Finding His Voice - Nicholas Phan

From Classical Singer Magazine, November 2013

Watch Nicholas Phan sing even the simplest folk song and it is clear what it means to be invested in one’s work. The clarity of his tenor voice is matched only by his clarity of expression as he attempts to communicate the meaning of the poet. He is earnest and eager when asked to speak about the art of singing, most especially when discussing his experience with the works of Benjamin Britten. There is good reason for Nicholas’ enthusiasm because Britten’s music has served him well, resulting in his most recent recording, Still Falls the Rain, being named one of the best classical albums of 2012 by the New York Times. 

Phan’s voice is suited well to the work of Britten with an ease throughout the middle voice and a bright ringing top. His voice also lends itself well to the young, amorous voices of Tamino, Fenton, and Nemorino, which he has performed with opera companies around the U.S. While many of today’s singing artists establish a career in opera and then begin recording and touring as a recitalist, Phan has managed to develop a career evenly balanced in opera, oratorio, recitals, and recordings. As he expressed during our interview, this has been a choice based upon his ideas of his role as an artist in our modern world. In our continuing search to find meaning and validity in our work as singers, Phan’s path is perhaps one which we all could learn from. 

You have been traveling quite a bit lately singing recitals. What makes the recital setting so fulfilling? 

I love singing concerts, recitals, and operas pretty equally—but if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be recitals. What’s wonderful about recitals is that it’s really an amazing opportunity to stretch us individually and have a chance to communicate with an audience in a very unique and intimate way, which I think is really fulfilling. 

How would you describe the difference of working with a pianist instead of an orchestra?

Obviously, the fewer players you have involved, the more “chamber-like” it becomes. You don’t have the intermediary of a conductor, so there are obviously different dynamics there. Chamber music has been described as “intelligent people conversing intelligently,” and that’s really what it feels like when you’re preparing for a recital with much smaller forces. With these upcoming recitals, the personnel will actually change a fair amount. We start off with four musicians: me, a pianist, a harpist, and a horn player—and as we go, we lose a musician until it’s finally just me and the piano. It’s been really interesting putting it together, and I’m really looking forward to touring it around the world. 

How were you first introduced to Britten’s music? 

I first became aware of Britten’s music when I was playing in a youth orchestra. We played the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and that really piqued my interest as a high school student. It wasn’t really until college that my fascination started when I began to read the correspondence between Britten and Peter Pears, the love story between the two of them, and how their relationship spawned some of the most beautiful and moving music of the last century. I started exploring this in college, programming On This Island and some of his Purcell realizations on my senior recital program, and then I kind of put it away for a few years. Around 2006, I was approached by Shannon McGinnis, my colleague in Chicago. She was teaching at Truman State University at the time and she said, “Why don’t you come give a recital here?” Shannon told me that she thought I should do Winter Words and asked me to take a look at it. I did and I was immediately taken with the cycle. “The Choirmaster’s Burial” alone really grabbed me. We were both very excited about it, but we weren’t sure how an audience in Kirksville, Mo., was going to accept this music. We programmed around it thinking, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down,” placing light music around it that we thought would be really acceptable for the audience. At the performance, it turned out that the one thing people were really excited about was Winter Words. That was a really important lesson to me about the power of Britten’s music. I learned you should never underestimate your audience and should trust the music to speak for itself. Britten is so clear on the page, and it’s important that you get all of the instructions there but also make sense of why they are there. Once you do, it’s crystal clear. His music is very masterfully crafted stuff balanced with an extraordinary amount of heart, and [it] can affect an audience immediately and viscerally. That really shines through in a good performance. Ever since then, I’ve been on a multi-year project to explore the music he wrote for Pears and take it out into the world. This centennial year has been a really great opportunity to do that. 

Do you approach his music differently than when singing an Italian opera role? 

I actually don’t. I really feel that Britten’s music has really taught me a lot about singing, my voice, and music in general. He is an extraordinarily demanding composer on the voice because the person he was writing for (Pears) was capable of a lot. He had a really wide dynamic range and could sustain a really high tessitura. He could jump up and down through his range quite easily. I approach Britten’s music technically the same as I would any other music. It’s about sustaining line, making sure everything is lined up in your resonance. His music doesn’t work unless you are rooted and solid in bel canto technique. I think it’s telling that the first thing that Britten composed specifically for Pears was the Michelangelo Sonnets, a work heavily influenced by the Italian style of singing. 

What prompted you to pursue singing as a career? 

I’ve known that I wanted to be a musician from about the time I was 11 or 12. My parents gave me a violin when I was four, and I started playing in an orchestra about seven years after that. When I could make music with other people is when I realized how much I loved being a musician, and music became my life from that point on. When I was a freshman in high school, I auditioned for the school musical just on a whim. They were doing The Music Man and I didn’t really know how anyone was going to respond to me. I was really nervous about that audition, but they were really excited about my voice and my ability to sing high. So, I took a little side track into musical theatre and went to Interlochen Summer Arts Camp as a musical theatre major. When I was at Interlochen, a very serious musical theatre program, I found that my passion was really for music, not necessarily inhabiting a role. I was a musician first, so I thought I would pursue classical singing. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. I was about 15 at the time and continued to play really seriously in the orchestra, but also began to take voice lessons. 

Would you say that your experience with the violin informs your approach to music as a singer?

