Diego, which is one reason he comes here so often. Also, locals love him.

His world premiere production of “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” produced last year at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, surpassed the record set in 2014 by Hershey’s adaptation of Mona Golabek’s story, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” The box office record was broken prior to his first performance as Tchaikovsky, and the show became the highest-grossing production in San Diego Rep history.

Hershey considers San Diego to be his theatrical home. He maintains a house here but also has domiciles in various cities around the world, shared with his wife Kim, former Prime Minister of Canada.

He also has another theatrical home, where he’s premiered many of his shows: the Laguna Playhouse which, due to scheduling, snagged the first opening of the Nathan Gunn piece (4/8/18-4/22/18).

Right after that show closes, Hershey will be doing a substantially revised version of his “Hershey Felder: Beethoven” in Laguna. An early incarnation of the piece premiered at the San Diego Rep in 2008. It will return to San Diego in February 2019. Hershey says this new edition was “a massive hit” when it premiered last summer at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

After his matinee performance in Laguna Beach on May 27, he’ll rush down to San Diego to perform at the Gala Celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival which, over the years, has produced more than 50 world premieres (Hershey’s included) of theater, music, dance, film and opera.

The festivities will take place in a panoramic private home in Rancho Santa Fe.

“It’s a Jewish event,” says Hershey. “For me, a ‘busman’s holiday.’ I’m not sure what I’ll be playing. But after 30 years of doing this, I have a pretty large repertoire, probably 9-10 hours’ worth. I’ll see what the audience is up for and go through my mental library.”

Hershey maintains great loyalty to our community. That’s why he thinks he’ll bring the world premiere of another new work (the guy never stops!), an adaptation of the memoir, “Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond,” by Eva Libitzky.

“I always wanted to put a Holocaust story onstage,” he says. “I’m exploring a musical way to relate this story, maybe calling it ‘A Mother’s Tale.’ The mother is an American now; she was a hippie in the ‘60s. When her children are old enough, she takes them to Poland. She had never told them who she was and what she went though.”

“This story will be particularly relevant at this time,” he continues, “given the 100 percent increase in hate crimes, especially anti-Semitism, over the past year.”

But right now, his focus is on “Nathan Gunn FLYING SOLO,” which Gunn describes as “a semi-autobiographical one-man show that, through humor and song, illuminates a behind-the-scenes look into the fabulous and crazy industry and career that is opera.”

Prepare yourself for a few laughs and insights, from a hunky guy with a heart-stopping voice.

“Nathan Gunn: FLYING SOLO,” Hershey Felder’s latest creation (as writer and director), runs at the San Diego Repertory Theatre from May 23-June 10.

Tickets and information about the show and reservations for the gala celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Lipinsky Family Jewish Arts Festival: 619-544-1000;
www.sdrep.org.

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