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Post-Singing Career Articles - Beverly Sills Award Given to Nathan Gunn

AP, Jan 17, 2006 by Verena Dobnik | AP Photo, by Mary Altaffer

Beverly Sills and Nathan GunnIt's not just because of his barechested good looks. Nathan Gunn can sing, too. The baritone, who performed half-in-the-buff for the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of "An American Tragedy," has won the inaugural Beverly Sills Artist Award at the nation's premier opera house.

The $50,000 annual prize goes to a U.S. singer, 25 to 40, who has appeared in solo roles at the Met and is building a major career. "I thought, 'This is the fellow,'" Sills told The Associated Press after seeing Gunn in "Tragedy."

On Monday, the Brooklyn-born soprano handed the check to the native of South Bend, Ind., backstage at the Met while he was rehearsing Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

That happens to be the first opera he ever saw as a youth." I thought it was absolutely incredible," said Gunn, who grew up singing in musical theater and the church choir, while listening to Sting and Led Zeppelin.

His voice will be heard in Mozart's masterpiece this Saturday on the Met's weekly live opera broadcast— the same show that carried Sills' voice decades ago. Her high-octane career helped put Americans on the international map of opera stars. And now, at 76, she said she's "interested in promoting and protecting a young American artist who has arrived— to enhance and facilitate a career. Gunn fits the bill perfectly."

He's 35. He has a smooth, warm voice, singing with heart and so each word is clearly understood. And Gunn is part of a growing group of college-educated American singers who also can act.

After his shirtless bedroom scene with soprano Patricia Racette in "Tragedy," he took his bows while admirers ripped programs into confetti that rained down on him.

"America is a can-do country. If a director wants something, most American singers say, 'All right, I'll try it.' I'm game for just about anything," Gunn said.

For him, "anything" involved baring himself in two operas directed by Francesca Zambello — "Tragedy," a contemporary work by U.S. composer Tobias Picker, and Gluck's 18th century work "Iphigenie en Tauride" at the 1997 Glimmerglass festival in upstate New York. In the latter, Gunn played the mythical Greek hero Orestes, who was tortured, chained and stripped to a loincloth.

He's mystified — and amused — by the public attention paid to his below-the-vocal-cords persona. "I think it's so funny," said Gunn, who lives in Champaign, Ill., with wife Julie Gunn, a pianist, and their five children, ages 3 to 10. "And it's a strange thing. We Americans have a weird reaction to nudity. I'm not even that nude in the operas. I'm just looking the part of the characters." With a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Illinois, Gunn started out at the Met more than a decade ago, winning the 1994 Met National Council Auditions and joining the company's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. After his 1995 Met debut in John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," he appeared in about 10 more works, from Benjamin Britten's"A Midsummer Night's Dream" to Puccini's "La Boheme."

Gunn has also sung with big-name orchestras and at other major opera houses across the U.S. and Europe, while performing solo recitals with his wife. To stay physically fit on the road, he tries to box at local gyms — or imitate the exercises his 8-year-old gymnast daughter taught him.

The Sills award was endowed with a $1 million gift from Agnes Varis, founder of a pharmaceutical trading company who is on the Met board, and her husband, Karl Leichtman.

The judging panel for the award is chaired by Sills, who retired from the stage in 1980 and went on to become an arts executive, serving as chairman of both Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera.

When Gunn stepped onto the stage, Sills saw something special: "There are certain performers, when they come on stage, they need a spotlight. And then, there's the other kind, who brings his own spotlight."