Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Chat with Nicholas Phan

Now that the holidays are over, in rehearsal we're putting the finishing touches on our Barber of Seville, which opens Saturday, January 15 -- next week! Today we have a chat with our Friday/Sunday Almaviva, tenor Nicholas Phan (pronounced "pawn"), who is making his Seattle Opera debut in Barber. We find out what he thinks of the Pacific Northwest, how it feels to perform the Count, and what he loves to do in his spare time.

You have a lot of experience singing early music, and you also seem to do newer works as well. Is this type of balance intentional? Or has it just happened that your performance history has been diverse?
My repertoire is definitely diverse--it spans from Monteverdi to Bach to Rossini to Mozart to Bartók to Britten to Jake Heggie. I have quite consciously sought out the variety (I have always had an insatiably curious mind when it comes to music), although I think I have also had the good fortune to have a wide variety of opportunities come my way. I fell in love with classical music as a young violinist (I played from the ages of 4 to 18), and my teachers and conductors raised me on a very wide-ranging repertoire including Bach and Vivaldi violin concertos, Haydn string quartets, symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, as well as some contemporary pieces written by living composers. When I started singing, I applied the same insatiable curiosity to my vocal repertoire, and I've been lucky enough to have teachers who kept pointing me in different directions and didn't limit that adventurous musical spirit in me.

Nicholas Phan rehearses Almaviva, with Sally Wolf as Berta in the background


A large part of what accounts for the wide variety of music I sing is that I don’t only sing opera. I generally only sing a couple of fully-staged operas a season, and the rest of the time I am singing a lot of concerts and oratorios with orchestra as well as solo recitals and vocal chamber music, which I am incredibly passionate about. What I love about recitals is that there is the opportunity to explore a wide variety of repertoire in the most intimate of settings and in one concert, which can be a powerful experience for both the performer and the audience. It is most definitely my favorite way to perform.

I guess what it all boils down to is that there is so much beautiful music that has been written and has yet to be written. I just want to sing as much of it as I can!

Nicholas Phan rehearsing Act Two (while Bartolo chases Rosina upstairs)


Tell us about your experience singing Almaviva in Portland last season. So far, what are the differences you’ve noticed between that production and this Seattle Barber?
My experience in Portland was actually one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had in an opera house. There were many good friends of mine in the cast and, as a result, the chemistry between the cast-members was instantaneous. We were a very light-hearted bunch, and shared a great many laughs over the course of that production. Being in Seattle is similar, because I have known some of my colleagues here for years (in fact, Sarah Coburn, Dean Williamson, and I all did our first Barber together at Wolf Trap Opera in 2003) and so the musical and rehearsal-room camaraderie feels quite natural as a result.

This is your Seattle Opera debut, but is it your first time visiting Seattle, or have you been to this city before? What sort of things are you looking forward to doing here when you have some spare time?
This is actually my very first trip to Seattle! I have been looking forward to being here for a very long time, because everyone raves about this city so much. I fell in love with the Pacific Northwest during my many visits to Portland over the years, and I am really looking forward to exploring another part of the region. I’m very much into food and wine, so I am mostly looking forward to trying out the various restaurants that all my friends have recommended and basically eating and drinking my way through Seattle!

You sing two serenades in the first scene of Barber. Can you tell us about how they differ?
I find the first serenade hilarious, actually, because the Count has obviously been planning that moment for quite some time, and it comes off so clumsily! It’s a completely ridiculous plan: getting a big band to play this over-the-top serenade right under her window at dawn? Insane! The music is very showy, vocally-speaking, with trills, very florid sections, and rangy jumps with a full orchestration. It’s clearly a case of someone trying too hard, which I actually find very sweet. Nonetheless, the Count is confident of his charms while he sings it, which is why it’s so disappointing for him when it goes off the rails immediately after.

In the second serenade, Figaro very much catches the Count off-guard, and he is much less sure of himself. The music is much simpler (he only sings with a guitar this time), and much more improvisatory, as the Count is clearly making it all up on the spot. That second serenade is actually my favorite moment of singing in the opera. It’s the one moment of quiet vulnerability for the Count. He’s on the spot and doesn’t have time to think, and, even though he is in disguise at that moment and lies about his identity, his declaration of his intentions towards Rosina is incredibly heartfelt and real.

As different as they are, both serenades establish one very important thing: they show the Count’s youth and the power of his love and passion for Rosina. In both arias, the Count demonstrates that he is more than willing to step far out of his comfort zone in order to woo Rosina. He puts himself out there and goes to great length to work for her affections (both in the amount of planning that went into the first serenade and his willingness to think on his feet in the second)--something he has probably never had to do before. It’s a remarkable moment in his life--one that is markedly more innocent and happier than when we encounter him again many years later in Le nozze di Figaro.

Nicholas Phan in rehearsal as Almaviva, with Kate Lindsey as Rosina and Sally Wolf as Berta


Almaviva gets to take on multiple disguises in Barber. What’s that like for you, as a performer?
It’s incredibly complicated! Almaviva has to deal with so many props--swords, letters, other various pieces of paper, knives, money--and it can get very confusing at times. It also means that there isn’t very much down-time for us during the opera. When we make it off-stage, we spend most of the off-stage time frantically changing from one costume to another. With so many changes throughout the show, and not much of a chance to sit and relax, the evening really flies by.

Finally, I’ve noticed that you keep a regularly-updated blog. Is writing a hobby of yours? What kind of blogger are you--do you write only about opera, do you share personal anecdotes, or do you blog about current events?
Writing is, indeed, a hobby of mine. Before I felt the call of the musician, I harbored childhood dreams of being a writer. I started the blog while I was making my European debut in 2006. I was working in Frankfurt on a new production of Mozart’s very first opera, La finta semplice, which had a very long rehearsal period of 6 weeks. I found that I had a lot of alone time on my hands outside of rehearsal, and so thought I would start the blog as a way to occupy my time and share some of what was going on in my head with the world. I try to write mostly about the music I am performing or studying, as well as some personal anecdotes about my life as a wandering minstrel, although sometimes I get off on a tangent about current events, because I simply can’t keep my mouth shut. I really enjoy keeping the blog. It’s helped me feel a bit more connected to the world when I am on the road alone, and it’s helped me connect with audiences in a way that’s beyond what I normally experience singing.


Rehearsal photos by Alan Alabastro

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hallo, SeattleOpera fans!
A VERY interesting interview!! This should make one want to experience botj casts; I certainly will!!
Toi, toi, toi!
Win H.