Nicholas Phan

The favourite places of Nicholas Phan

Described by the Boston Globe as “one of the world’s most remarkable singers,” American tenor Nicholas Phan is increasingly recognized as an artist of distinction. Praised for his keen intelligence, captivating stage presence and natural musicianship, he performs regularly with the world’s leading orchestras and opera companies. Also an avid recitalist, in 2010 he co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC) to promote art song and vocal chamber music.

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Tell us about yourself

I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI, with a Chinese father and a Greek-American mother, where I also got a music degree from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance. I got quite accustomed to travelling during my childhood because my mother would take my brother and I to Greece each summer so that we could see our extended family there. I was lucky to have parents who wanted their children to experience and know the world, we would often take side trips throughout Western Europe along with these annual pilgrimages to Greece, so many of my first tastes of international travel happened while I was still quite young.

Now I’m an opera singer, so travel continues to occupy a large part of my adult life. My work sees me jetting around the world much of the year to perform in solo recitals, concerts with orchestras, as well as the occasional opera. I’m also a very active recording artist and have released 5 solo albums over the past 10 years, as well as been a part of many other classical recording projects, and have been nominated for a Grammy twice. In addition to my performing life, in 2010 I also co-founded an organization in Chicago dedicated to the art of the classical vocal recital called Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC). Between CAIC and a recent appointment to the DePaul University School of Music, I end up spending a lot of time in Chicago when I am not touring for performances or nesting at my home base, in San Francisco.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Nicholas Phan, Joelle Harvey and the Cleveland Orchestra | Photo: Roger Mastroianni

Where did you go on your latest trip?

My latest was one of my many Chicago trips. In the past few weeks, I’ve been to Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Abingdon, VA. While I love how much time I get to spend in the world’s largest cities, one of the best parts of my touring schedule is that it occasionally takes me places I wouldn’t expect that are a bit more off-the-beaten-path, like Abingdon. Having spent most of my life living on the coasts of the US, it’s not uncommon to come across this mentality that the middle of the country is a rural and culturally-devoid swath of land that is only worth flying over. I love that I occasionally get to spend time in these parts of the country as part of my tour schedule, because it gives me a chance to find surprising and charming spots to eat and drink, and also be reminded how powerful and life-changing classical music is for everyone – not just coastal elites and the denizens of major metropolitan areas.


Chicago | Photo: Pedro Lastra

Where in the world have you felt happiest?

I always feel happiest in the rehearsal room, preparing for a concert…and often it doesn’t matter where that rehearsal room is! However, if I had to pick a few places where I’ve had some of my most fond memories: one would be Symphony Center in Chicago, where I was lucky enough to make my professional debut with the Chicago Symphony in 2002 and another would be the stage of Carnegie Hall in NYC in 2009, where I jumped in at the last minute for a performance of Haydn’s Creation with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on just 3 hours’ notice. In both moments I was keenly aware that my dreams were coming true in the most vivid and exciting of ways.

Outside of moments of artistic happiness, I’d have to say the other time I felt happiest was on my first drive through the Rockies on my way to the Aspen Music Festival back in the summer of 1999. It was my first cross-country road trip as an adult, and not too long after I had come out to my parents. On the way, there was a horrible traffic jam which stopped traffic for so long that people had given up, left their cars and started picnicking alongside the highway. Being forced to stop moving for a moment in the midst of such unparalleled natural beauty was a powerful and very happy moment during a time in my life where all I wanted to do was keep running because I was so afraid and in pain. I was reminded of how beautiful the world is and how lucky we are to be alive to experience it.

CAIC Chicago

CAIC | Photo: Elliot Mandel

Valley of Gold

Photo: Jamie Fenn

What destination has lived up to the hype?

Japan. For years my parents, friends and colleagues had talked about how incredible Japan was. When I was about 4 years old, we took a trip there for a conference that my father was attending, and we tacked on a trip to Hong Kong to visit my grandparents. Being so young when I took that first trip to Asia, I didn’t really remember much of it. But a couple of years ago I finally got the chance to revisit Japan for concerts with Bach Collegium Japan, and I was blown away. Because much of my travel takes me from metropolis to metropolis, it’s very easy to feel like globalization has homogenized world culture a little bit. Not so in Japan! It felt so beautifully foreign and so distinct – even grocery shopping is a completely unique experience! The food is incredible and the people are so thoughtful and polite…and classical music is SO beloved by the Japanese. It is an overwhelming experience to see classical music resonate as powerfully and immediately with audiences as any other popular music.

