Antidote Week Continues
MOTHER'S DAY TRIBUTE
to a Most Extraordinary
Young American Family
|Nathan Gunn and Julie Jordan Gunn, |
an All-American story of love and success
By Melissa Mitchell
[Editor’s note: Is there anything more romantic than being sung to? On this Mother’s Day, Illinois Alumni looks at an internationally acclaimed couple who’ve managed to stay in love – and in the Midwest – despite the demands of their high-level, high-profile musical careers.]
Critics and audience members are still drooling over the performance – and the pecs – of buff, bare-chested baritone Nathan Gunn ’94 FAA in last season’s premiere of “An American Tragedy” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Yet the young star who played the heartless Clyde Griffiths in the production is neither a cad nor conceited nor concerned about his sex appeal. Instead, the 36-year-old Gunn lives a life quite different from what one might imagine an international opera singer would have.
For one thing, he’s been happily married for more than twenty years. His wife, Julie Jordan Gunn, shrugs off any possible insecurity as regards her hunky husband’s fans, saying, “If it gets people to the opera, I’m not going to worry about it.” The couple is thrilled to have five – yes, that’s right, five – children. And rather than live in New York or London or Rome, where his singing career could be more easily nurtured, the Gunns have made a conscious decision to raise their children as “normally” as possible, locating the family home in Champaign, Illinois.
“I don’t know whether it’s luck or just following the lead that’s out there for us,” said Nathan, who estimates that he’s on the road three-quarters of the time. “It’s a lot easier than it used to be because of cell phones and e-mail and technology. Also, you just have to spend the money.
You’ve got to fly back and forth. That’s a huge part of the budget. You sacrifice dollars and sleep.”
The family also makes a point to schedule quality time together during the summer and holiday breaks – “either at home or wherever,” Julie said. This winter, the entire family planned to be together in New York, where the children (ranging from 4-year-old twins to an 11-year-old) were to attend the abbreviated, kid-friendly English version of “The Magic Flute” at the Met.
Last summer, the family joined Nathan in a “heartbreakingly lovely” cottage near the London movie set where he was filming a new opera created expressly for television – “Buzz on the Moon,” based on the Apollo XI space mission. Next summer, the family will spend two months in Aix-en-Provence in France.
|Mrs. and Mr. Gunn in recital|
And even when they’re performing together, Nathan and Julie are making beautiful music together in more ways than one.
“[Music] adds a lot to knowing each other as well as we do, [in that we share] every part of our lives together,” Nathan said. “It comes across when you’re performing music. And what’s wonderful about it is … it’s another language that we have. I don’t even think about it, but … we never talk in the middle of a recital, but when we’re done an hour-and-a-half later, we have a shared experience.”
“It’s very, very rare in the performing arts to find a husband-wife team that is working so beautifully well on both the family and professional fronts as Nathan and Julie,” said Michael Ross, director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois campus. “Can there be any doubt as to how exhausting their lives must be? Yet, they not only make it look easy, they make it look fun.
“In my book, they’re the darlings of their generation, and a model for young artists everywhere to look for inspiration.
But long before they became role models, both Gunns were not so sure that music was the way to go.
Julie became seriously interested in piano at the rather late age of 16, “where I saw myself as more of a piano player than a long jumper or anything else,” she said. After attending a master class at Dartmouth College, where she earned an undergraduate degree in economics, she began to entertain the idea of making a career in music.
That master class was run by UI professor John Wustman, known in some circles as the “dean of accompanists” for his work with well-known singers Luciano Pavarotti and Robert Shaw, among others.
“He and I saw things the same way,” Julie said of Wustman. “When I decided to go over to music, I didn’t know how to proceed. He said, ‘Well, I think you should come to the University of Illinois.’”
Nathan also struck up a later interest in music following “a pretty basic upbringing” in South Bend, Indiana.
“I played a lot of sports, was a pretty good student and always was involved in church choir,” he said. “In school, they always wanted me to sing in the choirs and musicals because I was ‘the boy with the pretty voice.’”
Still, he didn’t actually plan to pursue music as a career.
“My mom’s idea was that I should take voice lessons,” Nathan said. “Since I liked to sing, she thought I could make money singing at weddings or whatever. She set me up with a teacher at Indiana University. He didn’t really teach me how to sing, but he did introduce me to classical music.
“Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ was the first thing I heard, and I thought it was incredible. It grabbed me.”
Nathan eventually ended up at Illinois, where his father, Walter T. Gunn ’59 FAA, and grandfather, the late Horace E. Gunn LLB ’27 LAW, had also attended. Nathan met Julie in the opera division of the UI School of Music, where she worked as music director and vocal coach.
yet corny as Kansas in August
and normal as blueberry pie
“They put graduate students in charge of operas, so the undergraduates worked for us,” she said. “I was Nathan’s boss.”
