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'Billy Budd' showcases a decidedly different opera star

| Thursday, May 3, 2007

Nathan Gunn revels in performing the title role of "Billy Budd," the operatic masterpiece by Benjamin Britten that Pittsburgh Opera presents for the first time, starting Sunday afternoon.

The opera is set on a British naval vessel and is a powerful exploration of innocence and corruption, good and evil.

"It's great to be in an all-male cast. It's sort of like being on a sports team, an athletic meritocracy -- a very different dynamic from a mixed cast," Gunn says.

"The women in the stage crew like it, too. We're easy to order around," says the singer whose hunky looks have inspired fan adulation.

"Billy Budd" is being presented in the spectacular staging, first seen in Switzerland, by American opera director Francesca Zambello, and is the most expensive production in the company's history.

The hydraulically controlled set is so large that the company had to begin rehearsals at the Triangle Welding Company building in the Strip District. The longer-than-usual set-up time required on the Benedum stage forces the show to open on Sunday rather than the opera's usual Saturday opening night.

Zambello says she was drawn to staging operas because "I was always interested in things bigger than real life, not something totally naturalistic." The theater has been part of her world since she was a child because her mother is an actress.

"Billy Budd" is a liberating piece, in her view, because its story has so many different meanings.

She says, "I keep coming back to how strong this story is. It reaches out and grabs you and is full of amazing passions and truths. For me, a classic is something that speaks to us in every time. A masterpiece is always modern, I say."

Britten wrote "Billy Budd" in four acts in 1951 based on the posthumously published story by 19th-century American author Herman Melville. Pittsburgh Opera will present Britten's 1961 two-act revision.

The story takes place on the HMS Indomitable, commanded by Capt. Edward Fairfax Vere, whose recollections of events frame the action. John Claggart is the evil master-at-arms, who is killed by Billy Budd after a confrontation. Billy is sentenced to death by Vere and hanged, onstage in this production.

"It's a great first-time opera because the story is so engaging and visually spectacular. The cast has over 100 men. People look like who they are and sing in English. And with one of the hunkiest opera stars in the world -- he looks like he's a member of the Chippendales and sings like a god -- it would certainly make me want to go," Zambello says.

Her set suggests a boat without being one.

"The piece is not about a boat. It is a microcosm of English society, a class hierarchy. Officers are the aristocracy. Men are pressed into service. It's called a floating island. That's why rather than a real boat, there is a suggestion of a huge rectangle. It becomes a boat through the men's actions -- cleaning the deck, hoisting sails. The way the boat opens is like a jaw into the underbelly, the dark side," she says.

Vere feels he has no choice but to order Billy's execution, but is deeply conflicted because he knows he could have saved him.

"It's no big secret homosexuality runs like a river through this piece," Zambello says. "It's part of the subconscious. It's a covert presence, by implication. The love between Vere and Billy is unrequited, but definitely part of what you look for."

The villain Claggart creates his own "justice" without any sense of right and wrong.

"Billy represents everything Claggart can't have. Power and sex and violence often go in the same part of your brain. Budd has something he can never have, a level of purity," the director says.

Gunn touches on the same theme when he talks about Britten's fascination with innocence and purity and their relationship to good and evil. The singer notes that Britten was drawn to this theme in early works, such as "The Rape of Lucretia" straight through to his final opera "Death in Venice."

"The way we perceive virtue is through beauty. If we try to perceive it in other ways, we tend to destroy it," Gunn says.

Fame -- operatic style

Although there have been many handsome and beautiful opera stars before Nathan Gunn, his good looks certainly defy the chunky-to-fat stereotype of the grand opera singer.

Luciano Pavarotti must weigh twice as much Gunn.

Fans of the star of Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Billy Budd" don't hide their feelings on the Internet, which includes a site.

Gunn says that "when it comes to finding out what people are saying about me, we have a rule in our house -- my children can never Google daddy. It's a good rule, in general, and I follow it myself." He has five children. His wife, Julie, is his piano accompanist.

The singer says he does what directors tell him to do.

"When it comes to certain scenes where I'm disrobed, or love scenes, I just do it and seem to get a lot of attention. I'm a fairly athletic guy. In some ways it helps the art form for new audiences to see something they're used to in life, and that opera singers don't always look the way you expect."

Gunn began martial arts when he was 4, and now is into aikido.

"Traveling is hard. I need a hobby. I try to go to the gym everyday and am pretty disciplined in my daily schedule. Every once in a while, I show affection to myself and pamper myself with a movie, or taking a day off, or having one too many drinks," he says.

Additional Information:

'Billy Budd'

Featuring: Nathan Gunn, Greer Grimsley, Robin Leggate; Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Antony Walker, conductor

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. May 10 and 12

Admission: $16-$130

Where: Benedum Center, Seventh Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666

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