Viewing entries tagged

The Piper


The Piper



Piping down the valleys wild,

  Piping songs of pleasant glee,

On a cloud I saw a child,

  And he laughing said to me:


"Pipe a song about a lamb."

  So I piped with merry cheer.

"Piper, pipe that song again."

  So I piped: he wept to hear.


"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;

  Sing thy songs of happy cheer."

So I sang the same again,

  While he wept with joy to hear.


"Piper, sit thee down and write

  In a book, that all may read."

So he vanished from my sight;

  And I pluck'd a hollow reed.


And I made a rural pen,

  And I stain'd the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

  Every child may joy to hear.

- William Blake

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Piper from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

I’m performing Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with Bay Chamber Concerts this week in Maine, and it’s a wonderful reminder to get back to this long-neglected blogging project about these songs. 

Blake’s poem, The Piper, is about inspiration and where it comes from. Singing it here this week in Maine has had me thinking about creative inspiration in my own life, which is something I (like any artist) have grappled with over the years. While I have heavily relied on the tools of Julia Cameron’s Artist Way books over the years when it comes to my creative survival, my mind keeps coming back to a very specific instance of inspiration each time I revisit The Piper this week.

A little over 10 years ago, I was in NYC on some off-time in between opera engagements, and I made plans to meet up with an acquaintance for drinks at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, ironically named Therapy, of all things. I had met Philip after a performance of Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the LA Opera, and we had stayed in loose contact over the years since. After a few casual “let’s meet up for drinks sometime” exchanges that never came to fruition, we finally were following through. At the time, Philip was working in classical music public relations, a field I knew little about. I wasn’t really sure what would happen at drinks – I mostly went with the intention of making a new friend in NYC, and thought it would be a quick drink before heading back to the Upper West Side to make myself some dinner at home. Drinks turned out to be much more – it inadvertently became our first date. We quickly fell in love with each other and began what would be a roughly 8 year relationship. At one point, a stranger at the table next to us grabbed my hand in the middle of our conversation and purported to read my palm. He said that we had 15 good years together – a psychic estimate that turned out to be off by about 7 years. But more than all of that, the conversation I had with Philip that night at Therapy would change the course of my artistic life, radically expanding my musical sphere and honing my creative vision.

The pivotal point for me in that conversation over drinks was during a moment when were discussing my work and the music world, in general. He asked me something that on the surface seemed like a natural question: “So, where do you want to go with all of this? What are your goals? What do you want?”. I was stymied, because I realized that it was not a question I had asked myself in a very, very long time. I had non-specific answers that were a natural production of my general ambition, but I was shocked to discover that aside from being very practical goals that were in line with all the ‘shoulds’ I had learned from my time in operatic young artist programs, they really had little to do with what I actually wanted. I was even more dismayed to realize that when I thought about what I really did want, I couldn’t come up with the answers, because I was afraid to say them out loud.

Later that night, when I finally got home, the first thing I did was pull out a piece of paper and try to answer that question for myself: What did I really want? Knowing that no one would ever see this piece of paper aside from myself, I finally found the courage to center into my heart, reconnect with the teenager who fell in love with music, and begin to dream big. The answers I found there and wrote down onto that piece of paper were revelatory – I began to realize that I wanted a different musical life than I had. One in which I wasn’t just largely running from opera house to opera house, hoping to keep being cast in their productions, but one in which I was driving my own musical bus on a long journey that was filled with not just opera, but also orchestral concerts, song recitals, and (most importantly) making my own recordings. 

When I think back on that list of answers I made after those drinks a little over ten years ago, it seemed like an insurmountable mountain at the time. Yet, even though a few of those dreams have yet to be realized, I find myself driving that musical bus largely on the path that I hoped for that night. Not only was Philip a creative angel by asking me that question at Therapy, but he also played a pivotal role in helping me realize more than a few of those dreams during the course of our relationship, endlessly encouraging me to keep walking the path my heart wanted to tread every time I hesitated to take the next step. Philip, like Blake’s child in The Piper, appeared to me out of nowhere and sparked the creative fires of inspiration, helping me find the courage to make the music I really wanted to make. While our relationship has evolved into something else now, and we both find ourselves in separate next chapters of our individual lives, I’m forever grateful for the tremendous and miraculous impact he has had on my life, which is filled with so many realized dreams.

I perform Vaughan Williams’ Ten Blake Songs with oboist James Austin Smith at Union Hall in Rockport, Maine on Friday evening, July 26, 2019.


