The Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA)
, June 2009
AMRAM: Songs of the Soul / Shir L’erev Shabbat / The Final Ingredient 8.559420
JEWISH OPERAS, Vol. 2 8.559450
Tenors are a breed apart, and one of the rarest categories of vocal mastery is the tenore di grazia (“tenor of grace”), which, unlike the stand-and-deliver bellowing of Verdi or Wagner, specializes in nuance, elegance, and maintaining a seemingly infinite vocal line. In music from Mozart to Rossini, this kind of singer can charm and move audiences, and the up-and-coming young sensation Nicholas Phan, now 30, has delighted audiences from Chicago to Lille with his easy high notes and warm personality. British maestro William Lacey, who conducted Phan in last year’s Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio, praises Phan’s “distinctive quality, both as a singer and as an actor. In an era when the music schools churn out polished and rather similar singers in great quantities, Nicholas is blessed with a really individual timbre. And besides the beauty of his voice, he has the flexibility and musical intelligence to sing many different kinds of music, both on the opera stage and in the concert hall.” Even jaded critics are churning out fanzine prose about Phan.
Reviewing the same Houston production, opera critic Gary N. Reese terms Phan a “natural theatrical animal—poised, lithe, acrobatic, and supremely musical in attuning the motion of his movements to the measure of the music. Of comic opera, he appears to the manner born, with a light tenor voice inflected with subtle expression.” The website San Francisco Classical Voice concurs, describing Phan as a “remarkably relaxed young man with a voice of arresting beauty.” Indeed, listening to Phan we immediately notice how tonal beauty and subtle emotional expression are of paramount importance to his singing, the antithesis of the showy tenors who hold forth with splatteringly screamed high C’s.
At a New York bistro, Phan explains the sources of his inspiration, while sipping steaming tea. Son of a Chinese pathologist and a Greek-American housewife, Phan grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father still works as a lung specialist. He developed into a friendly Midwesterner with powerful lungs indeed. With penetrating dark eyes from his mother’s Mediterranean side and delicate features from his father’s Asian background, Phan also has a yoga-trained, slim body. Whether singing Berlioz, Donizetti, Handel, Monteverdi, Offenbach, or Britten, Phan possesses a chameleon-like ability to inhabit different musical universes. Defying the moribund classical recording industry, Phan popped up recently as a coloratura rabbi in a recording of David Schiff’s opera Gimpel the Fool and as a prisoner in David Amram’s The Final Ingredient: An Opera of the Holocaust, both from Naxos.
Phan himself is no fool, despite the old joke that tenors’ heads must be vacant for them to produce sufficient vocal resonance. He has brought along to our meeting a copy of Dan Savage’s The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, which he calls a “really interesting take on what it is to be gay and be fighting for our rights to get married and for gay men or anyone to have a relationship now in a political context.” He maintains a bright, personable blog, Grecchinois, in which he unaffectedly describes his life: “I sing. I travel. I live a pseudo-nomadic existence. I am half Greek and half Chinese—thus the blog’s name, a combination of the two nationalities in French.”
Grecchinois also includes accounts of mishaps such as when Phan knelt onstage at the Lille Opera during a 2007 performance of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, only to be impaled by the world’s largest splinter from the ancient wooden stage. Undaunted, he bravely finished the performance without any fuss, although he later required several gory medical treatments. One blog reader consoled Phan with the comment, “Pavarotti always picked up a bent nail from backstage for luck. Maybe picking up a sliver of the stage before you sing will bring you luck! (But preferably carry it outside your body.)”
There are also details—expressed in direct, earnest prose—about his marriage last September to pianist Jeremy Frank: “People like me are second-class citizens in the place that I call home. If this is the land of the free, why am I still denied such basic civil rights?” This sort of question has never before been asked so publicly in the stifled world of American opera. Readers of the blog react in an overwhelmingly positive way, one from a “young man who is still silently grappling with his sexuality” who assures Phan he is a “natural poet full of beauty.” Another reader comments, after Phan announces his marriage, “Just from seeing you two perform together at your recital, it’s clear that you belong with each other.”
Considering all the gushing online about “barihunks” and “hunkentenors,” it is surprising how closeted the world of opera remains. Phan may be the only out gay opera tenor besides the ancient Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, born in 1902 (in 2007, Cuénod made headlines by marrying his longtime boyfriend). Who cares about the sexuality of opera singers? Since opera tenors routinely have to win the soprano’s heart, notoriously conservative opera casting directors treat them as if they are Hollywood action film stars and, consciously or not, participate in this absurdly repressive atmosphere. Yet all signs suggest that Phan’s star will continue to rise on the quality of his vocal artistry…