Japan Sushi chef

Japan | Photo: Nicholas Phan

Japan waterfall

Japan | Photo: Nicholas Phan

Fushimiinari Shrine, Kyoto Japan

Fushimiinari Shrine | Photo: Thomas Tucker

What destination hasn’t?

Cleveland, which has such a sad reputation! Every time I have an engagement in Cleveland, my colleagues jokingly send me this hilarious parody of a Cleveland tourism video, which lampoons how depressed the town is. However, one of my favourite concert halls is located in Cleveland: Severance Hall, which is home to The Cleveland Orchestra one of the most revered symphony orchestras in the world. The hall is one of the most beautiful halls in which I’ve ever performed. Combine that with the nearby Cleveland Museum of Art, which always seems to have great exhibits (and a great cafe), as well as visits to neighbourhood gems like the West Side Market, I’m always surprised by what great time I have when I am in Cleveland.

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Which is your favourite city and what makes it so special?

My favourite city is my chosen home San Francisco. Growing up gay in the Midwest, I always romanticized the idea of San Francisco and dreamed of visiting this mythical city where LGBT life seemed to thrive. My first visit to San Francisco was back in 2008 when I was working as an understudy at the San Francisco Opera. I fell in love with the city, and its island-of-misfit-toys community feel.  After touring here numerous times to perform with the San Francisco Symphony, my love affair with the Bay grew so much that I made the move from New York City to the Castro about 5 years ago. Not only is the city surrounded by and filled with natural and architectural beauty, but it’s an incredibly cosmopolitan and bustling city while still keeping the feel of a small town. Also, it doesn’t hurt that my other favourite place on earth, Sonoma County and its wine country, is so close by and accessible any time I want to make a short escape into the country.  The fact that my brother and his beautiful family have also settled in the Bay Area is the icing on the cake.

San Francisco sunset

San Francisco | Photo: Nicholas Phan

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while travelling?

I have the privilege and honour of working with some of the greatest musical artists of our time on a regular basis when I am on the road touring. As a result, the most interesting people I meet while travelling tend to be those incredible and inspiring colleagues. One of my favourite colleagues to tour with is my dear friend, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor who loves to eat and drink as much as I do and seems to have a knack for finding the best off-the-beaten-path restaurants wherever we are singing together. I often refer to her as the grand-mistress of Yelp.

Which is the road most travelled?

For me, it is most definitely the flight between SFO and ORD. I’m way too familiar with the United terminals at both airports…

San Francisco

San Francisco | Photo: Nicholas Phan

Describe a nice memory from a childhood vacation

Each summer when I was a kid, we would journey to the town in Greece where my mother’s side of the family is from, Nafpaktos, which is situated on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth. Mornings were my favourite time because we would wake up and walk to the beach, where we would swim and play all morning long, only taking breaks to sit at one of the cafes under the plane trees that lined the shore, where we would snack on tasty mezze.

Nafpaktos, Greece

Nafpaktos, Greece | Photo: Jason Blackeye

What is the best hotel you’ve stayed at?

One of my favourite hotels that I occasionally escape to for some downtime is the Duchamp in Healdsburg, CA.  The Duchamp is basically a handful of small one-room villas nestled in an olive grove right in the centre of Healdsburg. Because it’s in the middle of a grove, the place feels so isolated that it’s easy to forget that you are quite literally steps away from Healdsburg’s town square and all of its wine tasting rooms and incredible restaurants. It’s perfectly located, tons of incredible wineries are a short drive away, and the pool and hot tub in the centre of the Duchamp grounds make a perfect place to relax and unwind either before or after a day of wine tasting.

Which foreign phrase do you use most?

Bon appétit.

What is your best-kept travel secret?

While this isn’t the greatest thing for my back and shoulders, I pack everything for my trips into a duffel bag. Because I use a duffel to travel, I am able to cram my suitcase into the overhead bins on airplanes about 98% of the time, which is ideal, since I am morally opposed to checking my luggage. I am at the airport twice a week on average – so I’m allergic to wasting extra time waiting for my bags to arrive at baggage claim.

Nicholas Phan

Photo: Clubsoda Productions

Any recommendations for gay travellers?

Work-travel can sometimes take us to places that may not sound super exciting as gay travellers, particularly those of us who live on the coasts of the US. Try to remain open to the surprising things these places can offer – there is so much beauty to be seen in just about any community, and it’s always moving and inspiring to me to see how much of a role the LGBT population has played and continues to play in helping that beauty flourish.

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