The inaugural Tucson Desert Song Festival features renowned national vocalists performing with several Tucson arts organizations.

Nathan Gunn, Amber Wagner, Morris Robinson, James Valenti and Jill Grove are names that have graced the marquees of New York Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago, the New York Philharmonic and opera and concert halls around the world.

The festival kicks off Friday and runs through next weekend, with recitals, symphony and choral concerts, and master classes with the guest artists.


Nathan and Julie Gunn

Hunky New York Metropolitan Opera baritone Nathan Gunn will spend Valentine's Day with his pianist wife Julie Gunn - and hundreds of Tucson fans.

Probably not the most romantic Valentine's Day in the couple's 20-plus years of marriage. But the hyper-busy singer, known for performing shirtless in several New York Metropolitan Opera shows and landing in People magazine's 2008 list of "The Sexiest Men Alive," will take it.

"To even rehearse with her, she's so musical and she knows me so well. We put these recitals together to spend two or three hours working on this music and just playing and singing and talking," Gunn, 42, said from New York City at the tail end of his Met run as Raimbaud in Rossini's "Le Comte d'Ory!" "... It's our other way of communicating."

The recital at University of Arizona's Crowder Hall opens with five songs by master songwriter Franz Schubert - "I love his music and I've sung hundreds of his songs," Gunn said - followed by Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe" song cycle.

In the second half, the couple turns their attention to American music by 20th century composers Barber and Ives, and 21st century composer William Bolcom ("He's one of our jewels in America").

"When it goes from Schubert and Schumann to Bolcom, it goes from more classical and strict to much looser," said Gunn, the father of five kids ranging in age from 11 to 17. "What I like about the recitals is that you have a larger musical palette to work with. ... I want the music to move (the audience), but they should know Julie and me a little bit better."

Rossini & Brunelle

Tucson Chamber Artists founder and conductor Eric Holtan admits he's a little intimidated to have his longtime mentor standing at the podium this weekend.

But he's also excited to have Philip Brunelle, of VocalEssence fame, lead his nine-year-old ensemble.

"He's by any measure the Grand Poobah of choral music in the United States," Holtan said. "I'm excited as all heck because I think it's a great opportunity for me to learn and observe and it's a great opportunity for our musicians. It's an honor to have someone of his stature willing to work with our young organization."

Brunelle, who lives in Holtan's native Minnesota, will lead the TCA and a quartet of Vocal-Essence soloists in songs that Dominick Argento wrote for Brunelle.

"We became very good friends," Brunelle said of Argento, who at 85 still composes in Minnesota. "I'm a big fan of his music because choirs just love singing it and audiences go ahh."

Holtan will lead the first half of the concert, Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle for Two Pianos and Harmonium; Brunelle will play the harmonium, which is a pump organ.

Amber Wagner

Amber Wagner, a stunning soprano whose meteoric rise in the opera world includes a New York Metropolitan Opera debut, learned she was pregnant while stuck in a German airport waiting for a flight home to Phoenix.

"I was really shocked," said Wagner, who had bought a pregnancy test at the Dusseldorf airport pharmacy.

"My husband and I had absolutely been trying to start a family. It always takes you by surprise when that test comes back positive," said Wagner, who is now five months pregnant with a boy. "It was a very funny 15-minute excursion at the pharmacy. I was crying and (the pharmacist) gave me free tissues. I didn't even catch her name."

Wagner also has had international engagements and regular roles at Lyric Opera Chicago since she began her career in earnest three years ago

Her pregnancy has meant cancelling a couple of operas this spring, including her role debut as Aida with the Tulsa Opera.

But it has opened her to opportunities closer to home, including her debut with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. She will sing her first Wagner Wesendonck Lieder in concerts this weekend and join several other soloists for Verdi's Requiem next weekend.

"I'm really excited. ... From the second I heard (those songs) I told my manager you have to find a place I can sing these," she said during a phone call from Phoenix last week. "I was just thrilled when they said, 'Do you want to do the Wagner Wesendonck?' And I love the Verdi Requiem. I've often said before that it's my desert island piece, but I'm way more excited that I get to do the Wesendonck for the first time."