Though at age 21 Julie was a couple of years older than Nathan – who was 19 at the time – they were both new to the campus and quickly hit it off. A dinner date at the Great Impasta restaurant in downtown Champaign launched the romance.
Nathan realized when he was 20 that he wanted to ask Julie to marry him. She was about to finish her graduate degree, and he suspected that she’d likely leave town if he didn’t give her a reason to stick around. Before proposing, however, he ran the idea past his voice teacher, the late William Miller.
“He said, ‘Well … what are you waiting for?’” Nathan recalled. “And I said, ‘Aren’t I a little too young to be doing this? ‘He said, ‘Well … do you love her?’ Yeah. ‘Well … then MARRY her.’” The couple did in 1992.
Together, Wustman said, the Gunns are one dynamic duo. The secret to their success, he believes, is their genuine devotion to what they do.
“Unlike some in the music business who are committed to ‘the career,’ being famous or making money, I think they are truly committed to the music,” Wustman said. “And it’s provided them with a great life and careers.”
Though it’s always hard to tell which students will be the ones to break out of the box and “make it big,” Wustman said he did have great expectations for Nathan because “he has it all. His voice is beautiful, he’s intelligent, and he works hard.” And Julie has developed into a talented pianist, arranger and vocal coach.
“Nathan is just a super-nice guy … friendly, polite,” said Wustman. “And Julie plays so well … it’s remarkable. They’re both very successful, gifted, attractive people.”
After graduation, Nathan was accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, where Julie worked as a pianist. After finishing the program, during which their first child was born, Nathan made his professional debut at the Met in 1995 in John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.”
Since then, Nathan has performed in some 70 Met productions, most recently as the affable, plume-festooned birdcatcher Papa-geno in Julie Taymor’s whimsical production of “The Magic Flute,” featuring her signature, larger-than-life puppets. In that role, Nathan was described by New York Post critic Clive Barnes as “suave but commandingly comic,” while the New York Sun’s Jay Nordlinger compared Nathan to comedian Jim Carrey and said that Nathan nearly stole the show.
The in-demand baritone has performed in countless productions on the stages of the world’s finest opera houses, from Chicago to Paris. On the concert stage, he has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Boston, Chicago and London symphony orchestras, to name just a few, and worked with such noted conductors as James Levine, Robert Shaw and Michael Tilson Thomas.
Nathan’s recording of “Peter Grimes” with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra received a Grammy Award nomination in 1995. Among his many honors, Nathan’s latest good fortune was winning the Met’s inaugural Beverly Sills Artist Award last year, given to singers between the ages of 25 and 40 to enhance their careers. The distinction comes with a $50,000 prize.
Julie, who returned to the UI School of Music for her doctorate following the birth of their first child, orchestrates works for many of Nathan’s concerts, including performances in which she accompanies him on piano. She also occasionally plays professional recitals, does vocal coaching for students to prepare them for auditions, serves as the volunteer choir director at their children’s school, teaches Sunday school and supports charities benefiting the arts or children.
As their children have grown older, Julie and Nathan are carving out more time between Nathan’s other professional commitments to work collaboratively. Their next dual recital is booked at Drake University in March. They also recently completed a recording for Sony Records. And music continues to be a bond in their private music life – the couple share a love for crooner Tony Bennett and for all things Elvis (Presley for Nathan, Costello for Julie).
The Gunns’ ability to juggle family life with musical projects seems unimaginable, even to them. However, they think that part of their success lies in keeping the personal relationship between the two of them strong.
“We believe that the kids’ security comes out of our relationship being strong, so we don’t hesitate to go off by ourselves,” Julie said. “We really enjoy working and touring together as well. I think that makes us know each other in an extra way that is very rewarding.
“When Nathan is doing something important to him, I try to go see it, which is most productions,” she said. “The kids mostly stay home on those occasions.”
When schedules keep them apart, Julie said, Nathan is “very quick with flowers, generally. I think he has [local florist] Rick Orr, on speed dial, not only for me, but for our [three] daughters as well.
“The two of us are not big anniversary or date rememberers,” she added, “but we do have lots of chances to do romantic things when we travel. … We … have favorite, out-of-the-way restaurants around the world that we love to visit.”
But the setting doesn’t have to be exotic. Back in Illinois, the Gunns enjoy playing tennis, attending performances at the Krannert Center or just taking long walks.
“When we’re together, it’s the walk in the morning that helps us organize our day,” Nathan added. “If we have a date when I’m home, we make the most of it.
“I find having a large family kind of romantic in and of itself because Julie and I have a lot to celebrate,” he said. “Isn’t that, after all what romance is – a celebration?”