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Beefcake goes baritone and tenor too

January 6, 2009 |  3:40 pm

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At 38, Nathan Gunn has established himself as a sought-after baritone, an intelligent actor with a luscious voice. Part of a generation of singers determined to banish the “park and bark” style of operatic performance, he likes to push the edges of storytelling, especially by exploring new works.

Thanks to a well-chiseled body and rugged good looks, Gunn is something else as well: a favorite on the pop-culture circuit. Last year, People magazine named him one of its “Sexiest Men Alive,” and Stephen Colbert dubbed him a “super-sexy opera star.”

Tall, strapping Joseph Kaiser, 31, also is handsome enough for Hollywood — in fact, he played the questing hero Tamino in a 2006 Kenneth Branagh film of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Canadian tenor has been touted as a rising star since his Metropolitan Opera  debut in 2007, when Plácido Domingo — who was conducting Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” — asked him to sub for an ailing Rolando Villazón.

Now, these two hunks of the operatic world have come to the movie capital, where they will be featured in alternating casts of Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its “Magic Flute,” opening Saturday with Gunn.

The production — conceived by director Peter Hall and designed by satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe — has been likened to a super-sized comic book. Reaction to its 1993 premiere was mixed, but revivals have enjoyed much warmer receptions, especially when the whimsy has been played up and the singers have taken advantage of the stylized designs rather than allowing themselves to be swallowed by them.

“Everyone is painted white, green and red,” says Gunn, who will play Tamino’s sidekick, the bird catcher Papageno. “It’s very cartoonish. But what’s good about this show is that it helps you distill your character into one or two powerful characteristics.”

Papageno, for instance, has been in the wild so long that he dresses and acts like a bird, which his outlandish costume makes clear. His dreams, though, are completely human: to find food, wine, sleep and a girl to love.

“My job,” says Gunn, “is to bring out that side by the end.”

Gunn believes that the enchantment of “The Magic Flute” is universal — “no adult or child can resist.” He fell under the opera’s spell while in high school in South Bend, Ind., when he decided to pursue a music career after hearing an English-language version. “It started me off well because I didn’t think of opera as being so foreign.”

Kaiser, who beginning Sunday will again play Tamino, agrees. “‘Flute’ was written for the people,” he says, “so there’s something in it for everyone: comedy, beautiful music, romance and a journey both spiritual and physical. Whenever anyone who’s never seen an opera asks for a recommendation, this is one I tell them to see.”

Gunn dismisses the grumbles engendered by directors such as Hall and Julie Taymor who fill the operatic stage with sights as well as sounds. (He and Kaiser have both appeared in Taymor’s circus-like “Flute” at the Metropolitan.)

“You run into this a lot,” he says. “People are very conservative and slow to change. I heard complaints that Julie’s version was such a spectacle that it distracted from the music. I thought it enhanced the experience, which is fantasy to begin with.”

And Gunn has become an expert when it comes to visual distractions: “Every opera where there’s a love scene or where I am semi-dressed, like the bathing scene in ‘Billy Budd,’ there’s this attention about ‘Is Nathan Gunn getting naked again?’”

It all started with a 1997 production of Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. Gunn and tenor William Burden were told to hit the gym for the production envisioned by director Francesca Zambello. “It worked,” he says with a laugh. “The theater was selling out opera glasses.”

More important, as the New York Times noted of Gunn and Burden: “When they are thrown into the temple, bruised, stripped down to loincloths and chained together, they create a kind of intensity rare in the opera house. Their physicality might have been distracting had their singing not been so ardent and intelligent.”

If buzz about his shirtless scenes attracts newcomers, that’s fine, says Gunn, as long as they — as well as worried purists — realize that opera’s traditional reverence for the voice isn’t diminished just because “you make it believable for an audience by having characters who can sing and act and look the way they should.”

Too often, he says, “people think opera and all sorts of weird ideas pop into their heads. They see humongous tenors and women with horns. But what you really get is this live human experience — no barriers, no amplification, just human beings vibrating. It’s like sharing a great meal. It’s an amazing thing.”

L.A. Opera’s “Flute,” to be conducted by company music director James Conlon, will offer a rich assortment of what company general manager Domingo calls “vocally and visually attractive” performers. Nearly a dozen of them, including Gunn and Kaiser, will be making their company debuts.

Attractive opera singers are nothing new — Domingo has long made women swoon — but changing times may demand that they become not the exception but the rule.

“In this age of high-definition transmissions of performances, it is more important than ever for singers to look good onstage and to be convincing actors in addition to the basic requirement of fine singing,” Domingo says. “I am very happy to see that young singers like Nathan Gunn and Joseph Kaiser are convinced that this is the right path for the future of opera.”

Indeed, says Kaiser, who has been lauded for his agile acting as well as his lyric tone, “It’s always been my philosophy that you need to be in as good a shape as you can be. I’m all for anything we can do to strengthen the art form without diluting the product.

“You can have a gorgeous Billy Budd or a drop-dead Carmen. But they need to be able to sing. I want a Carmen I can fall in love with in a heartbeat, which can be about looks.

“But it really is about knowing how to be sexy and alluring.”

"The Magic Flute," Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10; 2 p.m. Jan. 11; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16 and 17; 2 p.m. Jan. 18; 1 p.m. Jan. 21; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22 and 23; 2 p.m. Jan. 25. $20-$238. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com

-- Karen Wada

Photo: Nathan Gunn, left, and Joseph Kaiser. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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