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Q & A with Nathan Berg


Saskatchewan-born bass-baritone Nathan Berg is featured in the role of Zoroastro in ATMA’s new recording of Handel’s opera Orlando. We caught up with the Edmonton-based singer as he was preparing for his debut at Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera in October 2013, in the title role of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

How was your musical talent first discovered?
I grew up in a musical family and I’ve always been a singer. My father was a minister, so I would be singing with my family and singing solos in church, they’d always get me up there as a little kid, singing in front of everyone. I remember even at five or six years old, someone asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, ‘I want to be a singer.’ I had no idea what that would be, but I just enjoyed singing.

You have a busy international career as an opera singer and have performed with some of the world’s most prestigious houses, requiring many weeks away from home. What do you miss most while you’re away from your home in Alberta?
The thing that I miss the most when I’m travelling is my wife when she can’t come along with me. I got married two and a half years ago and my wife is a professor here in Edmonton, so when the academic year isn’t in session, she can often travel along with me. But for example, she won’t be able to come along to Moscow with me in September because it’s right in the heart of first semester. She teaches classic literature and ancient languages and all the humanities that are related to that, like Biblical literature.

How do you cope with being on the road so much?
A person learns how to cope on their own in smaller space. One of the awkward parts of this kind of career is that it should be possible to go out and pass your time in all of these interesting places as a tourist, but that’s one of the most tiring things you can do! In the end, I often don’t take advantage of these places as a tourist because I have to conserve my energy for my work, which consumes a large percentage of the time. I try to get into a routine everywhere I go and use fitness facilities if they’re there, because the problem with being on the road is that you get out of your home routine. The quicker you can get into some kind of a road routine, the better.

In addition to learning the notes in a score, how do you prepare for an opera role?
The process for me is all music, basically, and the role is kind of a grander arch of this, compared to a song, for example. I always start from the text and try and figure out how the composer was looking at this text, by looking at all of the details involved in the music and all of the little clues given. Looking though all of these details, you find the central core they are pointing towards. Eventually, you refine it down to the central core of that character or idea or emotion or whatever. Once you get to that point, then you live in that world and details can explode out of there.

It’s self-directed in general, but you have to be flexible. Especially in an opera situation, you end up with a director and a conductor and everyone giving you all kinds of different ideas, so you have to start from a very solid idea of your own.

For example, when I think of this whole process for Handel’s Orlando, I did the role of Zoroastro in France a few years ago with the director David McVicar. Zoroastro is a magician, and the score opens with him by a mountainside, with his genies all around him and this grand pastoral view. He’s a positive person who’s using his magic to benefit people. In McVicar’s production, Zoroastro became this mad scientist who was doing very gory experiments with cadavers, controlling people and pushing them around in different directions. He became this really sinister character. So with that in mind, I had to learn the role with the music and the text at first, and try and get an idea of his character, but be flexible enough to change it dramatically as far as the core idea of the character is concerned.

What was it like working with conductor Alexander Weimann on preparing and recording Orlando for ATMA?
That was really fun. He is a really easy person to work with, it was very enjoyable. He has his fingers in a lot of different pies, so to speak, as a performing artist as well as a conductor. He is someone who understands choral music, as well as orchestral music, early music, and how to play in those different contexts. One of his loves (and mine as well) is jazz, and I can see that colouring coming in a little bit in his early music interpretations, there’s an interesting mix there. Very nice guy as well!

What music do you enjoy listening to when you’re not working?
I listen to classical music obviously, but often the things that I do professionally are not what I listen to as a relaxing thing — I can’t just listen to it, I have to analyze it and that becomes work. So I often end up listening to a variety of jazz and even pop music – the more intelligent stuff! There’s not really much limit, I’ve even started listening to some country music recently and have enjoyed it. It’s all communicative and the people that do any of these things well, they’re using their resources and being actors and getting to the core of their message in their own way. And if you’re willing to move into their realm a little bit, then it’s really enjoyable.

Is there a composer whose music you have a particular affinity for?
Almost every time I start to work on something a little bit new to me, that becomes my favourite. For example, the world of Wagner is outside of the realm, for the most part, of anything I’ve done in my career. When I work on something new and am really getting into it, it’s hard to imagine loving anything else better than that! So at the moment, I’m a big fan of Wagner’s Dutchman.

Throughout my career I’ve been an avid lieder lover, especially Schubert or Mahler [Editor’s note: Berg’s 2008 Lieder Recital recording on ATMA includes music by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss and Brahms]. Mahler’s sense of connection to a person’s inner core in song is something that I’ve always found amazing. Through my study years, it was always Mahler’s music that got me the most excited, and that lasted a long time.

I’ve done a lot of Handel – that’s also quite enjoyable. I’m moving into slightly heavier territory, but interestingly it adds colours to the early music that I do. A lot of conductors actually enjoy the fact that I can get a little more breadth to the sound.

If music had not been possible as a career, what would you most likely be doing now?
Interestingly, as a young child I was thinking about being a singer, but in my early teens I was pretty sure that I was going to be an artist – a painter or a sculptor. I still try to do it because it’s a deep love of mine, it competes almost equally as a natural interest with music. It often bothers me that I haven’t spent more time at that and I know that I will at some point, but somehow other things take precedence. My favourite medium is probably oils. If I had time to establish a little studio, I’d probably do oils and some wood carving as well. My great aunt had a cabin on a lake up in Northern Saskatchewan. There’s an art program there that runs every summer for a few weeks, and I went there a few times. I’ve always been interested in art in general and I often go to galleries when I travel to different cities.

What upcoming projects are you most looking forward to at the moment?
Part of the reason my speaking voice is a little more resonant than usual is that I’m preparing Wagner’s (Flying) Dutchman for the Bolshoi in Moscow, and I’ll be starting rehearsals in late September. It’s interesting, I’ll be living in Moscow for more than a month.

This Moscow debut is the big launch of the season for me. It was a joint production with the Bavarian State Theatre in Munich in 2004. The director is Peter Konwitschny, and Vassily Sinaisky is conducting — he’s the main conductor at the Bolshoi.

I’m also looking forward to a couple of other things: After Christmas, I’ll be in Bordeaux doing a reprise of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes that we did last season in Toulouse – quite an out-there production! Right after that is Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at Carnegie Hall with Roger Norrington, and then I’m recording Dvorak’s Requiem with Philippe Herreweghe. I just did Rachmaninoff’s The Bells with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia in London, and I’ll be doing Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible with them next May.

It looks like it will be quite an intriguing season!

Interview by Luisa Trisi, © ATMA Classique, 2013


Nathan Berg
Saskatchewan-born bass-baritone Nathan Berg is featured in the role of Zoroastro in ATMA’s new recording of Handel’s opera Orlando. We caught up with the Edmonton-based singer as he was preparing for his debut at Moscow’s Bolshoi Opera in October 2013, in