The Good Song


The Good Song

Gabriel Fauré: La lune blanche from La bonne chanson Nicholas Phan, tenor; Myra Huang, piano; Telegraph Quartet

LIVE full take from recording session at Skywalker Sound, September 27, 2017

The first time I performed Fauré’s cycle, La bonne chanson, was at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute in 2005, as part of the now-defunct vocal chamber music program. It was a luxurious way to get to know the cycle in its complete form for the first time, as we spent two entire weeks rehearsing and coaching the piece before performing it. Despite having spent so much time with the piece over years and having had such an immersive experience when I learned it, revisiting it is always a fresh challenge, because of its quick and unexpected harmonic turns. The piece represents a new phase in Fauré’s writing, one in which he was beginning to explore new harmonic horizons. There is a funny anecdote that upon hearing Fauré’s fast and furious harmonic shifts and bold tonal choices at the cycle’s premiere, his former teacher, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, was concerned that his dear friend had gone insane.

Much of the reason for these speedy and shocking shifts of harmony is the nature of the poetry itself. La bonne chanson is a selection of 9 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection of the same name, which he wrote for his 16-year-old fiancée, Mathilde Mauté, in the months before their marriage in 1870. 

In his book Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, Edmund White describes Verlaine as: “…a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality. These two aspects of his character set up a pitched battle over his anguished destiny; he would always be susceptible to one impulse or another.” 

In the years before he met Mathilde, Verlaine was a familiar face in Paris’ bars and brothels, where he quickly developed an unquenchable thirst for absinthe. When he met Mathilde, he saw in her a ray of hope for his own salvation from his vices. He viewed her as the angel who would lift him from the gutters of his bohemian lifestyle, which he felt was debased and amoral.

Verlaine’s marriage to Mathilde proved to be a temporary bandage for his reprobate behavior: soon after their marriage, he began drinking again. His inability to hold a job and provide income meant that the newlywed couple needed to move in with Mathilde’s parents, in whose house he would drunkenly abuse their daughter. Shortly after the birth of their son, Verlaine would begin a tumultuous affair with the 17 year-old Arthur Rimbaud that would take them on a inebriated rampage all over Northern Europe. 

This pattern of vacillating between “good” behavior and absinthe and opium-fueled binges was one that would repeat throughout Verlaine’s life: he continued to waver between devout Catholicism and relapses into drunkenness and compulsive sexuality, eventually dying in abject poverty. I would imagine that if Verlaine were alive today, he might have been diagnosed with some sort of bi-polar disorder, which would perhaps explain the extremes of his blindingly bright highs and his dark lows.

In his biography of Verlaine, Stefan Zweig describes Verlaine’s state of mind around the time he wrote La bonne chanson: “For a moment it seemed as if everything were to come to a good end. He fell in love with the explosive vehemence and despairing persistence with which the weak are accustomed to cling to an idea.” Verlaine’s poetry reflects this “explosive vehemence” – it is overflowing with ideas and imagery. The joy he describes is almost maniacal. Reading the poems, it’s not hard to see why Fauré was similarly excitable in his composition. The poems ride a high that is completely ungrounded. His music reflects the extreme heights of Verlaine’s own frenzied high.

When learning the cycle at Ravinia, there was a lot of critical discussion about this poetry, focused largely on Verlaine’s story after he wrote La bonne chanson. Some of the coaches seemed quite hung up on Verlaine’s homosexual history, and as a result were quite critical of the poems. This was something that did not sit well with me at the time, and it continues to feel uncomfortable. It was almost as if Verlaine’s poems were being viewed through the lens of “he was gay”, and therefore his intentions were not earnest nor true. On the surface, as a performer, I found this perspective completely useless: as the person delivering the text, I have no choice but to lean into the verisimilitude of what the author is writing. It also raised an unsettling question for me: if Verlaine didn’t really mean any of this and was just a lost soul, why perform this music? Why not just let these poems linger in a purgatory of lesser works? 

On a personal level, I also found this focus borderline offensive: at the time I was in a long-term relationship with someone who identified as “historically bisexual”. He had come out of the closet late in his twenties, years after he had married a woman. He continued to have relationships with both men and women after coming out, eventually settling down in a long-term relationship with a man. It was difficult to watch him struggle with people’s constant perception that his exploration of bisexuality was just a denial of the fact that he was gay. The reductive stereotype that “bi’ really means “by the way, I’m gay” completely invalidated the emotional reality of the love he felt for his ex-wife and any other women he had been involved with.  

I was recently having a conversation with a couple of women who are currently in long term relationships with women and who bristle a bit when people refer to them as lesbians. Their own histories have involved relationships with trans men, and as I was listening to them describe how those experiences informed the evolution of their identities and the complexity of their paths, I was reminded of my ex and his own struggles with having the outside world recognize his experiences for what he felt they were. Thinking about all of this in the context of revisiting Fauré’s cycle in preparation for my performance of the piece with the Seattle Chamber Music Society this coming Monday, it reminds me how reductive it is to think of sexuality in binary terms.

