According to Joshua Blue, size and color really do matter — especially when it comes to opera.
British-born Blue, a tenor who has studied his craft well, earned his bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and his master’s degree from the Juilliard School of New York. But even with all his credentials he considers himself one of the lucky ones since, he says, “many opera companies tend to bypass many talented singers because they are either too heavy or too Black.”
Describing himself as a multi-genre singer who started out as a pianist, Blue says more than anything he likes to think of himself as an activist as well as an artist, hoping to break down long-held stereotypes.
“Racial exclusivity as well as size exclusivity exist in the arts, especially in the classical arts,” Blue insists. “And that’s something I try to fight against. It’s a two-fold problem, meaning those who have not had a lot of interaction with the classical arts think that opera is a big, fat woman with horns. But I think it’s time to show there are lots of different types of people who sing opera, and sing it well.”
Somewhere within certain organizations, people tended to hire slimmer and thinner artists, Blue continues.
“They wanted to be seen in a certain light, showing artists with a certain shape, and certain size, and looking a certain way, and a lot of us simply don’t fit that category. In fact, a lot of companies decided to prioritize the esthetic of their production over the quality of their productions. I think we’re not seeing as much of that today, but it’s still prevalent in the back of many company minds.”
Then, too, there’s the racial problem, which Blue says he’s able to deal with by just being out there and in front of the camera.
“I deal with it by just being out on the stage in roles that are not written for a specific race. I think my best example of that is ‘Porgy and Bess.’ It’s a wonderful opera but I don’t want to only be hired to do that opera for the rest of my life. I also fight back by keeping my hair long. I keep my Afro grown out as a way to show people it’s OK to keep your real hair and still be a classical performer. And in that way I hope I’m also serving as an example to young performers who might want an operatic career.”
Growing up just outside of Chicago, he now lives in Philadelphia with his partner, soprano Ashley Marie Robillard. The pair will be featured in the East Passyunk Opera Project (ePOP), a special concert — a virtual mix of music and a meal — in association with Team Pistola Feb. 12-14. The program, titled “Love Notes,” and hosted by Blue and Robillard, will also feature several other guest artists.
“This kind of presentation is not unusual for me,” Blue says. “I’ve done a lot of work with Opera Company of St. Louis, where we did a fundraising project called ‘Opera Tastings.’ We would put together a recital and then go out to various St. Louis restaurants. So pairing local restaurants with opera is not something I’m unfamiliar with, and I find it works quite well.”
But what is rather unusual, because of coronavirus, is not facing live audiences.
“I’ve done some virtual work with other organizations, and I’m a really big advocate for bringing opera to people as opposed to bringing people to opera. So many people just can’t get to opera houses, which is why I love virtual performing because it brings opera into people’s homes. But I would love to start doing some on-stage work as well.
“As I said I really like the idea of virtual performing but I really miss the live aspect of performing. It’s just so different,” Blue concludes. “The camera doesn’t give any energy back when you’re singing to it. There’s something about the energy you get back from people, so truthfully, I miss that a lot.”