Wagner, a California native who moved to Phoenix in 2001 to attend Grand Canyon College, stumbled into opera. Voice teacher Sheila Corley recognized something in Wagner's voice that she thought was best suited for opera, not the Broadway stage Wagner had fantasized about.

Wagner took some convincing.

"That was like kicking and screaming for probably the first year between her and I," she recalled. "And she almost tossed me off to another studio because I would never practice and I would come in with all of the music she had given me still unlearned. And then something clicked and it was probably because she forced me to do the Met (Metropolitan Opera) auditions in 2003. And that is the marker for me that started everything."

She went through the auditions four years in a row before finally placing in the final six in 2007, and landing in the documentary "The Audition."

From there, Wagner enrolled in the Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center training program and finished in 2010.

"I left the program and I had two contracts in the 2010-11 season. And then things just kind of happened really quickly because I was given opportunities to do certain pieces and they were really high-profile gigs," she said. "I'm super grateful but sometimes I think, 'Wow, it's only been three years.'"

Chamber Music Plus with Ballet Tucson and Tucson Guitar Society

Music, dance and theater will come together to close the inaugural Tucson Desert Song Festival next weekend.

That's when Chamber Music Plus, Ballet Tucson and the Tucson Guitar Society host "Passionately, Piazzolla," Chamber Music Plus playwright and cellist Harry Clark's new life portrait of the famous Argentine tango composer Ástor Piazzolla.

The performance will include ballet dancers, classically trained guitarists, Argentine singer and guitarist Brian Chambouleyron and actor Robert Beltran ("Eating Raoul," "Star Trek: Voyager").

It also marks the biggest collaboration of Clark's 35 years doing life portraits with Chamber Music Plus, which he started with his pianist wife Sanda Schuldmann in Hartford, Conn.

"Passionately, Piazzolla" follows the life of the composer, including his longtime friendship with early 20th century Argentine singer and actor Carlos Gardel.

"Gardel was the Frank Sinatra of Latin America in terms of singing and acting in movies," Clark explained.

Piazzolla was a boy when he met the actor in New York. At one point, Gardel asked Piazzolla to tour with him, but his father said no. On that tour, Gardel and his orchestra perished in a plane crash.

Clark used Piazzolla's friendship with Gardel as a way to introduce Gardel's songs. Chambouleyron, who has recorded Gardel's songs and is widely regarded as a leading tango singer, will sing and play guitar.


• 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. 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. Sunday at Catalina Foothills High School, 4300 E. Sunrise Drive. Tickets: For Tucson shows, $41 to $51 through online; buy one at $49 to $59 and get a second one for free for St. Andrew's performance through Southern Arizona Culture and Arts ( or 797-3959, ext. 1).

• University of Arizona Voice Faculty Showcase featuring Kristin Dauphiniais, Grayson Hirst, Faye Robinson and Charles Roe on Monday at the School of Music, North Park Avenue and East Speedway.

School of Music master classes and lectures Monday through Feb. 16 with the guest artists. Find times and details at

• UApresents hosts baritone Nathan Gunn and pianist Julie Gunn in concert at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14 at Crowder Hall, North Park Avenue and East Speedway on the University of Arizona campus. Tickets: $45 to $55 through

• Chamber Music Plus, Ballet Tucson and the Tucson Guitar Society team 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

More guest artists

• VocalEssence soloists - Tenor Dan Dressen, soprano Maria Jette, alto Lisa Drew and baritone Michael Jorgensen.

• Brian Chambouleyron - This Argentinian guitarist and actor is regarded as one of the leading interpreters or Argentianian music and tango.

• Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove - In addition to opera productions with Lyric Opera Chicago and several prestigious houses, she has soloed with a number of symphonies, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

• Tenor James Valenti - This New Jersey native already has debuted at the Met, Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Milan's Teatro alla Scala.

• Bass Morris Robinson - A Met regular, he played football for The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, and didn't start studying voice until he was 30.