Gunn is going somewhere, but he isn't moving

Gunn is going somewhere, but he isn't moving

URBANA — Nathan Gunn will start an artist-in-residence position next month at Notre Dame. That doesn't mean he won't be at Illinois any more.

The acclaimed baritone was at his Krannert Center for Performing Arts office on Friday, preparing for the start of the school year as general director of Lyric Theatre @ Illinois.

"It's not going to take a lot of my time each semester because it's a total of two weeks per academic year," the opera star said of his gig in South Bend, Ind.

The fact he's a native of that city played into his decision to accept the short-term residency at Notre Dame, where one sister works in the music department and the other at the equivalent of the UI Research Park.

"Part of it was I wanted the opportunity to be able to see my family more in South Bend," Gunn said. "Both of my sisters and my parents are there. And the times I've done recitals or master classes at Notre Dame I've really enjoyed the people that worked there."

One is Peter Smith, chair of Notre Dame's Department of Music. When he asked Gunn whether he was interested in the residency, they plotted interesting programs they could do in the three years leading up to the opening of a new music building, part of the Notre Dame Stadium expansion.

Called the Campus Crossroads Project, it will integrate the academy, student life and athletics with the construction of three new buildings attached to the west, east and south sides of stadium. It's the largest building project in the university's 172-year history. Total cost: $400 million.

Gunn said he will be able to recruit talented Notre Dame students to graduate school at Illinois.

Gunn's residency will stretch over four years and include training vocal students, visiting classes and coaching students for OperaND's annual performances. He also will participate in public presentations with faculty.

His first residency week will feature a public performance, "The Art of Song and a Life in Music: A Conversation and Performance with Nathan Gunn and Pianist John Blacklow" in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center's Leighton Auditorium.

At Illinois, Gunn wants to continue to build Lyric Theatre, formerly known as the UI Opera Program. One project is to workshop, or develop, a new opera or musical in-progress created by a noted composer from outside academe.

This year that will be "Polly" by Gene Scheer and Billy VanHorn. For the following academic year, Gunn tentatively plans for Lyric Theatre to workshop a new opera by Mohammed Fairouz about Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in 2007.

"We have a lot of composers asking us to workshop their pieces before they're done in a professional setting," Gunn said. "We would like to do this every year."

Whether that happens depends on a variety of factors. Level 21, the producing arm of Krannert Center that builds sets and provides other technical support, is stretched thin, Gunn said.

"That's always a concern now," Gunn said. "The UI is not funded by the state very much, Finding alumni and other individuals to help sponsor our productions will become more and more important."

At Lyric Theatre, Gunn also wants to draw on his opera-world contacts to bring to campus to work with students singers such as Christine Goerke and Eric Owens as they perform at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

And he plans to bring back to campus, possibly in the spring, actor-singer Mandy Patinkin, who wants to take time off to develop a new work. The two have performed together before, including in 2012 at Krannert Center.

In addition, Gunn continues his own performance career. In November the baritone will be a soloist in Georges Bizet's first opera, "The Pearl Fishers," at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Late this year and early next year he will co-star with soprano Renee Fleming in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Gunn and his wife, Julie, a UI associate professor of accompanying and director of Lyric Theatre Studies, live in Champaign with their five children, who range in age from 12 to 19.