February 2007

Looks like a big year for Bloom


By JILL SYKES


Australian bass-baritone Joshua Bloom has a clutch of great reviews from San Francisco.

They praise his "voluptuous, burnished baritone" and his "natural and easy presence on stage". While one role is rewarded with praise for "his magnificently resonant and flexible bass," another earns a delighted reaction to seeing him "doing eye-popping physical comedy, but, above all, singing fabulously".

Comedy or tragedy, good or evil, old or young, Bloom's rich voice has already taken him to diverse places in the operatic repertoire at the age of 32 - and there are plenty more ahead of him. The one thing that his reviews have in common is the depth of promise that he shows.

Happily, he is also getting better known in his home country. His portrayal of Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress for Opera Australia last year was impressive for its sustained theatricality: the power of the Devil emerged equally in his singing and his acting.

More recently, he has had fun in a different operatic challenge as Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro. Comedy becomes him, as another of his San Francisco reviewers noted: "For fearless comic presence and vocal heft, baritone Joshua Bloom's performance as the foolishly overbearing Dr Bartolo was the afternoon's most memorable gem, marked by magnificent sound and impeccable timing."

Bloom grew up in Melbourne and graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1996 with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history. His parents are musicians: his father principal flute in the Scottish National Orchestra then the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before he retired, and his mother a clarinettist who toured with the Borodin Quartet for Musica Viva in the 1960s. He played cello and double bass before singing with St Paul's Cathedral Choir, acting in school plays and a role in the musical Chess led to singing lessons and opera. By 2000 he was a finalist in five top competitions, including the Australian Singing Competition and the Australian regional finals of the Metropolitan Opera Awards.

Having won none of them, it was ironic that his first "win" two years later didn't even involve an audition: the Wiener Staatsoper Award is given on recommendation. It gave him five months in Vienna at the Staatsoper, where he performed Fiorello in Il Barbiere and the Imperial Commissioner in Madama Butterfly.

"One of the most prestigious houses in the world to work in — it was quite stressful," he recalls. "My German wasn't terribly good. In Vienna they do 60 or so productions a year, and usually only two or three performances of each one. So if it is not a new production you don't get any rehearsal time. When I made my debut, I had two rehearsals in a room, without the chorus - and then opening night.

"It's a strange experience to turn up on opening night and meet the chorus for the first time as you are about to walk on stage. I got there early to have a look at the stage but the fire curtain was down. I was told that in this production you entered from the pit, so the assistant director said: ‘You go up these stairs and the fire curtain won't be there.’ Then we walked around the set and he said: ‘The chorus will be all around you here and you do this.’ For people used to having reasonable amounts of rehearsal time, it was a new experience, a little surreal."

But then something different was what he was after when he first struck out overseas in 2000 after several years with the OA ensemble. "I went over to New York to audition. I felt it was important for me to go to a different country and do some things elsewhere rather than stay in Australia and be a house singer. There was a certain impetus for me to leave the company. Now I am very pleased and flattered that OA would like to bring me back on a regular basis."

Bloom's American success came in California a year later, when he joined the San Francisco Opera's Merola program - meaning that he sang in the company's summer season. He did this in 2001 and 2003; in 2001 and 2002, he also went on the company's two last tours, which took a couple of months and covered a huge area: "I have seen more of the US than many Americans."

For two years, from 2004, Bloom became a member of SFO's Young Artists' program as an Adler Fellow. "I got to do some amazing things and work with some terrific directors and conductors - just to be there working in an international house on a regular basis, and the networking possibilities that came out of it.

"I ended up working at Santa Fe Opera because of that, and Chicago Opera Theatre - the second house in Chicago. And in 2008 I will make my debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York - though I can't tell you any more than that as they haven't announced the season yet."

2008 is going to be a big year for him: he is also making his debut in two roles for OA, again under wraps at this stage. Meanwhile he is singing Figaro in OA's long Sydney season of this work from January 2 to March 31. And enjoying the experience of "working in a very nice ensemble cast - everyone is very aware of each other vocally and histrionically."

He is a great admirer of the production's director, Neil Armfield, whom he worked with on Billy Budd, for his "very clear ideas in terms of structure and the personalities of the artists and what they have to offer." And he says he loved working with John Cox in The Rake's Progress: "He is so very meticulous about what he wants. Everything was planned to the smallest detail. It was really a joy to do a piece like that with him though I am not entirely sure what I think of the piece."

Bloom is keen to do more 20th-century operas, especially works by Britten: "I think he was the greatest stage dramatist in the 20th century, including Puccini." He has played Starveling in A Midsummer Night's Dream, rehearsed as a cover in Billy Budd and appeared in The Rape of Lucretia. He looks ahead hopefully to Bottom in the Dream, Claggart in Billy Budd, Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes, and that richly varied cluster of roles for baritone in Death in Venice.

His voice type has already led to much older roles and the accompanying character makeup. He has been dressed in fat suits -- "I looked like a giant tomato" - and given a prosthetic nose to help him through Bartolo and Gianni Schicchi. As the Black Politician in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre - a curious piece with a prelude of 12 tuned car horns - he was cloaked in two layers of white makeup and had two bald pates, one naturally toned with another white one on top. "It wasn't comfortable to wear and the makeup took a lot of getting off, but it was an amazing thing just to look like that."

Joshua Bloom as Nick Shadow in the 2006 Opera Australia production of The Rake's Progress [Photo: Branco Gaica]

Even a relatively minor transformation in The Rake's Progress helped him get into character. "As soon as I started to wear the boots and the coat it makes a difference to the way you stand and walk . In the rehearsal room, in mufti, you can never achieve quite that character." And then of course there is the character of the voice: working on the sound that projects the character of each role: "You don't want to sound like the Devil when you are playing Figaro!"

When he sang Dandini for OA's La Cenerentola in Melbourne, Bloom won the 2003 Green Room Award for the outstanding male singer in a leading role. His easy charm and enthusiasm in an offstage interview suggests such a role would come naturally to him. But he has no intention of getting categorised. As he lists the composers and roles he looks forward to tackling - a lot of Verdi and Richard Strauss - one emerges from the star-studded ruck. "I would love to sing Scarpia - it's nice to be truly horrible."




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