Not that many years ago, Nathan Gunn, then a football player at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Ind., signed up for voice lessons so he could make summer spending money as a wedding singer.
Last week, he was onstage at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the bad-boy baritone role of Rimbaud, in Rossini's "Le Comte Ory" at the Metropolitan Opera.
He really hadn't even considered a career in music, Gunn said in a recent phone interview. But off the playing field, he had always considered himself a decent singer, soloing in chorus and playing in high school musicals.
The snowball began to roll when Gunn's voice teacher, needing a Papageno for an upcoming "Magic Flute" production, suggested Gunn play the part.
"He gave me the CD, and I immediately responded to it. I loved it," he said. "I wanted to hear the whole thing."
Eventually Gunn, still hesitant about his abilities, applied at four music schools to better his chances to get into one. All four accepted him.
Patrons at Nathan Gunn's Opera Naples concert Feb. 8 at Moorings Presbyterian Church will find out why. They'll also learn why Gunn's smooth, mocha-rich baritone won the first Beverly Sills competition, named for a famous soprano and why the 1994 Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition awarded him top prize. (Those who want a preview can visit his eponymous website, or tune in the Metropolitan Opera's FM broadcast of "Le Comte Ory" at 1 p.m. Saturday on 88.7 FM, Classical South Florida radio.)
Yet his favorite character may be that of recitalist, for which his wife, Julie, is accompanist. Julie Gunn has her own career as a vocal coach, designing and arranging recitals, and is in demand as a pianist.
"I really enjoy putting together recitals. I like things to make sense, so I really work on the meaning of the songs," he said.
Further, since both are on the music faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign, they're constantly seeing new music. Julie Gunn has even composed her own for string quartets.
Operatic arias can be the most difficult, Gunn observed: "When you are performing the songs you are you. But in opera arias you are someone else, and you're singing the aria out of its context of staging, costuming and other characters."
Opera, in fact, is a challenge all the way around. Gunn is excited about serving as artistic counsel for the composer-in-residence program at Opera Philadelphia to help novices take the process apart.
"Never, almost never, is it a case of the composer wrote it and here you go. Mozart wrote for a particular venue or for a particular set of voices."
With their paired talents, however, their own opera is not in the future as he sees it.
"That's a different skill," he said, then paused to consider it.
"Ah, I couldn't do that. A teacher of mine, when I was in college, actually worked on recording the 'Hermit Songs' that Samuel Barber had written for Leontyne Price. He was asking her whether they should check with Barber on a certain aspect, and Price said, 'Sam Barber just composed it. He doesn't know how it goes.'
"There's real truth in that. Composers are not often performers … That's the job of people like me — to find all the things in it that brings it to its fullest meaning."