GKSOM Alum Sullivan returns to play van Gogh

GKSOM Alum Sullivan returns to play van Gogh

calendar icon16 Feb 2020    user iconBy Brian G Reetz

Nathaniel Sullivan Photo credit: Daniel Welch
Nathaniel Sullivan Photo credit: Daniel Welch

When University of Nebraska-Lincoln Glenn Korff School of Music’s Alisa Belflower reached out to GKSOM alum Nathaniel Sullivan about playing the role of Vincent van Gogh in the UNL Opera production of The Highest Yellow, he didn’t hesitate.

“Alisa called me back in November to see if I could do the role, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it,” Sullivan said. “I was so excited at the prospect of coming back to Lincoln for a couple weeks, getting to work with Alisa again, and working on such a beautiful show.”

The show, The Highest Yellow: Healing Vincent van Gogh, opens in Kimball Recital Hall on Friday, February 21 at 7:30 p.m. and will take place again on Sunday, February 23 at 7:30 p.m.

“I enjoy so much about playing Vincent!,” Sullivan emphasized. “I think my favorite part has been really digging into who he was — “as an artist, as a human being” (quote from the show). I’ve been slugging through the 868-page biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, and it reads like an epic novel, because Vincent led such a wild, tragic, albeit short life. To attempt to manifest onstage this person who had such a kaleidoscopic inner life and catastrophic outer life has been a deeply rewarding challenge.”

Originally from Bettendorf, Iowa, Sullivan received his BM from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (2014) and his MM from the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program (2017). He currently resides in New York City.

“Back in NYC, I practice in my apartment,” Sullivan said. “We have a slightly wonky little baby grand in the living room and very tolerant neighbors, so practicing there is easy. My only regular performance location is at the Brick Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side, where I have a wonderful weekly church choir gig. Other than that, I freelance and perform all over!”

Sullivan made his Carnegie Hall solo debut in November 2018, performing Gerald Finzi's Requiem da Camera “with great eloquence” (ConcertoNet) alongside the New York Choral Society. His opera roles have included Papageno (Die Zauberflöte), Sid (Albert Herring), the Baritone (Hydrogen Jukebox), the Count (Le nozze di Figaro), and the Elephant in the American Premiere of Richard Ayres's The Cricket Recovers, for which he was regarded as "dazzling" and "a lithe baritone" (The Boston Musical Intelligencer). As a winner of the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s 2016 Concerto Competition, Sullivan made two appearances with The Orchestra Now in October 2017, conducted by Maestros James Bagwell (HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!) and Leon Botstein (Frank Martin’s Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann). He joined Maestro Thomas Adès in the world premiere of Oliver Christophe Leith's Dream Horse during his time as a 2018 Tanglewood Music Center vocal fellow. Awards include the Grace B. Jackson Prize for exceptional service at the Tanglewood Music Center (2019); Third Place in the Lyndon Woodside Oratorio Solo Competition (2019); Third Place in the Orpheus Vocal Competition (2019); First Place in the NATS National Musical Theatre Auditions (2018); and two artist scholarships from the Nebraska District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (2012, 2013). Sullivan’s 2019-20 season includes As One (Kaminsky/Campbell/Reed) with mezzo-soprano Liz Bouk (November), and the world premiere of Jacob Bancks’s Karkinos with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (May).

“I’ve been mostly freelancing lately, taking up various projects here and there,” Sullivan said. “I did an amazing chamber opera in November called As One by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed, which was self-produced by the awesome mezzo-soprano Mr. Liz Bouk. There are talks of potentially bringing that production back sometime this year for another run. I spent the last two summers at the Tanglewood Music Center as a vocal fellow, where I got to work with some AMAZING faculty and perform some wonderful repertoire. I’ve also been doing a lot of oratorio and other concert work. I’ve gone up to Vermont for the last couple years to do a Bach concert with the Blanche Moyse Chorale, which is honestly a highlight of my year the last three years I’ve done it. I’m doing my first Saint Matthew Passion with them this coming October. This coming May, I’m heading back to my hometown in Iowa for a world premiere opera by Jacob Bancks, called Karkinos, with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra. It will be SO fun to have this sort of “homecoming” experience, performing with the orchestra whose concerts I grew up attending.”

What keeps Sullivan striving for continued success in the business?

“Oh goodness, what a big question haha,” Sullivan said. “The easy answer is because I love it. Even on the days where it’s hard to drudge up the motivation to do the work, I think about any number of alternative career paths I could have taken, and I know I’m where I need and want to be. The more philosophical answer, and the thing that I remind myself every time I perform, is that the arts are the great bridge, and the artists are the bridge-builders. I’m pursuing performance professionally because I see it as a way, my way, to connect with other people and build an empathy bridge with whomever needs a little empathy in the audience. You never know who that person is, or if they’re even in the audience that day, but it’s my job to show up for them regardless.”

And now he’s back in the Capital City to show his abilities that have gained acclaim across the country.

“I LOVE being back in Lincoln!,” Sullivan said. “I love seeing all the old familiar places, as well as how much has changed since I moved away in 2015. Highlights of my nostalgic experiences so far have been coffee at The Mill, dinner at The Oven, and, above all, seeing many familiar and friendly faces.”