This September, lyric tenor Joshua Sanders will star as Romeo in Opera San José’s production of Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s the first leading role for the Madison, Wisconsin, native who’s spent the past dozen years in training, first as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then at the Manhattan School of Music for a master’s degree, along with a year in residency (2017–2018) at the famous Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, where Puccini’s La bohème received its premiere in 1896.
Sanders debuted at Teatro Regio as the Shepherd in Tristan und Isolde. He also sang supporting roles there in Turandot, Salome, Le nozze di Figaro, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and Verdi’s I Lombardi, which was recorded for Naxos. In that same season, he also made his house debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as the Judge in Un ballo in maschera, conducted by former San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles.
In the 2022–2023 season, Sanders joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera for Der Rosenkavalier. He debuted as Goro in Madama Butterfly with Palm Beach Opera, where he also covered Ferrando in Così fan tutte. He has won numerous awards and grants, including a study grant from the Met’s Laffont Competition in 2021.
Romeo is your first leading role. What sort of a challenge has that been for you?
The role itself has been really fun to prepare. This music is so lush and so romantic. Most of my bread and butter is a lot of the very high, sort of leggiero, lighter lyric stuff. A lot of Rossini, a lot of Mozart. So this is definitely in my wheelhouse because I’ve always had an ability to switch between light lyric and full lyric tenor.
I can sing a broader spectrum of music. So diving into this and really experiencing and going on the journey of a more full, lush sound has been very fun. It’s been a challenge just to remind myself to slow down, to expand and sing as beautifully as possible.
What are the particular demands of Romeo vocally?
The vocal demands of this role for me lie in the pacing, the excitement, and the visceral nature of this music. It’s really easy to let yourself get carried away in the passion of it all. You know, you’re in the duels, and Romeo and Tybalt fight, and Romeo kills Tybalt. When you’re in that scene and you’re doing a fiery fight scene, there’s a really fine line between being in control and then oversinging.
And so, I would say the demands of this just overall are learning. Where is that line for me as a singer and an actor not to go over emotionally to a point where I’m no longer in control of my breath or in control of my movement. You know, just finding where is a 100, and then never really going more than 90, if that makes any sense.
And I think this is a really a great first big role because it’s so romantic and so passionate, and I’m getting this really intense way to test the waters.
This November, you’ll be featured as Count Almaviva in Opera San José’s production of The Barber of Seville, which is closer to you bel canto roots. How has one role informed the other?
It is a challenge to switch your brain back and forth between French Romantic music and then Italian bel canto. It is a little bit of whiplash, but singing Romeo reminds me in The Barber of Seville, even when things are going a mile a minute, to really be grounded and be very expansive and sing beautifully and romantically. And then singing Barber reminds me in Romeo to stay free and flexible. Even though the role of Romeo is a bit lower than some of the things that I sing, it can be a trap to sort of go, “Well, this is low, so let me just muscle into it.” But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
And so, doing Barber and always having to stay on the breath and stay light and flexible, I bring that knowledge into Romeo. [Each role is] helping me sing the other piece better.
Opera San José is known for its residency program. Can you tell me about it?
The residency program is really fabulous. And it’s a unique thing here in the United States. It’s sort of modeled after the European ensemble, or fest contracts, where you’re a resident singer of the house and sing everything that’s within your voice type. American houses, for better or worse, don’t do that. So it’s really fabulous to be here having the opportunity to sing multiple leading roles and living in one place for more than four to eight weeks. It’s really nice to be settled.
We can get together with the coaches and work on anything, which is an invaluable resource to have because, as opera singers, we do invest a lot, especially in the early years of our career, learning roles and getting music prepared. Being here and just having the opportunity to do further work without having to pay for it is incredible. We also are able to take advantage of the recording studio if we need to make a recording for an audition, for our website, for a reel, or whatever it is. We are able to do that, again, at no cost to the artist.
Being in this environment where we have access to resources as if we were on staff or at a European house — it’s really great to be part of a company whose mission is to launch careers of young artists and to support the beginning stages of what will hopefully be international careers.
Does the production overall rise to a higher level because of the extra time the residency gives you?
I think that it really does result in a higher-quality product because, as singers, we feel taken care of, we feel safe, we feel supported here. And the fact that we’re all here for so long, we get to know each other. We build a rapport with each other.
So just like a repertory company.
That’s exactly what it is. And again, that’s just a really rare opportunity to have in the United States in the world of opera. And so I think that what they do here is very progressive. And I would love to see more American opera houses do things like this.
How did you become interested in opera?
I’ve been singing ever since I learned how to make noise as a child. I just don’t ever remember a time where I did not enjoy singing and performing. I was originally inspired by jazz: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. When I was younger, I loved Michael Jackson. I loved the music, the dancing, the stage presence. And I kind of thought as a kid, “I’m going to be a pop star. I’ll be the next Michael Jackson.” And then as I got a little bit older, I thought, “Oh, you know, actually I think I want to be a Broadway star.”
When I was probably about 11 or 12, I had a choir concert in middle school, and I had a solo. And afterward, this lady rushes over to me. She says, “Who are your parents?” And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m in trouble. What did I do?” And she rushes over to them and says, “I don’t know if you understand what this child of yours has, but I’m a local musician in the area, and I would love to put him in touch with a voice teacher and, you know, really cultivate this gift.”
So my parents, being very receptive to my artistic side but not musical themselves and having always supported and loved my singing, decided to take this woman’s advice. And I started taking voice lessons at about the age of 12, studying classical technique. And as I did that, I found that my voice naturally took to a classical way of singing. And as I continued to study throughout middle school and high school, that was when I decided I’d study classical voice in college because if I could learn how to master classical technique, it would allow me to do anything I wanted. If I wanted to do Broadway, pop, cabaret, or whatever it was, I thought actually learning how to use my instrument in a safe and healthy way would allow me to do anything.
In college, I still wasn’t necessarily sold on the idea of “I’m just going to do opera, opera, opera.” But as things progressed, I was getting more opportunities. I was starting to sing with the professional company in Madison — Madison Opera — [in roles like Tobias in Sweeney Todd] and getting noticed in that way. The more I discovered my voice, the more fun I had with it. I just got hooked. It was almost like a drug. And I was like, “I need more.”