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Getting to Know Recitalist Nicholas Phan

March 13, 2017

At 38, tenor Nicholas Phan  is one of the few “young” American singers who champions lieder and art song. His love affair with song began a decade ago, during the first of four summers he spent at the Marlboro Music Festival. Since then, he has recorded four song recitals for AVIE, of repertoire ranging from Blow and Beethoven to Britten.

Now devoting a good third of his career to art song, Phan recently gave a recital at London’s fabled Wigmore Hall. This season has also seen his role debut as the lead in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, and next season he sings Toronto Symphony’s concert version of Bernstein/Sondheim’s Candide. It’s a genuinely 21st-century career.

Phan was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a Jakarta-raised father of Chinese heritage and an Indianapolis-raised mother of Greek heritage. His parents met at Indiana University in Bloomington, where they were both working in a lab at Eli Lilly that was run by a relative of Gustav Mahler. Given that his father was a classical music lover who started him on violin at age 4, that his mother initiated his love of language by teaching him Greek, and that he was raised in Ann Arbor, where his father currently teaches and does research at the University of Michigan, it comes as no surprise that he is highly articulate and detailed in his responses.

He is also most definitely a child of our times. For evidence, turn to his blog grecchinois, where he discusses everything from the abominations of the current presidential administration to his multiracial identity, homosexuality, and coming out. All in the context of musical experience, of course.

In a recent interview, Phan discussed his career and his new recording with Myra Huang, Gods & Monsters, on which his forthcoming March 23 recital with Robert Mollicone at the Hotel Rex is based. Here are some of the many highlights of our chat:

Does your choice to pursue song have anything to do with the size or range of your voice, or with your height?

I remain very interested in opera and do it occasionally. I have abilities and training in all three realms that a classical singer can do, and they cross and influence each other.

I find my path very different than a lot of the colleagues I end up working with, particularly stateside. I did train in the opera house in Houston for three years, and I did a lot of opera my first four to five years out of the studio.

Things started to change for me when I spent four summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, beginning about 10 years ago. I don’t think I’d quite realized how burnt out I was doing so much opera, due to being away from home for so long and working on just one project the whole time. I also didn’t have a lot of say in what kinds of roles I was cast as. I was doing a lot of bel canto and Rossini, which is amazing music and fantastic. But it’s all about how fast and how high you can sing. While I can do both of those things, I find other things artistically more interesting.

I had begun feeling that I was going gig-to-gig. When I got to Marlboro, which is a very special place where you only work on chamber music and song, and never have to perform if you want to study the whole summer instead, it kind of reconnected me with the initial thing that got me excited when I began studying with my first teacher. She would hand me all of these songs by Schubert, Fauré, Vaughan Williams, etc., week after week, and it made me fall in love with music. I realized that I’m passionate about all music, but this is the stuff that really turns my crank, so to speak.

I think my voice lends itself well to lieder because, for a tenor, I have a fairly healthy lower middle. I think you need to have that to sing lieder, because it’s mostly written for the bari-tenor range. I have a real affinity for language. From the age of 4 or 5, I was going to Greek School. Getting into the turns and twists of poetry always excites me.

The thing that I find most special about lieder and art song is that it is the most vulnerable you can be as a performer, and the most personal and direct connection you can have with an audience. While that is an extraordinarily challenging and tall order, it is really rewarding, because you get to have a relationship with your audience. It’s fun and amazing to put on a costume, get into somebody’s shoes, and build that fourth wall between you and your audience as you portray a character and tell a story. But it’s not direct, the way lieder singing is.

Opera continues to come in and out of my schedule, and I continue to seek out the right operatic opportunities. But song gives me an opportunity to shine and grow.

Besides performing and recording, what are you doing to help build the dwindling audience and appreciation for art song?

I co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago in 2010 or 2011, which is devoted to promoting art song and chamber music. After struggling with the lack of attendance on the part of music students, we’re finally having some success. There are at least three serious voice programs going on there, but when we bring in David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, or Ailyn Pérez for recital, at first it was like pulling teeth to get people to show up. It’s very easy for students to get lost in the day-to-day, “I-have-to-get-an-A” of their lives, and forget that they’re supposed to watch singers of that level get up on stage and see what they do right, what doesn’t work, and what it takes to survive doing an entire recital program. It’s the best educational experience you could possibly have.

What has it been like for you to enter the art song field at a time when audiences are diminishing, and performers are greeted by a lot of empty seats?

Of course, it’s scary. I have to say that the lessons I’ve learned are many, and have really influenced my thinking about myself and my own recital career.

We really need to build awareness. What’s been especially encouraging for me in Chicago has been seeing our numbers grow. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s not like the mountain isn’t surmountable. It’s being grateful for journalists who actually want to discuss it and contribute to a platform that enables us to discuss it with people

It’s also about continuing to do the work, and making sure the programs and choice of repertoire have a good reason and are compelling. It’s about interacting with audiences more and being more accessible. It’s the same issues that the rest of classical music has faced, but on a large level, because it’s a corner of the repertoire that has really suffered from the industrial revolution that the music industry has experienced over the past 20–25 years.

Our relationship with music is now completely different. It’s like a Tinder swipe on Spotify as opposed to sitting down with a recording, reading the liner notes, and taking the time to digest the music that is in front of you. It’s one thing to do that with an opera where the music is so grand and so big that it can carry you without translation. Plus, there’s the athleticism component. You get to watch the person land their triple axel, and it’s exciting.

