Before we announce the winners of the 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Awards, we are proud to present our Nominee Interviews.
NOTE: If you or your production was nominated for a 2014 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in a Nominee Interview, please email us here.
Jonathan Nussman is an emerging talent who has captivated audiences on the East Coast before continuing his education and experiences by joining the doctoral program in experimental music and vocal performance at UC San Diego. While we are sorry to lose Jonathan's fresh presence and impressive musicality, we are delighted to see him sharing his gifts with others. In his Interview, Jonathan shares his experience as a young opera singer, his love for new and contemporary works, and a particularly funny blooper in a school play.
Hi, Sid! Can you introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a little bit about your performing background and history?
Hello! My name is Jonathan Nussman and I am a singer and actor from North Carolina. Up until very recently I have been living and working in the New England area. I am a trained opera singer, and I mostly specialize in music from the 20th and 21st centuries. This past fall, I left Boston after eight happy years, and moved to Southern California. I am now singing and teaching at UC San Diego while I work on a doctoral degree in experimental music and vocal performance.
What drew you to performing opera over, say, musical theatre or other forms of theatre? When did you know that you wanted to perform opera?
For me, performing opera just happened. I never expected it. When I first started studying music, I actually wanted to be a composer. I had imagined a career for myself writing film scores and choral music. But when I entered college, I started taking voice lessons as my primary instrument, and it quickly became apparent that my talents and passions were better suited performing the music of others than in composing my own. I developed a real love for singing newly composed works by my peers and other living composers, and I became increasingly interested in contemporary theater and opera. I moved to Boston in 2006 to attend a masters program at the Boston Conservatory, and after receiving some solid training in more traditional operatic repertoire, I decided to try my hand at freelancing in the New England area. I’ve done quite a bit of traditional opera since graduating from the Conservatory, but my passion and specialty has always been music from the 20th and 21st centuries.
What has been your favorite role in an opera? Do you have a favorite opera? Do you have roles on your “bucket list”?
Well, Sid in Albert Herring was one of those “bucket list” roles for me. Albert Herring was the first or second opera I ever saw as teenager, and I immediately fell in love with it. The music is both artistically deep and genuinely funny, and I had been wanting to perform the role for over a decade before I finally got the opportunity. As far as my favorite role I have ever played, it is probably Papageno in The Magic Flute. I have sung it in three different productions, plus in a handful of outreach settings, and it is a character with which I feel genuinely connected. Plus, he’s always the audience’s favorite! I have a lot of favorite operas, but I think my top three would be Nozze di Figaro, Wozzeck and maybe Nixon in China. Wozzeck is probably on the top of my list of dream roles.
Who is Albert Herring? Who was your character, Sid? How did you prepare to play this role? What was the most fun part of this production?
Albert Herring is the story of a young man, Albert, and his two friends, Sid and Nancy. They are all in their late teens, or maybe a little older. They live in a small town in England which is dominated by a cast of cartoonishly awful adults. Albert is shy and sheltered, whereas Sid and Nancy are outgoing and rebellious. Sid is charismatic, adventurous, confident with girls and unafraid to defy the outdated sensibilities of the adults in town; he is basically everything that Albert is not. Under Sid and Nancy’s influence, and with the help of some rum, Albert comes out of his shell and eventually stands up to his overbearing mother and the rest of the conservative townsfolk.
Preparing for this role was daunting at first, mostly because the music itself is intricate and vocally challenging. However, once I got the music under my belt, developing the character happened naturally and organically, because he is written so well. What I love about the opera is that three young characters seem like completely real people. The fact that they are so relatable and likable makes a fantastic contrast with all the other characters, who are humorously horrible people. The real joy of this production was working with my fellow actors to bring these characters to life. Zac Engle and Heather Gallagher (who played Albert and Nancy) were two of the best scene partners I have ever had. They are both fantastic singers, and I learned a lot by getting to make music with them every night. We were given a lot of creative freedom to develop our characters together, and I know for a fact that the strength of my own performance, whatever it may have been, was a direct result of my collaboration with Zac and Heather!
How do you pick your projects? How would you describe your voice? What opera roles best suit your voice? Do you have a favorite piece or song to sing?
Well, of course the nature of the business is that most of the time your projects pick you, and you are happy to have them! I am personally drawn to projects that are creatively and musically rich and challenging. I have always loved singing new music, because there is something liberating about performing a role that no one has ever sung before. When you tackle a role like The Count in Nozze di Figaro (certainly a rich and challenging character in an opera which I love) you are joining a lineage of more than two centuries of performances by some of the greatest singers of their respective times. The pressure is tremendous, and I have a really hard time not comparing myself and subconsciously trying to sound like singers I admire—and that includes my baritone peers as well as singers of the past. But when I have the opportunity to create a new role, especially a role that has been written specifically for me, with my unique sound and talents in mind, there is nothing like it. It’s completely freeing. You don’t have to worry about performance history or what your audience may be expecting, and you can focus on creating a genuine character and making music to the best of your capabilities.
I’ve never had a huge voice. I’m mostly comfortable in the operatic roles of Mozart, in Baroque music, and in 20th and 21st century repertoire. Benjamin Britten (who wrote Albert Herring) has always been a good fit for me. He writes really well for baritones, even though all his best roles are usually tenors! Years ago I made peace with the fact that there are many, many roles that I will simply never be able to sing. I am lucky that I have been able to find a niche in singing contemporary music, and it seems to fit my sensibilities as a performer. I enjoy making non-traditional sounds and employing extended vocal techniques, and I don’t shy away from scores that are dauntingly complex or feature nontraditional notation or electronic elements. For me, the challenge is always part of the adventure.
My favorite things to sing that are not opera: probably Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Kurtág’s Hölderlin Gesänge, and almost anything by Simon and Garfunkel.
What advice would you give to young opera singers? To reviewers? To audience members?
Actually, I’ll give the same advice to all three: Keep your mind open, think for yourself, figure out what art you absolutely love, and when you don’t love something, ask yourself why. Be brave, be adventurous, and support each other along the way, as we are all trying to create something meaningful out of life.
Tell us an embarrassing audition or performance story.
This one has become a family legend: When I was in fourth grade, I was cast as Santa Claus in a holiday musical at a children’s theater in downtown Charlotte. My costume was a little too big for me, and during one of the performances, as I was singing my big solo number, I suddenly became aware of the fact that my pants were around my ankles! I was horrified, but I just kept singing and pulled them back up. I managed to stay composed until my scene ended, but I must admit, I cried a lot as soon as I was backstage. It definitely wasn’t funny at the time!
If you could be any superhero, which would you be? Why?
I used to want to be one of the Planeteers, or maybe a Ninja Turtle.
Do you have any upcoming projects or productions?
Just this week I wrapped up a production of Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera in San Diego. I have a series of world premier concerts coming up at UC San Diego and Stanford in the next year, as well as a new opera called Noon at Dusk by my friend and colleague Stephen Lewis.
Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?
I am absolutely honored to have been nominated for this award, and to be in such humbling company amongst my fellow nominees. I’m especially in awe of the fact that I am the only opera singer in the category. There are so many fantastic singers working in the Boston area, and to be singled out in this way came as a tremendous surprise. Thank you so much to Arts Impulse for the recognition! Thank you to the cast, crew, orchestra, and creative team behind Albert Herring for making the entire experience such a positive and artistically fruitful endeavor. Thank you Andrew Altenbach for casting me and coaching me through the role. Thanks to my teachers, mentors, friends, family, and Meg for supporting me through many, many other projects, and for those to come!