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Phantastic Voyage

Tenor Nicholas Phan explores Oregon and Britten

On Valentine’s Day in 2009, the young opera singer Nicholas Phan was standing in his New York kitchen when the phone rang. His manager was calling to tell him that a colleague had just canceled his performance, which Helmuth Rilling was leading that night at Carnegie Hall. Could Phan fill in? Well, he replied, he had sung the role in Haydn’s mighty oratorio The Creation before — but it was eight years ago, and he’d sung it only in English. That night’s performance was to be in German. Nevertheless, he grabbed his score and agreed to give it a shot. A few hours later, he was at Carnegie, auditioning for Rilling. Expecting to sing only a single aria, he wound up singing through the entire score. “That audition turned out to be our rehearsal,” Phan recalls. Rilling hired him on the spot, and three hours later, he was walking onstage at Carnegie Hall to sing with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

It was a breakthrough moment for Phan. “I’d never done anything like that,” he says. “I didn’t know I could perform under pressure.” He must have done well — Rilling has been calling his number ever since, including a last minute fill in (on a relatively leisurely two-week notice) at last year’s Oregon Bach Festival.

The spotlight at this year’s Bach Festival will deservedly fall primarily on retiring founding music director Rilling, who has contributed so much to Oregon music over the past 40-plus years. But Phan will be almost as prominent, headlining in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Bach’s B Minor Mass and St. John Passion, Mendelssohn’s Psalm 95, and a concert of vocal chamber music.

Still safely under age 35, Phan is one of the hottest singers in classical music, and the variety of his OBF appearances mirror the unusual diversity of his still young career. A rare rising star in both the concert and opera worlds, Phan appeared with most of the country’s top orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and San Francisco Symphony, recorded four albums and worked with conductors as diverse as British period instrument specialists Harry Bicket and Nicholas McGegan and arch-modernist Pierre Boulez. And he’s performed with some of the world’s leading opera companies, including Seattle, LA, Houston, New York City and Frankfurt. 

Amid all his peregrinations, Phan has a special affinity for Oregon. Phan recently blogged (wkly.ws/1i0) about his love for the city of Portland and its coffee, laid-back atmosphere and natural beauty. “I have a real fondness for Oregon,” he says. “The state is beautiful, and I love the coffee, the wine, the food and the people.”

The feeling is mutual, because along with his OBF appearances, Phan has been invited to appear for the second straight summer at Portland’s annual summer Chamber Music Northwest festival. That’s on top of his May appearances with Portland Opera, where last month he filled in ably in a major role after a cast member was injured in rehearsal for Verdi’s Falstaff. He’s also sung with PO in Rossini’s Barber of Seville and with the Oregon Symphony in Carmina Burana.

As successful as he’s been in orchestral and operatic settings, the Michigan-born, New York-based singer equally treasures what he calls “vocal chamber music” and others term (somewhat pretentiously) “art music.” But in the U.S., the rise of popular music and its more “natural” singing styles (from Broadway to blues to indie rock to hip hop) has often made classical music featuring a singer and pianist or small chamber ensemble sound hoity-toity. Not Phan, though, whose vocal warmth and astonishing ability to connect with audiences have won him wide acclaim and such star piano partners as Mitsuko Uchida, Richard Goode and Jeremy Denk. He even founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago to promote the teaching, performance and development of vocal chamber music.

The chamber music Phan most treasures is Benjamin Britten’s, which he’ll perform on July 1, along with arias from Britten operas on July 2. Initially fascinated by England’s greatest 20th-century composer because of his role as a (closeted) gay classical music pioneer who wrote so much great music for his life partner, Peter Pears, Phan grew to admire the composer’s “perfect balance between head and heart. There’s his technical virtuosity — everything is put together perfectly — but at the same time, everything serves an expressive purpose about love, war, loss of innocence, feeling like an outsider, anything you can ponder for the rest of your life,” Phan explains. “These are things we all grapple with. He’s a masterful storyteller. There’s just something about the way he arranges things that lifts the music off the page.”

In Pears, Phan sees a model for his own variegated career, so rare in this era of singers who specialize in only one kind of classical singing. “It might sound radical now but to my mind it’s really conservative. Peter Pears did a Bach evangelist, Britten’s music, Schubert songs, he’s in Turandot. He did everything.”

Phan released an album of Britten’s music last year in anticipation of the composer’s centenary this year, and he’s especially looking forward to singing it in the crystal-clear acoustics at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. “Beall is so intimate — it’s a perfect little jewel box,” he says. “We’re close to the audience, and the audience feels close to us. In that intimate setting, there’s the possibility of people experiencing the music in great nuance and detail. They can see the beautiful trees, not just the beautiful forest.”

Most of all, though, he’s excited about working with a conductor who put so much trust in him at a turning point in his career. “I’m really honored to be a part of Helmuth’s last festival as music director,” Phan says. “He’s one of the deepest musicians I’ve ever worked with. He’s so heartfelt in the way he approaches music. He’s inspiring. It’s an exciting opportunity to stand on stage singing the St. John Passion with someone who’s been conducting it longer than been alive. There’s so much to be learned from that. It’s a special occasion and I’m really looking forward to sharing that with him.”