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Opera barihunks hit a muscular note

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"I'd like to take a little bit of responsibility for this nightmare."

The source of that generous offer is far from evil. If anything, Nathan Gunn is the dimpled picture of Midwestern nice guy-ness -- think a younger, darker Russell Crowe without the edge. That's why he's volunteering to take the fall for men like himself -- opera's tantalizing new breed of baritone known as "barihunks."

They're known for their great bods and for breathless blogs written by devoted admirers. Bearers of great pecs and pipes, barihunks like Matthew Worth and Tom Forde are bringing high art to the masses in a universally appealing form. And the dark-haired Gunn, all 6 broadly muscled feet of him, is king of that particular hill -- as well as the "Barber of Seville." In his third appearance with LA Opera, he sings the role of Figaro in the Rossini classic opening today.

In this production, which originated at Teatro Real Madrid, Gunn, 39, is fully dressed, sporting a white suit with a black polka-dot vest in the visually stark first act, which later bleeds into color. But in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production last year, the first act opened with a bit of gratuitous beefcake -- Gunn awoke wearing only boxer shorts in the sleeping loft above his barbershop before he rose, dressed and flew down a pole to begin another hard day of singing.

The lure of flaunting such unabashed virility is catnip to opera companies trying to overcome the graying of their audiences. Inspired in part by Hollywood's beauty bar, the casting of opera singers for their looks as well as their world-class voices has been viewed as imperative as ever, now that opera has taken to the big screen -- " The Met: Live in HD" is in its fourth season transmitting opera to movie theaters around the world.

"I have some colleagues who really feel like opera was never meant to be able to have a camera looking down your throat while you're screaming your head off and spit's flying out," says "the irresistible" Gunn, as the Metropolitan Opera described him in touting his high-def performance as Mercutio in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" two years ago. "And I thought, yeah, that's true, but at the same time it's kind of cool. Practically the only thing people get anymore that's live is sports and opera."

Gunn wasn't always this cool about this millennium's focus on baring it all, or at least, a noticeable chunk of the hunk, for opera audiences. He was initially taken aback when Francesca Zambello first opened the floodgates when she directed him and tenor William Burden in a 1997 production of Gluck's "Iphigénie en Tauride" at Glimmerglass Opera near Cooperstown, N.Y.

"She's like, 'Guys, in the beginning of the show, what's going to happen is you're going to be dragged in soaking wet and they're going to rip your clothes off and you're going to be bound together on this log. So if you're nervous, go to the gym,'" recalls the (fortunately) former college athlete during a recent interview in LA Opera's offices. "I went to the gym. Heck, yeah!"

The response from the usually buttoned-up opera world was enthusiastic. Even the University of Kansas' erudite Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism weighed in, with Robert F. Gross declaring: "Nathan Gunn's fine physique is the most eroticized presence on stage."

(In September, barihunks.blogspot.com reported that another bare-chested duet by Gunn and Burden in the Opera Company of Philadelphia's production of "Pearl Fishers" was the most popular video on its YouTube site. "It looks like the Philadelphia Phillies aren't the only thing that's hot in the City of Brotherly Love," the site observed.)

Indeed, while sex sells just about everything everywhere, in the rarefied world of opera, male singers like Gunn are generally better salesmen. Women only rarely appear bare-breasted on stage, and when they do, it is likely to serve an avant-garde production, such as in LA Opera's 1997 production of Wagner's "Tannhauser," directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Ian Judge.

In part, says Gunn, men in opera do what women can't. "In movies, most of the women who get naked are pretty young, and it's hard to be an opera singer and be that young. It takes a lot of training, and you get better, I think -- or louder -- as you get older."

But it also becomes a question of taste, he says. "When [nudity] becomes vulgar, it gets boring," Gunn says. "But in opera, what's interesting is that if it's done well, if it's within the context of the story, there's a subtlety to it that becomes very erotic, especially when it's coupled with singing."

And as opera directors take on a more prominent role as the days of "stand and sing" fade into the distant past, they're demanding more physically from their performers, who need to be able to move on stage, Gunn notes.

His embrace of his barihunkiness stems in part from his sense of responsibility to opera's continuing well being in a changing cultural landscape. That flexibility has landed him a guest spot on “The Colbert Report” (whose opera fan-host proposed to his wife at Italy's Spoleto Festival).

And at the University of Illinois School of Music (where he teaches voice and his pianist wife, Julie Jordan Gunn, teaches vocal coaching), when he encounters students who model themselves after Luciano Pavarotti's physical example, he gives them a talking-to. (Both Gunns appear in recital on Dec. 11 at the Broad Stage, where Nathan will perform arias, other classical works and holiday music, accompanied by his wife.)

"There's a shift in opera where physicality is very important -- not only how you act but how you look, and you can't shoot yourself in the foot," he says. "You have to move well, you have to act well, you have to look good, you have to sing well. The competition is much stiffer."

Plácido Domingo, LA Opera's general director, applauds Gunn's enthusiasm for keeping opera looking ahead.

"People who don't go to the opera often have a lot of misconceptions about it," he says. "But opera becomes enormously appealing to anyone who has been moved by artists who combine voice, acting, stage presence and the right look. I think that audiences really appreciate all of those qualities that Nathan has."

Occasionally too much. Gunn has been known to encounter another byproduct of pop stardom: stalkers.

"I've had scary things where people have given me pictures to sign that they took when I was just walking down the street, and I didn't know they were taking them," he says. "Which is weird because the great thing about opera is that even if you're really well known in the world of opera, you're not anywhere else, unless you're in New York."

Still, even Gunn has limits, for now at least. For the father of five, there are no full-monty performances soon. But, he says, you never know: "Maybe when my mother is dead."

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