Christian Van Horn learned he had won the Richard Tucker Award just a few weeks ago. What that means is still sinking in.
“It’s hitting me slowly,” the 39-year-old Van Horn said from Toronto, where he was savoring a quiet afternoon before an evening performance of Anna Bolena. “The prize itself is wonderful. What it really comes down to, though, is this group of singers I’m associated with now, all those names who have won it before. I find myself thinking: Wow. I’m in that club.”
Presented annually to one “American singer poised on the edge of a major national and international career,” the Richard Tucker Award was established in 1975 to commemorate the legendary Brooklyn-born tenor who starred at opera houses around the world but especially at the Met for nearly thirty years. Previous winners indeed constitute a Who’s-Who of American vocal achievement, including Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee, Stephanie Blythe, and Matthew Polenzani. Christian Van Horn is only the third bass-baritone to receive the honor, which comes with a $50,000 check and a gala concert in October in New York that has become a kind of operatic all-star game; the social and musical centerpiece of the season.
“I was actually in the 2003 gala,” Van Horn notes, “I’d won one of the smaller awards that year, a Sara Tucker Study Grant, so I was on their hit list, and Barry Tucker, Richard Tucker’s son, who runs the Foundation, called and asked me to be in the concert, filling out some vocal ensembles. Of course I said yes. It was great fun. I was 25.”
Did he think, as he sang that night: I’m going to win this one day?
Van Horn laughs. “You know, I did. I absolutely had that fantasy at the time. But the Tucker Award is not something you audition for. You have to be nominated. I do remember wondering what the path was.
“I have always had that mindset,” he admits. “Keeping my eye on the prize is something I’ve always done. Quietly – I try not to be loud about it. But I definitely only thought about working at the highest levels from day one. I never considered anything else. I had no Plan B. Plan A was my only focus.”
Growing up on Long Island, Van Horn sang in the church choir but his family was not particularly musical. “It was obvious that I could sing on pitch and louder than most,” he says, “but I think it was just something my parents steered me into to occupy my time. What happened was, I fell in love with Broadway musicals in high school. I fell in love with the bigness of it, the excitement backstage, the audiences. I fell in love with show business and I didn’t want it to end.”
Van Horn wound up at Stony Brook University for college, “because it was 10 minutes from my parents’ house.” There he met Richard Cross. “Richard had sung at City Opera for 30 years; taught at Juilliard. I was just lucky that this world-renowned teacher was at Stony Brook. I sang for him and he agreed to teach me. Shortly after that, I asked Richard if he thought I could do this for a living. He said yes I could. It would take ten years, he said, and a lot of money.
“He’s still my teacher,” Van Horn adds. “He’s the only teacher I’ve ever had. I’m kind of a one-everything kind of guy. One agent. One teacher. One wife. But many roles. And they’re getting bigger all the time.”