Yes, definitely. Since I’ve been surrounded by music since age four, I feel like learning music comes more easily and I have a sense of phrasing that comes from that time. I also feel that it’s easier for me to sing instrumentally when that’s required. Rather than trying to impose a vocal technique on the notes on the page, I try to let the notes lead me where I’m supposed to go. Not every note on a page is equal and, as a former violinist and violist, I look at what that music demands of me and how can I make it happen. I employ my technique so that I can continue to do that in a healthy way and continue to sing until I’m old. Additionally, my instrumental experience allows me to communicate in a special way in the chamber music setting. I can use the instrumental and vocal lingo, which is really helpful. 

Should singers approach composers from different periods in a different way stylistically?

I feel like the notes on the page lead us to where we need to go stylistically. There is a mentality in classical music that we have to approach each composer with a different style, and there are so many differing opinions on what that is. For instance, in both Bach and Mozart, some people want you to take out the vibrato completely. Other people say never to do that. The same goes for ornaments and how they work. I think we as musicians need to look at the notes on the page and let them dictate to us. For instance, in Bach you may want to narrow your vibrato in some places because the notes sound better when you do. You let the notes and harmonies lead your throat and you arrive at the style with which you should sing. That being said, you don’t need to change your technique necessarily. Singing soft or loud and using more or less vibrato are all basics and fundamentals of bel canto. You have to be able to spin the line and achieve messa di voce to control dynamics. It should allow you the flexibility to do what you need to do. 

Are there challenging aspects for you of being a young classical singer?

Yes, I think there are difficulties at every stage in any career. There are difficulties in the time that we live as well because the world changes very quickly around us. As a young classical singer, we must find our own artistic voice. Singers are coached, taught, directed, and conducted to within an inch of our lives, and it’s very difficult for us to figure out our own voice within that. We are lucky to have all of that, but we have to stay in touch with our own voices. It also doesn’t help that everything is so compartmentalized—you go to a voice teacher to learn your technique, then to a vocal coach to learn style and musicality. The two should be unified, to me, or else why would we make music? There’s also a current obsession with the entrepreneurial and business aspects of a career, and I think the most important thing is lost in all of that. Yes, we need to produce voices that can sing in the major houses that all have at least a capacity of 2,700 seats. In our world, though, it’s already so hard to be heard because we are inundated with so many different types of media. The digital revolution has changed the way we live and interact. There has to be real meaning behind our work or else it isn’t vital and isn’t part of the community around us. Finding that artistic voice as a young singer can be challenging at times. Singers at all levels right now are also dealing with contracts changing, repertoire changing, and shows being canceled because of the economy and the company being concerned about selling tickets. You have to stay on your toes and be savvy while still maintaining what you have to say as a musician. 

Was there a specific motivation for you to record your recent albums?

The reason I went into the recording studio is because I was performing these pieces on recital programs on tour. I felt so passionately about the music and it moved me so much that I decided that we had to take it to the studio and record it. It didn’t come from thinking I did it better than anyone else. The idea of “better” is a very dangerous one because it’s a very subjective and comparative concept. It also takes the focus off of your own work and shifts it to the work of others. These projects just felt right to me, and it was that instinct that I was following, that I needed to share. There is so much recorded music of Britten and Pears performing together, and people ask me if I listen to that—and of course I listen to it, because there’s the unique opportunity to listen to the document of what they created together. At the same time, the art form of singing doesn’t exist solely with the composer or performer. It’s a collaborative art form, a combination of forces that in the moment create something that’s really unique to that specific combination. If the work really speaks to us, then we will have something compelling to share. 

What do you do to keep yourself healthy when you’re constantly on the road? 

I try not to worry about it too much because I think the biggest factor that affects our health is stress. It affects your sleep and your body, so I try not to worry. I also try to stay as physically active as I can. I’m not a marathon runner but I do run, and I do yoga five or six days a week. Yoga, for me, is very stress reducing and it’s very much tied to what we do as singers with the breath and the idea of being in the moment. The reason I initially gravitated to yoga was really very practical. It was expensive to find a gym everywhere I went, and when you’re in Bucharest, Romania, you at least know that you can practice yoga in your room. That’s why I started, and it’s turned out to be a life-changing and helpful journey. Yoga is vital for me as an artist, but also very practical since it’s portable. The other thing is that you’re bound to get sick being on planes all the time. I’m lucky to have a career in which I tend to be on a plane at least once a week. You’re breathing other people’s air, and somebody next to you is inevitably coughing up a lung. You drink a lot of water and try not to worry about it—but when you do get sick, that is why we have technique to manage around it as much as possible. We train with teachers so that when we’re not feeling well, we can still sing and get through those unpleasant times. 

One of the challenges that many face is that they tend to eat differently on the road than at home. 

Is there anything you do to combat that? I just try and watch what I eat because our bodies are our instruments and you have to be careful about what you put in there. With food, it’s different for everybody and what foods work and don’t work with them. I try to eat things that make me feel good, so I eat vegetables as much as I can. I’m a big believer in everything in moderation. 

Do you have any final thoughts for singers who are working on building a career?

Success is defined in so many different ways. Some will be professional choristers, some will work at a university or have their own private studio. Others will sing on the stage of Carnegie Hall, on Broadway, have a regional career, or so many other different scenarios. Not any one of those scenarios is more or less successful than the other. In each of those, you are able to make a living as a musician, which already makes you successful. The primary aspect to succeeding as a singer is singing well. You have to have that in place before you have anything else. Early on, when I decided to seriously follow singing, I asked my teacher if she thought I really had what it took to sing. She told me that it takes so many things to make it as a singer, such as talent, discipline, intelligence, common sense—but it also takes luck. As the saying goes, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity”—and if we’ve prepared ourselves by singing well, then we will be lucky. 

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