UI opera program changes; Gunn to take helm

URBANA — A new music program has debuted at the University of Illinois with acclaimed singer Nathan Gunn headlining.

The Lyric Theatre program, which will embrace opera and musical theater, will replace the UI's long-running opera program as that program's artistic director, Eduardo Diazmunoz, departs later this year for a position in Australia.

The name for the new program, Lyric Theatre, is intended to encompass all kinds of "sung theater," embracing the worlds of musical theater, operetta and opera, said Jeffrey Magee, director of the UI School of Music.

"Nathan lives this," Magee said, referring to the famous baritone's roles in operas such as "Billy Budd" to musicals like "Showboat."

"A trained vocalist needs to be versatile," performing Rodgers & Hammerstein one night and Verdi the next, he said.

Gunn, a UI graduate, is renowned around the world for his performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera and more. In the coming months he will tour Australia with Mandy Patinkin, perform the role of Papageno in "The Magic Flute" with the Metropolitan Opera and star as Figaro in "The Barber of Seville" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"I'll be responsible for the artistic direction and fiscal integrity of the (UI's Lyric Theatre) program," Gunn said in a release.

Gunn joined the School of Music faculty as a voice professor in 2007. His wife, Julie Jordan Gunn, a pianist, vocal coach, song arranger and also UI music professor, will be director of Lyric Theatre studies. UI voice professor Jerold Siena will be artistic administrator. Tom Mitchell from the UI's theater department and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol from the UI's dance department, will serve as liaisons to the program.

"We want to engage with the departments of theater and dance more systematically," Magee said.

Plans also call for the program to bring in guest stage directors, conductors, performers, composers and other artists, a move Magee said he hopes creates connections between UI students and professional organizations.

Magee also said Julie Gunn will lead efforts to rethink what the school calls its opera studio class, a workshop that coaches opera singers in practicing scenes.

Discussions are under way to consider offering a musical theater major, though Magee said those talks are preliminary.

The new Lyric Theatre program has the potential to attract more students to the school, said Diazmunoz, the outgoing opera director.

"I believe it could work," he said. While he has been at the helm of the UI's opera program, Diazmunoz said the main focus has been opera, but he also wanted to produce musicals.

"To me, musical theater is the American response to the Viennese operetta, the Spanish zarzuela, the French comic opera. ... I thought it was important for us, being in America, to produce musicals every now and then since it is an American art form," he said.

During his tenure at the UI, Diazmunoz said, he has overseen 29 operas and three musicals on campus. As director of the UI's opera program for a decade, he said it was time to move on to a new position elsewhere. He will be music director of the Conservatorium Orchestra and professor of conducting at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in Australia. In Sydney, he joins former UI School of Music director Karl Kramer, who left the UI in 2012 to be the conservatorium's dean.

A farewell party for Diazmunoz will follow one of the November performances of "Falstaff" at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

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