When I heard that Nathan Gunn was opening Washington National Opera’s 2012-13 season Celebrity Series, I could not be more excited. Indeed, this American baritone, known in the musical world as “the opera divo”, represents everything that today’s opera fans look for in a singer: a beautiful voice, first-class acting, an appealing physique and of course, a great sense of humor.

Especially prepared for his house debut, Gunn’s Sunday night menu was to include opera delicacies by Rossini, Mozart, Bizet, Gounod and Thomas, with a generous side order of popular Broadway hits. On my way to the Kennedy Center, I was positive that listening to Nathan Gunn perform the all-time opera favorites was my primary reason for attending this recital. Neither a fan nor an expert in American musicals, I did not really care for the Broadway part of the program. Little did I know back then: I was up for unexpected surprises and exciting discoveries!

Having chosen to start his opening “Largo factotum” behind the wings, rushing on stage as if late for his own aria, the baritone won the audience over with his irresistible charm and vibrant interpretation of the piece. Quick to improvise, Gunn shaped the whole aria around an unexpected cough from the audience, illustrating the challenges of being Figaro: always in demand and always on call. Even though I felt that his treatment of Figaro, especially in the “Dunque io son” duet with young soprano Emily Albrink, could use a little more attention to detail, this impression was quickly erased by Gunn’s nuanced portrayal of two Mozart’s machos: a bored-to-death Don Giovanni and a self-important Almaviva.

Stumbling across the stage with an empty wine glass in his hand, Gunn used Hamlet’s heartbreaking (and a tad tipsy) ode to the virtues of wine as a turning point of his recital to signify the switch from comedy to drama. One of the recital’s highlights was a deeply emotional Zurga/Nadir classic “Au fond du temple saint”, which Gunn performed with exotic flair and noble grandeur opposite his longtime The Pearl Fishers duet buddy, William Burden. Blending handsomely against the perfectly balanced backdrop of the WNO Orchestra under the baton of Ted Sperling, the two voices revealed every shade and color that Bizet’s score asks for: from the dark mellow undertones of Gunn’s baritone to the pure ringing tone of Burden’s tenor.

However, it was not until the American part of the program that it became clear: this was where Gunn was at the top of his game. Thanks to his sophisticated operatic treatment, the popular melodies by Sondheim and Loewe blossomed into real classical gems, destroying my skepticism about the significance of musical theater as an art form. Even in the most humorous pieces such as Sondheim’s “Agony”, Gunn managed to balance comedy with some truly memorable singing, showing off the variety of his gleaming tone, soft melting sound and precise articulation.

The biggest triumph of the evening belonged to Gunn’s interpretation of two arias from one of Loewe’s most popular musicals, Camelot. Giving his signature character the same nuanced treatment with which he would normally approach an operatic role, Gunn portrayed his Camelot in the fascinating transformation from an arrogant ambitious youth in “C’est moi” to a mature selfless man in “If Ever I Would Leave You”. Just as bold and unbeatable as his Camelot, Gunn truly ruled the stage in this epic role.

That night I left the Kennedy Center on a high. Even though the entire recital was an uplifting musical experience, I was particularly grateful to Nathan Gunn for inspiring me to take a fresh look at musical theater as a genre, and for demonstrating how deep and vocally complex a musical can sound in the treatment of a keen opera singer.