Nicholas Phan, performing in the “Silver” cast of Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Count Almaviva, the male lead tenor, has one of the best career marketing hooks in the world. He’s the only Out and Proud, Greco-Chinese, Opera Tenor from Detroit in existence…well, at least that we know of. Mr Phan, (pronounced “pawn”) is an up and comer in the world of international opera and classical music performance. He is making his Seattle Opera debut in “Barber” and has already appeared at Glyndebourne, Dusseldorf and Frankfort Operas in Europe and in the US at New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, and many others. In addition to his opera performances, Mr Phan also has an impressive concert career with performances at Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms in London and with major orchestras including Atlanta, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St Louis and with the Chicago Symphony and conductor Pierre Boulez he recorded an album of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella which was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. Later this year, he’ll tour Europe with conductor Alan Curtis and the acclaimed orchestra Il Complesso Barocco singing the role of Lurcanio in Handel’s Ariodante to mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s Ariodante, performing in London, Paris, Baden-Baden and Madrid. All this, plus upcoming singing gigs with the San Francisco Symphony and another at Carnegie Hall, keep Mr Phan very busy, but he also manages to find time to blog on his personal website, grecchinois, the name of which is simply the combination of the French words meaning “Greek” and “Chinese” and reflects Mr Phan’s cultural heritage.
I sat down and spoke with Nick Phan this last Monday, at McCaw Hall in between rehearsals for The Barber of Seville which opens Saturday, January 15 with the “Gold” cast, and on Sunday with the “Silver” cast, starring Mr Phan, and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, last seen in Amelia, as Rosina. (Note to non-opera fans reading this: the high vocal demands of opera singing frequently require either long breaks between performances, or the use of two casts in the primary roles. Gold casts will feature at least one better known, or “star” performer. BOTH casts are equally professional and worth seeing.) Mr Phan has been in rehearsals for “Barber” since mid-December; when I expressed some surprise at the long rehearsal period for a opera that all the principle singers have already learned and performed elsewhere, he told me while it’s not unusual to have a month or more to rehearse in the US, it’s frequently “a shorter period of time in Europe, where they have resident companies of performers at most opera houses and stock sets and costumes.”
When I asked him, if the constant traveling required of a professional opera and classical music singer made it tough to maintain friendships, and relationships, he admitted it could be tough, but the best part was the freedom to have a wide range of friends all over the world and the opportunity to see them. But, he is thankful for the Internet. “I don’t know how people did it, keeping in touch with friends and family, before the Internet. It makes life so much easier to instantly chat with people, and stay connected with news and watch things you want to watch. I think it must have been difficult to not feel lonely, pre-Internet.”
I asked him if was possible to maintain romantic relationships, while traveling so frequently, and he admitted that it was tough. “Fortunately, I have a partner now who understands the nature of the business and has some freedom to be able to travel with me, some of the time. But, I really have to say, “Thank God for Skype!” because it makes it so much easier to have a long-distance relationship when you can see each other face to face every day!”
Mr Phan has been out since he was 15 years old, something he frequently discusses on his blog.
“It’s one of the reasons why I started blogging. I like the writing and the freedom to be open and transparent about who I am.”
I asked if there’s an “Opera Closet” like there’s a “Hollywood Closet” with performers who won’t come out for fear it will hurt their careers.
“No, I’ve never really encountered that. Opera is more like the theater, where people are more accepting about who they are.”
We talked about the Hollywood Closet for awhile and especially about actors and celebrities who don’t lie about their sexuality but aren’t open about it either. It bothered Mr Phan more than it bothered me. “Hmmm. I understand the difficulties that might be involved, but if you’re living your life as a gay person and you’re not hiding it, why not just make that statement. It’s just a statement! Saying “I am Gay” shouldn’t be any different than saying, “I am Black” or “I am Jewish” or any other kind of statement.”
I asked him about the future and if he has a “plan” and admits, he does, but, “It all comes down to the voice. How long you can sing as a professional really depends on the quality of the voice, ” and pointed out that “Plácido Domingo is nearly 70 and he’s STILL doing concerts and sounding good!”
We touched on some of the traditions of the opera, which includes the audience booing at curtain calls, something that rarely happens on non-opera stages anymore. Mr Phan laughed and said, “Well, it never feels good to be booed, but actually, I like it because it means they are paying attention and they’re passionate about the art.” I remarked that my experience with opera booing was directed at the director and the designer of the show, and he admitted, that his experience had been similar. “Opera fans can be very vocal if they don’t like an element of a show. They might love the orchestra or the singers but not like the set or the costumes.”
He was passionate about the sets and costumes for “Barber”. “The sets for this production are beautiful and very realistic….very classical and Spanish.” And, he was excited about the production, as a whole. “I think it’s going to be very exciting to the audience. We have a soprano singing Rosina in the Gold cast and a mezzo singing in the Silver cast and both casts are very different. It’s interesting to compare the two…it’s an instance when you should see both perform.”
Before we ended, I had to bring up the subject of his “Gay Icons”. While researching for the interview, I went back through pages of Nick’s blog and found the entry he posted on his personal gay icons. One of them is Seattle’s very own Dan Savage, Savage Love columnist, writer and gay rights activist and naturally I had to ask Nick about it.
“My obsession with Dan Savage…” he laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but I just really admire his writing and his point of view and I always enjoy him as a pundit when he appears on television interviews. I’ve read all his books and I read his column and I read Slog (The Stranger’s blog). It’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to do Barber of Seville in Seattle. I’ve been reading about Seattle for years but had never had the opportunity to visit. I felt like I really knew the city before I even arrived here.”
I asked him if he had ever left comments on Slog.
“No, no…I just read. I don’t participate.”
“So, you’re a lurker?” I asked.
Nick laughed. “Yeah. I’m just a Slog lurker.”
I told him that after I had read that he was a “Dan Fan” I emailed Dan to tell him he had a fan in town performing at the Opera, but hadn’t received a response prior to the interview. It would have been awesome to have Dan pop out from behind the door to meet his latest fan. But, it wasn’t meant to be.
Oh, and we did touch on the Grammy nomination on the album he worked on with the Chicago Symphony and conductor Pierre Boulez, of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. I asked Nick if he also gets a Grammy, if the album wins.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’m really not sure. I think I get a certificate or something for being on the album and it getting a nomination.” he replied. “I should ask my manager to find out.”
“You should. Maybe you can go to the Grammy’s and sit near Lady Gaga!” I told him.
“Yes, but not if she’s wearing a meat dress. I wouldn’t think that would smell very good, after awhile, do you?”
You’ll be unlikely to sit next to Lady Gaga or anyone in a meat dress when you check out the charming, candid and thoroughly engaging Nicholas Phan AND his beautiful voice, this coming Sunday, January 16 and on January 21, 23, and 28 at the Seattle Opera and their production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. And, the January 28 performance with Mr Phan is the designated LGBT Night at the Seattle Opera with special packages available for the community at a great price. If those dates don’t work for you, the other cast debuts this Saturday, January 15, with encore performances on January 19, 22, 26 and 29 with tenor Lawrence Brownlee as the Count and soprano Sarah Coburn as Rosina.