With instrumental music, some of it is about being a passive listener. There is no text that makes the abstract concrete. But you really need the text with art song and lieder. It’s the corner of the classical music that’s suffered the greatest.

I think so few people do it because it’s the most difficult thing that a singer can do. There are a few, really great people who are brave enough to rise to the challenge. Presenters are afraid as well, because they look at the empty seats and don’t feel they can afford to take that risk that often. But I feel it’s possible to fill it. You have to be very aggressive in your marketing, reach out to the community, and be very patient and willing to do the work.

I applaud San Francisco Performances for being one of the few major presenting organizations in the United States that remains committed to presenting a series of recitals. It’s great to be a part of an organization that remains an advocate for the art form.

Please talk about your program.

I’m going to do most of the songs on my recent Gods and Monsters album, which means all German Romantic composers. It feels like a vacation in paradise for me, because it’s such amazing music. I’m not a Wagner singer, so singing lieder like this is the one way I get to experience this particular time period in music. I do everything from Dowland and Monteverdi to [Elliott] Carter and [Nico] Muhly, as well as everything in between, but I don’t get to spend a lot of time with the German romantics unless I'm doing lieder. Getting to do a whole program of it is a pretty unique and fun moment.

Have you considered singing of the songs in English? Have you tried it in Chicago, and does it work?

Actually, the music loses some of the magic for me when it’s presented in translation, especially with something like Schubert. It doesn’t feel right to me. I think there’s a very specific relationship between the words on the page and the notes they chose to illuminate.

Have you ever been in an art song situation where they have supertitles so people can look at you rather than looking down?

I have. I was part of the Marilyn Horne Foundation for a couple of years, and she was adamant that there be supertitles for any recital we performed under her auspices. I found it great, but it’s costly and logistically challenging to tour with.

Stephanie Blythe is very committed to reading the translations before she sings. Sometimes I do similar things in Chicago or some of the programs I present around the country.

One of the things I love about having a program booklet with the texts and translations is that you have something to take home and think about. If there’s something that somebody really liked, you have this document of it. I think it’s really important for people to have that souvenir option.

Your program is an interesting mix of familiar songs like “Der Musensohn” (The son of the muses) with others that are rarely encountered and performed. Did you know them beforehand, or did you have to do a lot of research to find them? And who came up with the idea for the program?

The program idea is mine. Myra and I knew we wanted to do a lieder project, and felt that we ready for that kind of a document of that repertoire in our point of artistic evolution. It was also born out of this very practical limitation of putting together an intermission-less afternoon program for the Wigmore Hall recital at the end of February that fit within the time constraints and was still interesting.

I feel every program should have some kind of concept, hook, or story to tell. Storytelling is a part of our lives because there are a lot of children in them at this point, so it just naturally grew out of that.

Some of the repertoire, such as “Musensohn” and “Ganymed,” we’ve performed regularly. Even “Atys” is something I initially encountered on my senior recital in college. Mendelssohn’s “Hexenlied” (The witches’ song) Myra requested because she loved playing it, and it’s something I performed up in Portland at Chamber Music Northwest a few years ago. But other pieces I had to research. The challenge was seeing what would fit the theme, tell a beautiful story, balance out well, and create enough variety.

When I do the Gods and Monsters concert, Robert Mollicone will be the collaborator. He’s local, and we have a strong relationship. It’s purely a logistical decision.

Judging from the recording, Myra has a very strong musical personality. Do you find yourself doing things differently with Robert?

Even day-to-day with Myra, the songs evolve. I often look at recording as kind of a snapshot. As a classical musician, it’s so easy to look at it and think, okay, this has to be the definitive recording of “X.” But it’s not. We don’t relate to music that way. Music is a living art form, and our relationship will continue to evolve as we live, just as we continue to evolve as people.

Different audiences have different energy. I’m not saying that it revolutionizes my take or interpretations on things. But in terms of nuance or the feeling of something, tempo ... those things all vary day-to-day regardless of with whom you’re collaborating.

Bob is an extraordinary musician and pianist, and also has a strong musical personality. I find that we have a really natural chemistry, similar to what I have with Myra. I can’t imagine that it will be radically different.

I feel very conservative as an artist and a singer in a way, because I look at older singers such as Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, Gedda (may he rest in peace), Jessye Norman, AND Anthony Rolfe-Johnson as models for what I’m trying to do in my own life. They had worked in all fields rather comprehensively, but they never diminished their commitment and interest in song.

Some people are saying that the traditional lieder recital is dead. If it is dead, what is the new form?

I don’t know if it’s dead. I certainly don’t feel like it is. I think that if you look at opera productions from older periods and now, they’re radically different, but the basic construct and form in which opera is presented are the same.

I personally don’t perform with Schwarzkopf’s knowing smile and candelabra, although the candelabra seems like a fun touch. My interest as an artist is to show how relevant this material still is today. As a result, the way I will perform and try and deliver is not that formal. I still get up on stage with a piano, but I make eye contact with the audience, move, and try to express myself as honestly as possible.

This music has changed my life so many times over, and continues to help me understand what goes on in my own life personally. I think it has the power to do that for other people. It’s all about trying to make song as vital to audiences as it is for us as performers.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.

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