Sexuality is a spectrum, and navigating it can be a messy thing, especially for those of us who do not reside on the heteronormative extremes. Yes, there is something deeply unsettled about Verlaine’s poetry that makes engaging with it slightly uncomfortable. But that is also the nature of what it is to navigate the spectrum of sexuality: replete with shame and self-hatred, as well as deep love for people who don’t end up being the right matches. I would argue that it’s this precise in-the-cracks-ness that makes the poetry so real, and why it can be so deeply uncomfortable to engage with it. It refuses to be put in a box, because that is just not how humans really are. It is that commitment to his own truth of that moment in his life which makes the poetry so compelling, and so moving. It’s no wonder it’s been set to music so many times by so many different composers, and that it inspired Fauré to write something so bizarrely beautiful.


I perform Fauré’s La bonne chanson on Monday evening with the Seattle Chamber Music Society at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Tickets and full info are HEREFor a $25 discount on tickets, enter the code TENOR at checkout.


Infant Joy


Infant Joy

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts about Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe that I will be writing over the coming weeks.



I have no name

I am but two days old.— 

What shall I call thee? 

I happy am

Joy is my name,— 

Sweet joy befall thee! 


Pretty joy! 

Sweet joy but two days old, 

Sweet joy I call thee; 

Thou dost smile. 

I sing the while

Sweet joy befall thee.

     - William Blake 

Since my first encounters with Britten's Winter Words, I have been inundated with British composers' and poets' fascination with youth and innocence, and the imminent and inevitable threat that life inherently poses to both. Innocence versus experience - it's a dichotomy that humankind has wrestled with for eons. It's one of the predominant themes in Britten's work (not just in his Winter Words, but countless other works, as well), and I have been drawn to ruminating on it in depth for much of my professional life over the past decade or so. As a result of this fascination with the subject, I've been wanting to explore Vaughan Williams' Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe recently. Almost all of the songs in Vaughan Williams' piece are settings of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I can think of no other piece of literature which engages with the subject more directly.

On the one hand, the concept of naïveté's preciousness is a challenging one for me. Growing up as the child of scientists, there was nothing worse in my family than not knowing. Combined with the earnest (and ironically slightly naïve) ethos of tthe internet age (let us make all knowledge and experience accessible to all), which has led to everyone suddenly becoming an expert on everything, this feeling that I need to know all the things or to have experienced everything has only been reinforced. 

On the other hand, as an artist, there is nothing worse than knowing. The greatest artists I know and have the privilege of working with are the ones who never lose their sense of wonder at the world. It's almost as if they are in a perpetual state of discovery of the beauty and awesomeness that surrounds them. Without this sense of wonder, we lose the ability to create our art, and to draw our audience's attention to these beautiful things that can be so easy to take for granted. It is through this lens that I have mostly related to this idea, although there have been other moments of understanding along the way.

Watching Hannah Gadsby's Nanette recently added a whole new layer of understanding as to why this theme has been such a magnetic one for me. If you haven't seen it yet, you should frankly stop reading this blog post right now and set aside 75 minutes for yourself and watch it. It's incredibly moving.  But the reason I mention it now is a specific moment towards the tail end of her show, in which she talks about shame and self-hatred and how we learn that as children: 

"...By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame… in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity."

I first encountered Blake's poem, Infant Joy, over a decade ago when I read Vaughan Williams' songs for the first time with a colleague at the Marlboro Music Fesitval, and to be honest, at that first reading the beauty of it was lost on me. I merely took it quite literally and assumed it a simple depiction of a newborn infant. After recently reconsidering it in the context of Hannah Gadsby's speech above, the preciousness of this literary image was suddenly heartbreakingly apparent to me. 

Much like Hannah Gadsby describes, internalized homophobia is something I have had to grapple with my entire life. Even despite having been out for nearly the last quarter century, since I was a teenager. I believe it is something that all of us in the LGBT community wrestle with in one way or another our entire lives. From day one, we realize that we are not normal. And we internalize the world's negativity and, in so many cases, outright hostility towards people like us. It's something that affects our ability to sustain healthy long-term relationships and to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We carry the burden of this shame in one way or another our entire lives, because on some level, we are taught that we aren't worthy of being happy, we are not worthy of pleasure - because we are sinful abominations that should be turned into pillars of salt. Regardless of how successful we are at overcoming that shame - through coming out of the closet, through pride, etc. - some version of it is always there, lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface.

Hearing Hannah Gadsby's words for the first time, I felt like she was speaking my truth. Her words also helped me understand just how precious and valuable the joy of infancy that Blake describes in his poem is. It is the most free and precious time of life, because one only knows joy and wonder. Those seeds of shame haven't been planted yet. Now, listening to Vaughan Williams' setting of this poem, the joyfully arching lines of the oboe and voice that intertwine with each other sound even happier and more glorious. I understand in a new way why they feel so weightless as they soar. This is the time when we are most connected with the Divine, most connected with Love, because we are not weighed down by the shackles of our shame and self-hatred.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Infant Joy from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

This Vaughan Williams project is part of a larger recording project that is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas and was made possible in part by a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music / Intermusic SF.