LYric tenor gives back

From The Bay Area Reporter, February 12 2015

By Tim Pfaff

When it comes to building a career, Nicholas Phan is not shy about rolling up his sleeves. The sweet-voiced lyric tenor could have pursued a prefab path and had a mostly opera career, and he still has some lofty operatic goals. But early on he knew he wouldn't find fulfillment trying to fit songs, chamber music, and the orchestral concert repertoire into the margins of an opera calendar. Aware that the songbird is on the endangered species list of contemporary concert life, Phan has dedicated himself to building a larger performing platform, for everyone. A co-founder of the not-for-profit Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, with co-directors Shannon McGinnis and Nicholas Hutchinson, "I'm proud of what we've done," he says. "In four years we've created three fall festivals and salon-style recitals with top people like David Daniels and Michelle DeYoung."

"Right now, the driving force behind what I do is to make music be for everybody," says the 36-year-old Phan (pronounced Pahn), a globetrotting San Francisco resident who's already a familiar presence at Davies Hall, where he will return in June to sing Jaquino in Fidelio in the SF Symphony's Beethoven Festival. In another "role," as a San Francisco Performances Artist-in-Residence, he takes music into the community, occasionally giving concerts but mostly working directly with music-makers of all ages and abilities. "Classical music is where my heart lies. It's what's made me who I am today. I believe that it has the power to change people, to make communities and bring people together in fundamental ways. And I think it's more important now than ever."

His new CD, A Painted Tale, is the work of a born risk-taker. His first two solo CDs, also for Avie, were of songs by the iconic gay composer Benjamin Britten, with whose music he is still most identified, and whose outsider status as a gay man and an artist has guided Phan's work. Those discs quickly clambered up critics' "Best of" lists, and it may have been me who called Phan's "the most beautiful voice singing Britten today."

Eighteen months ago, the planners at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, where Phan had already sung a debut recital, asked him back in a program of his own devising – and gave this eminently practical musician a budget that called the shots. Phan quickly calculated that he could perform English lute songs and even throw in a viol da gamba. But the thinking led him to the idea of a program that would have "a life beyond Carnegie Hall," where he will perform the songs from A Painted Tale on March 23.

"That's exactly why I structured the new CD the way I did. I wanted to put these songs in a context that would show how they're essentially timeless, that there's something in them we can all relate to, that an artist like Sting would respond to." With only one alteration in the verse, a name change from Sylvia to Celia in one of the 20 songs, he arranged them not by composer groups but as a cycle that tells a story – a sort of Elizabethan Die schoene Muellerin that tells the story at the heart of Western culture: romantic love and its heartbreaks. There's always a risk that this niche repertoire, so much of which is slow, sad and similar-sounding, will lose an audience. Having heard the disc, I'd say the greater danger here is how intense these songs sound in their new context, and how personally and immediately Phan sings them.

"I've been fortunate to work with some great orchestra conductors, and they often ask me what I want to sing. The problem is that most vocal music with orchestra is for sopranos. I've sung contemporary music, including the world premieres of Mark Adamo's Lysistrata and of Elliott Carter's song cycle Sunbeam Architectures, which I'll be singing again at Tanglewood this summer. But I want to put more energy into commissioning pieces the tenor repertoire needs."

Having done acclaimed work in operas as varied as Handel's Ariodante and Verdi's Falstaff – and in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Candide in Bernstein's opera – next spring, with Boston Baroque, he sings Tamino in The Magic Flute, a role he's had in the crosshairs since covering it in Houston 12 years ago. "Time to put him on his feet." He also has eyes on Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte, "and, if I ever get a gray hair or lose my baby face, Tito and Idomeneo.

"If it hadn't been for classical music – or music in general – I'm not sure I would have survived as a young gay person," he says. "I came out at 16 at Interlochen Arts Camp, which turned out to be a place I could find myself. That same summer I decided I was going to be a singer and not a violinist. It all happened at once. It was as if I said to myself, OK, just be who you are. Then, my first summer at Marlboro, I came pretty close to packing it in.

"There's a lot of gay people in this industry, so there's a lot of simpatico and mutual understanding," he reports. "Still, I do find – less now than when I was starting – that for tenors, particularly lyric tenors, you kind of have to prove your masculinity. I find that funny because so many people who make decisions in this industry are gay men. But it's not holding me back in any way, and I try to see the glass as half-full and be grateful.

"If anything bothered me about my choice of becoming a singer, it was that it seemed kind of selfish. I was a university brat, and we were taught that it was our responsibility, as people of privilege, to give back to the community. I see this being-an-artist calling as a form of service. We're here to give back this thing that has changed our lives. What's the point unless we're here to change people's lives?"

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