Get to know bass-baritone Christian Van Horn!
What was your first encounter with opera?
My first encounter with opera was a “Live from Lincoln Center” telecast of La Bohème on PBS. It was the pre-performance, backstage footage preceding the actual performance that really got me. I loved seeing behind the scenes…all the work that went into it.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue a career as a singer?
This story is 100% true: In the 5th grade our teacher had the class write letters to ourselves that he would then mail to our parents’ homes right about the time we would be graduating high school. Sure enough my letter showed up in the mail. It was fairly simple and unremarkable. I listed the names of everyone in the class. I wrote the silly things 7 year olds write. But then, right at the bottom of the page…the last line I wrote: “Don’t forget you want to be a singer.” How seven year old CVH knew enough to write that to himself is lost on me. Of course, my favorite singer at that age was Elvis…pretty sure that’s the kind of singer I meant.
What is the most important piece of advice you ever received?
I have received a version of this same advice from three incredibly respected people in this business, people who I implicitly trust and love. “Slow and Steady – You need to do this as well as you can for as long as you can.”…or some version of that. It’s been my focus ever since. This career is not a sprint but rather a marathon. It’s too often the case that we see someone rocket to stardom and quickly find out they weren’t quite ready to sustain it. Earning it slowly is almost always the better route.
What are your favorite qualities in an artist or colleague?
The people I love to work with the most are the drama-free, rock-solid pros. Singers who are grounded and unshaken in moments of pressure. Singers who are still grateful to be spending their lives doing this work and who maintain as much balance as possible.
If you could sing a duet with anyone ever (even if you could change your fach), who and what would it be?
If it’s a fantasy and it’s absolutely anybody, I would have to sing a duet with Elvis or Karen Carpenter. Elvis because he’s the reason I ever thought of singing as a profession and Karen Carpenter because I love that voice and would love harmonizing with her
What is your idea of a perfect day?
Perfect days for me are simple days – family, friends, lots of laughs, and good food. I have a 15 foot long barn table in my kitchen, and nothing makes me happier than seeing my family and friends around it sharing laughs and memories.
What is your greatest fear?
The greatest fear I have is that I would become complacent in life – that I might ever decide I don’t need to work hard anymore, or just settle on what already is. I definitely thrive in life on, “What’s next?”. I really try not to sit too long or too comfortably in the glow of a perceived success.
What virtue do you value above all others?
I am sure I am supposed to say integrity or humility or kindness; but, I am sure the virtue I value most is courage. Courage to change your life. Courage to move on from comfortable things. Courage to say what you really mean. Nothing gets me more excited than seeing myself and those around me deciding that something great is possible and then going for it with reckless abandon. Burn the Ships!
What was one thing your Richard Tucker Music Foundation study grant made possible?
The study grant was a nice chunk of change at a time when it was definitely needed. More importantly, what it did other than to help pay the rent (on my tiny apartment) is that it gave me a major confidence boost – an acknowledgement that I was on the right path and a confirmation that people in the business (other than those I paid) thought I could do this for a living.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring young opera singers?
I would pass on the same great advice that I received: slow and steady. Don’t be in a hurry. There is a reason it takes thirteen hours to make a Toyota Camry and six months to build Rolls Royce. Also, if you can even slightly imagine yourself doing something else for a living…do that instead. Having a “Plan B” in this business is a surefire way for “Plan A” not to work out.
If someone were to write an opera about your life, what would it be called?
It’s a little presumptuous to think someone would write an opera about me; but, if I had to come up with a name I hope “CVH” would be enough.
What is one opera or recording you could not live without?
My “can’t live without” recording changes all the time. Right now I am studying Mefistofele and can’t stop listening to the Rudel recording that includes Norman Treigle and Placido Domingo. I am obsessed with so many recorded basses – Ghiaurov, Ramey, Siepi – but I always find myself going back to Norman Treigle recordings. It’s one of those voices we didn’t get enough of.
Aside from singing, what talent would you most like to have?
One talent I DO have aside from singing is painting. I am completely self-taught and started in college when I saw a watercolor painting by Winslow Homer. It was of two men in a boat with late evening light hitting them as they fished. I was struck. I had to do this. I went from the museum to an art supplies store, and I have never looked back. I have made several hundred paintings of which 3% are decent… I have more recently moved into acrylics and oils but watercolor is the best for someone constantly on the road. Materials are easily packed.
What is your most treasured possession?
There is nothing I own that I would consider “treasured” – most things can always be replaced. However, I am a sentimental person and tend to hang on to simple things if they carry some significance…if they remind me of a perfect moment or feeling. I do own a small iron canon given to me by my teacher, Richard Cross, on the occasion of my Mephistopheles (Faust) while in graduate school at Yale. It sits on my piano and is irreplaceable; I would be sad if it was gone. I also keep almost anything that has been hand written to me – letters and notes from family and friends. If someone took the time to hand write me something, I can’t bring myself to toss it.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement in this career so far is having recorded the title role in Le nozze di Figaro for Sony Classical, though the reasons I feel this way are probably not what one would think. The feeling of real achievement comes in having navigated all the logistics and circumstances involved with getting it done! I had to travel to the edge of Siberia (literally) to make this recording happen. The city was Perm, Russia, and might as well have been Mars for how far away it seemed. Once there, I realized that it was clearly an organization without any sort of union working standards and that the process was going to be unique. We recorded for ten days straight, and working until 3 o’clock in the morning was often the norm. Breaks were few and far between. The violins and violas stood during the entire process and mostly worked without scores in front of them. I am pretty proud to have survived that entire process and to have come out on the other end with a great finished product.
What is the most challenging part of a career in opera?
The most difficult aspect of this career is, not surprisingly, all the time spent away from home. It’s an absolute privilege to live this amazing life, but it comes at a price – missing birthdays or special occasions…and just not being home for family Sunday dinner. The apartment on the road can be a sad place sometimes. I find that keeping myself scheduled and as busy as possible really helps. I quickly try to establish a routine…gym, study etc.
Do you have a motto or mantra?
My mantra is also an Elvis throw-back. It’s ‘Taking Care of Business.’ I remind myself everytime I get on a plane to head off again that THIS is what I’m doing: TCB. It’s tattooed on my wrist in case I start to forget why I need to spend so much time away. Singing is what takes care of my family. Staying out on the road ten months out of the year requires a mantra or two!