Q & A: Nicholas Phan on the New Piece ‘Earth’ & Working with Aaron Jay Kernis

By Francisco Salazar

On Feb. 26, ROCO will present the world premiere of “Earth” by Aaron Jay Kernis. The new opus is a reflection upon the fundamental environmental crisis of our time and was created in collaboration with poet and agricultural researcher Kai Hoffman-Krull.

“Earth” tells the story of a farmer’s life through vignettes exploring the incremental changes of the seasons and how those who depend upon the land must adapt.

OperaWire recently had a chance to speak with tenor Nicholas Phan, for whom the piece was written. The famed artist, who has performed all around the world, spoke about his creative process and the importance of world premiering a new work like “Earth.”

OperaWire: How did your collaboration with Aaron Jay Kernis begin?

Nicholas Phan: I met Aaron Jay Kernis in 2013. I met him because I was singing at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland and they had premiered a piece of his on the same program that I did another piece. And that was where we met and that was very fleeting but then we reconnected a few summers ago at Cabrio. They played one of his symphonies there and there while we were chatting, he said he would like to write something for me. I thought it was flattering and now he has.

It is in a way a project that is many years in the making and it is very much Aaron’s vision, which is very flattering.

OW: Tell me about the experience of having something written for you. What does it feel like to be able to speak with the living composer?

NP: In this particular instance, Aaron had a really great vision for what he wanted to do and he sent me things in finished formats. He has continued to do edits and changes here and there. I have loved what he sent for the most part. Other times with other composers it’s been a bit more collaborative in the sense that they want feedback of sorts. But I think Aaron has a clear vision for what he wants. I think that what feels really interesting is that the way he has written music for my voice is that it fits really beautifully in terms of range and color. He really understands my voice.

OW: The piece is called “Earth.” Tell me about the story and what it wants to tell?

NP: It takes two texts, one by a poet and agricultural researcher Kai Hoffman-Krull and it takes some lines from William Wadsworth. The piece is basically about climate change and particularly through the text of Hoffmann-Krull it’s about climate change through the view of the farmer and their intimate relationship with the land and nature and seeing how things are changing over time. It’s a perspective that isn’t highly romanticized and this is real.

It is interesting to see climate change through the perspective of both a larger level and also a micro level.

OW: It’s very rare to hear pieces talking about climate change. Why do you think it is important to have a modern piece talk about this topic?

NP: There are pieces for sure that have talked about it. It is something that people are beginning to explore and I know that for Aaron this was a really important topic to dive into. It’s funny because even though it is a topic that has been relevant for 50 years, it is over only the past few years especially in the pandemic when we are isolated and only reading the news every day, that it has come to the forefront with a sense of urgency.

OW: Can you tell me about the vocal writing and how it compares to the works you perform?

NP: The word that comes to mind is expansive. The piece is really substantial and the lines are quite long. Those are the words that come to mind about how it has been written. His writing is very lush and it has a density to it. It is incredibly crafted with incredible counterpoint. There is some intricate counterpoint that happens particularly in the wind parts.

There are two versions of this piece that are getting done this year. One is a chamber version and there is the orchestral version. I would say that the way it relates to the stuff that I do is that I do a lot of chamber music. In the orchestral version, there is a chamber aspect to all of it and you have to tune into what’s going on around you. It’s really detailed. The text is the primary and everything is doing something to support that text.

Something that is also interesting about that piece is that it has a lot of extended orchestral interludes and it reminds me of “Das Lied” which is a song cycle and a vocal piece but it is also an orchestral piece. That is very much structured in that way. The orchestral writing is definitely interacting with the voice and then there are times when they give the singer a break and it is all about the orchestra.

OW: Tell me how this piece is structured?

NP: The piece is two movements and roughly 30 minutes in length. The first movement is the Hoffman-Krull and that is very substantial. That is longer than the second movement. The second movement is the Wadsworth and it is really beautiful. The opening is very special.

The piece opens with one of my favorite moments. The text is “Why are the seasons no longer the seasons of before.” It keeps coming back to that text. That is a powerful question and it is something we can relate to now.

OW: The performance will be live streamed and it will be the first time the orchestral version is performed. What does it feel like to do a world premiere?

NP: It is exciting to live stream this performance and live streaming is always an adventure and the pressure is on. I have done a lot of recordings in my career so I am used to cameras and microphones being put around me so I have adopted it to approach it like a snapshot in time. I try to remove the idea that it has to be the definitive thing. I think that is easier in the case of a world premiere.

When I did the world premiere of Elliot Carter’s “A Sunbeam’s Architecture,” which is an extremely difficult piece and we did it for his 103rd birthday concert, they ended up releasing a commercial recording of that performance. We knew that was the case and we also knew that it could be canned if it was a disaster. But the concept was kind of the same even if it wasn’t a live stream. And I think that experience taught me that even if we strive for perfection and accuracy, I will embrace it to reach other people, especially in these times. So many people are still hesitant to come to a concert hall. I think it is an exciting opportunity to do that.

And it is always an exciting opportunity to world premiere anything. I have been privileged to do various world premieres of song cycles over the years and it is amazing to be part of the birth of a new piece. It is also amazing to be able to pick up the phone and ask the composer what he was thinking in a specific bar. As much as I would want to, I can’t do that with Schubert.

OW: This will be your first collaboration with ROCO. What excites you about that?

NP: It is really interesting to me because I was in the Houston Grand Opera Studio a long time ago and I’ve performed regularly in Houston including the opera. It will be a homecoming in a way because I used to live in Houston.

I enjoy ROCO’s vision because it is vital and vibrant and they are forging new paths.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from “Earth?”

NP: We live in very divided times especially in issues like climate change and when you have the opportunity to perform a piece about a polarizing issue, what’s really special is that it is a moment to call people in. My hope is that that’s what audiences come away with. Regardless of their politics and whatever they believe, they will see things in it that they can relate to and that they are also concerned about. They will likely connect to the fear, anxiety, or tragedy of those things or even the special moments. Ultimately I hope it’s a call to people to think about the subject and maybe even be inspired to make a change or do something about it.


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