SNAPSHOT: Celebrating a Bond With Britten
THE TENOR NICHOLAS PHAN TALKS OF BRITTEN AND SOCIAL MEDIA
From The New York Times, August 2 2013
By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER
Grecchinois, the name of Nicholas Phan’s engaging blog, reflects the Greek and Chinese heritage of this 34-year-old American tenor, who has fast made a name for himself as an expressive interpreter of the British composer Benjamin Britten. Raised Greek Orthodox in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mr. Phan, who initially studied the violin and played in a youth orchestra, discovered Britten when he played his “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” In college, as a gay man, he became fascinated with the relationship between Britten and the tenor Peter Pears, who lived together at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. He cites an experience performing Britten in a recital at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., around early 2006 as proof that the music, with its “beautiful combination of head and heart,” speaks to audiences everywhere.
Mr. Phan has myriad coming performances during the Britten centennial this year. At festivities this summer at the Ravinia Festival, in Illinois, he will sing Nebuchadnezzar in “The Burning Fiery Furnace” on Aug. 17 and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings on Sept. 3 with the New York ensemble the Knights. Mr. Phan’s fall schedule includes concerts in New York on Sept. 5 and 21.
Mr. Phan made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2009 on three hours’ notice, when he was asked to replace an ill tenor in Haydn’s “Creation” with Helmuth Rilling and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Reviewing that concert in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote that he brought a “sweet-toned lyric tenor voice and crisp German diction to his work.” Mr. Phan had performed “The Creation” eight years before but not in German. Lively and candid, he spoke with Vivien Schweitzer by phone about Britten, making a last-minute debut and the dangers of revealing too much on social media. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. What was it like making a Carnegie debut on three hours’ notice?
A. The performance ended up being amazing, and it was such a liberating experience. I didn’t know I could perform or enjoy myself under that kind of pressure. It changed the way I approached my career and music making.
What initially drew you to Britten and Pears?
When I was a young gay man in college in the late 1990s, there were no gay role models. What was so inspiring about Britten and Pears was this idea that they could be gay, and it could be a positive thing and not mean loneliness, illness or depravity. They were inspiring pioneers. It takes a lot of strength to live with that kind of integrity.
How has social media impacted the performing arts world?
There is definitely such a thing as oversharing on Facebook and Twitter. It’s wonderful to have these behind-the-scenes moments, but there is supposed to be an air of mystery about what we do. What is virtuosic about a performance is that you do something incredibly difficult with apparent ease. The oversharing can steal that air of mystery.
You’ve written about the dangers of excessive self-criticism on your blog. How have you developed as an artist over time?
I definitely still get nervous, but I’ve learned that the nerves are adrenaline and excitement. Courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to face it. It’s better to make a positive choice — to balance an inner critic with an inner cheerleader.
Many singers who perform opera seem uncomfortable on the recital stage. But you seem to love it.
There is nothing more difficult than giving a solo recital, because there is no costume to hide behind. In an opera, you are interacting with your colleagues. In a recital, you are baring your soul, and there is direct contact with an audience. I get my thrill from that. There is no fourth wall to hide behind.