Organizers of the Tucson Desert Song Festival wanted to make a splash.

So they all pulled out their little black books with their special contacts, the ones with the juice to make extraordinary things happen. A phone call here, a text message there. An email that's forwarded a few times until it lands in the inbox of someone with even greater juice.

The resulting classical voice festival is an impressive blend of local and national talent.

"It's an amazing lineup," said one of those guests, conductor Philip Brunelle, who formed VocalEssence, the preeminent Minnesota choir. "I just hope that everybody down in Tucson realizes what they've got. It's absolutely wonderful."

Over 10 days beginning Friday, Tucson will host some of the country's most promising vocalists.

The schedule includes Nathan Gunn, the New York Metropolitan Opera hunk named by People magazine in 2008 as one of the sexiest people in America.

Also on the lineup is Lyric Opera of Chicago soprano Amber Wagner, who is being celebrated as the next great star of Wagner and Verdi operas.

And tenor James Valenti, who has sung around the globe, including with the Met, London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden, Sydney's Opera Australia and the Dallas Opera.

"They have all been major-league players this past year," said John G. Forsythe, Tucson Desert Song Festival president and the festival's driving force.

"James Valenti will sing Pinkerton in 'Madame Butterfly' with the Lyric (Opera Chicago) next year," Forsythe said. "You go to any major music venue in the United States and Nathan Gunn is one of the stars. We are pretty pleased."

Eric Holtan, music director and founder of the Tucson Chamber Artists professional chorus, agreed.

"That they are all coming to Tucson in this concentrated amount of time, I think that's a big deal. I don't think that has happened in Tucson," said Holtan, who will share the podium with Brunelle in performances next weekend that will feature VocalEssence soloists. "These are international stars."

Brunelle praised the Tucson festival, which he said is one of a very small handful of such vocal events in the United States.

"It's an interesting combination of music for soloists, master classes, concerts. I love the kind of creativity about it," Brunelle said.

"It's so important for me to have these song festivals occur," added Gunn. "They're not as prevalent as one might think, and I think it's important for the art form to survive."

Forsythe said the 2014 festival is set and planning is well underway for 2015.

Next year's festival will include the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music presenting a concert during its Sunday matinee Piano and Friends series, Forsythe said.

If you go

• What: The inaugural Tucson Desert Song Festival featuring renowned national vocalists performing with several Tucson arts organizations.

• When: Friday through Feb. 17.

• Where: Various venues throughout Tucson.

• Cost: Varies by organization.


Tucson Chamber Artists "Rossini & Brunelle," featuring guest conductor Philip Brunelle and guest vocalists soprano Maria Jette, alto Lisa Drew, tenor Dan Dressen and baritone Michael Jorgensen. 8 p.m. Friday at Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, 1200 N. Campbell Ave.; and 3 p.m. next Sunday at Desert Hills Lutheran Church, 2150 S. Camino del Sol in Green Valley. Tickets: $20 and $30 through

Tucson Symphony Orchestra's "Beethoven & Wagner," featuring soprano Amber Wagner. 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 7575 N. Paseo del Norte; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. next Sunday at Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive. Tickets: For Tucson shows, $41 to $51 through; buy one at $49 to $59 and get a second one for free for St. Andrew's performance through Southern Arizona Culture and Arts by calling 797-3959, Ext. 1.

University of Arizona Voice Faculty Showcase featuring vocalists Kristin Dauphinias, Grayson Hirst, Faye Robinson and Charles Roe; pianists Paula Fan and Rex Woods; and Daniel Katzen on horn at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at the School of Music, North Park Avenue and East Speedway. $5 at the door. School of Music master classes and lectures Feb. 11-16 with the guest artists. For times and details, visit the School of Music at

UApresents hosts baritone Nathan Gunn with his wife, pianist Julie Gunn, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at Crowder Hall, North Park Avenue and East Speedway on the UA campus. Tickets: $45 to $55 through

Chamber Music Plus, Ballet Tucson and the Tucson Guitar Society are teaming up for the world premiere of Tucson cellist and playwright Harry Clark's "Passionately, Piazzolla" featuring Argentinian guitarist and vocalist Brian Chambouleyron and actor Robert Beltran. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 and 16; 1 and 5 p.m. Feb. 17. Tickets: $40, $15 for students through

TSO and TSO Chorus present "Verdi's Requiem" with soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, tenor James Valenti and bass Morris Robinson at 8 p.m. Feb. 15 and 2 p.m. Feb. 17 at Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets: $26 to $79 through

Singers speak out

Baritone Nathan Gunn talks about performing recitals with his wife, and soprano Amber Wagner chats about her meteoric rise and pending motherhood in Thursday's Caliente.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.