A reluctant popera idol finds his voice

 

From an 'Ally McBeal' slot, to triple platinum status for his new album, Josh Groban defies his critics, writes Peter Crawley.

I'm having some difficulty finding Josh Groban. Traipsing around the building for a second time, now quite content that he isn't lurking downstairs with Celine Dion and her warbling ilk, I swallow my pride and ask the music shop staff for help.

And there he is, at last, on a freestanding cardboard rack non-committally labelled "Classical". Perched above Andrea Bocelli's latest and Channel 4's Operatunity soundtrack, his earnest likeness seems to stare determinedly across at the title beside him: Mozart for Moms and Moms to Be. This is a genre that dare not choose a name. Centred on the vocalist, leaning towards the most accessible melodies that the canon affords, marketing opera with the tactics of the pop era, this is Popera.

Elsewhere there's diminishing difficulty in encountering the 22-year-old Los Angeleno whose self-titled début has shrugged off critical drubbing to accrue triple platinum status in the US. There he is one night on Gerry Kelly performing his signature power ballad You're Still You, as originally seen on Ally McBeal. There he is again singing the same song at an ungodly hour the following week on GMTV. And there he is a few hours and two promotional web chats later on a sofa in London's Metropolitan hotel. Groban is amiable, slim, unexpectedly bespectacled and more than a little sleep deprived.

"If I only get 20 minutes of sleep my voice is still fresh," he explains. "I'm used to many, many all-nighters, believe me."

Groban's first break came when the producer, songwriter and label honcho David Foster called his then vocal coach looking for a young singer who knew show tunes. Soon Groban was performing at the inauguration of California Governor Gray Davis, before an even bigger break filling in for Andrea Bocelli as Celine Dion's rehearsal partner for Foster's The Prayer at the 1999 Grammys. That year's Grammy host Rosie O'Donnell booked him for her talk show and first introduced "Opera Boy" to America.

"Oh God!" he recalls, "When I heard that I thought, that's gonna stick. That's going to leave a mark." For somebody who concedes that it has been difficult to find an audience without a clearly defined sound Groban visibly bristles at the tags that have come his way: Baby Bocelli, Pop Tenor, Popera Idol (that last one is my own).

"People always want to label you. My goal is to get away from those labels. Whenever I read an article that says 'Bocelli has spawned more baby tenors', I'm like, 'I'm a baritone. What are you doing?'. " But even here he shrugs off his own definition. "The reason I don't classify myself as a baritone or tenor, is that I don't put myself in the operatic market right now." Right now, of course, the operatic market is quite an amorphous one, where the elitist boundaries of a high art form are continually redrafted. Purists who came to know and tolerate the Three Tenors approach of performing crowd-pleasing arias in stadium-sized recitals may still be adjusting to the Pop Idol tactics employed on Channel 4's Operatunity. "Let me tread carefully here," began Bonnie Greer on BBC2's Newsnight Review last month, before verily stomping on eggshells. "If you actually want to know what 'dumb down' means, look at this programme. This is not what opera is about." Hopping off the fence long enough to fervidly insist that opera "is for the masses", Greer understood the English National Opera's audience-building tactics, ones that persist with the company's "Tosca for a tenner" offer to television viewers "who have never been to opera before".

For his part, Groban should know all about winning over viewers through a mass medium. Ten million viewers in the US tuned in to an Ally McBeal episode framed around a character he played, capped off with a performance of You're Still You, the same song he has been touring from TV studio to TV studio. "David E Kelly [the show's writer] did with that episode what I or any other artist would want to do with a song anyway, just by singing it: to get the full story and the full message across of the song. It was a character and you could feel his heart breaking . . . it just meant so much more. You can't ask for a more fruitful opportunity on TV and it was really incredible to have, because you won't find me on MTV. So it was almost like having a primetime music video."

The clip sparked 8,000 e-mails to the programme's website, establishing the fiercely loyal "Grobanites", whose numbers have swollen through a barrage of television and Internet activity, but not, so far, from concert performances. I suggest that if Groban won't pledge allegiance to classical crossover he is more likely to fit into the "as seen on TV" category. He laughingly assents.

"But TV, if it can be done well, is the most important thing for an artist like myself." Consider the combined audience of a billion people to see Groban sing The Prayer with Charlotte Church at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics and recall how Pavorotti's superstardom began as the voice of the World Cup. Perhaps subconsciously aware of the link, Groban's conversation is strewn with sporting metaphors. As his success rises, "the bar rises, so you have to be constantly be on your game".

His detractors are not necessarily mean spirited, but "it's the same reason you watch race-car driving. You want to see that skid every once in a while.

"Sports is so much like singing. Just the anxiety of it and having to hit that high note or make that shot." He may have sung for the Pope, two presidents, five first ladies . . . but he seems quietly more proud of having performed during last year's World Series baseball championship.

With a strong background in musical theatre (Groban's studies Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are currently on hold), he enthuses about stagecraft as much as songcraft. "The combining of a great lyric with an amazing melody, a great book, amazing acting and storytelling can touch an audience like nothing else. It's why opera is so brilliant; it's why musical theatre is so brilliant; it's why the songs of Paul Simon are so brilliant. It's the chill factor."

But Groban is more an acolyte of Sondheim than Puccini, and opera associations leave him cold. "I'm not trying to be an opera singer right now because I have such a great love and respect for the genre that I want to wait a little while before I tackle the Nessun Dormas of the world. I'm 22, my voice is gonna grow. Yeah, I'd love to do that opera album one day, but I want to study it, I want to learn it and I want to do it right. In the meantime I want to do original music. I want to do light operatic pieces - stuff that I can be pretty safe with right now."

In the end, between neo-classical arrangements, duets with Charlotte Church, quintets with The Corrs and a cover of Don McClean's Vincent, the only unifying factor of Josh Groban the album is Josh Groban's voice. It may be oddly free-floating but it is at least well titled and Groban's rising profile may prove helpful in locating it. "It's Josh Groban," he says. "Look for the muppet hair. You can't miss."

Josh Groban is released on Warner Music