Joshua Blue’s voice is powerfully beautiful in more than one way.
The Point Breeze tenor has routinely brought audiences to its feet, belting out some of the most popular operas known in theater. He also uses his platform to actively dispel stereotypes that he found ways to hurdle during his path to success.
“A lot of my activism as an artist is trying to relay a message or an emotion across to someone that might not have had an opportunity to feel or understand before,” said Blue, who was born in the United Kingdom and moved to the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s. “I want people to leave with a new perspective on things, hopefully for the better, but we can’t control what everyone thinks.”
Blue said he was tired of the misconception that most opera singers are pinned as white, slender singers no matter what role they portray on stage.
“Existing in opera as a nontraditional body is a form of activism in itself,” Blue said. “Being a black person on stage with a larger, not supermodel frame, it’s gotten better, but people still have this misconception that opera singers need to be fit and perfect to look at. I find activism in my hair. I don’t let people cut my hair for shows. Seeing natural black hair on stage is huge and it’s something that was historically shunned and shied away from.”
Blue isn’t afraid to speak up. Much like he wasn’t scared to share one of the most special moments of his life by proposing to his fiancé, Ashley Marie Robillard, on stage. The two opera singers met while working together on a show for Wolf Trap Opera Company in Virginia and moved to South Philadelphia together in the summer of 2020. Blue proposed to Robillard while performing in Rigoletto at Opera Philadelphia last year.
“Opera Philly is her home opera company and she had really felt like she had grown up there,” Blue said of Robillard. “It made sense to propose in a place where she felt so much love and so much connection. When I suggested it to them, no one second-guessed it.”
In fact, it became a grand gesture that the cast and crew fully supported. The excitement built throughout the night as the potential proposal got nearer. Family and friends were all in attendance that night.
“There was such a lovely, light-hearted atmosphere about it throughout the show because every time I would walk off stage, someone would say, ‘It’s almost time.’ It made it really fun and I really gave that last performance a sense of excitement and joy that I don’t think could have come from anything else.”
Opera Philadelphia became Blue’s new family and he decided to hop on to the next run of performances, playing the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme, which will take place April 28 through May 7 at the Academy of Music. Only it comes with a twist. The opera is presented in reverse order, beginning with Act 4 and ending with Act 1, telling the love story of Rodolfo and Mimi in flashback. Tickets can be found at www.operaphila.org.
“I think, conceptually, it’s a fascinating piece,” Blue said. “Normally, when we look at Boheme from start to finish, it starts in such a happy place and ends in such deep sadness. In this production, by starting with death, and moving towards love, it brightens the ending of the show in a beautiful, bittersweet way. The audience has context that this really happy couple is going to have its whole world destroyed. We know that and they don’t. My fiancé said it best that it’s a really beautiful way to look at grief and how we process grief.”
Rehearsals are underway for La Boheme and Blue’s time is consumed with nailing his part. But he still finds a few minutes to listen to his new favorite album “Black and Blue.” It just happens to be his own debut solo album that was released on March 31 and produced by Steven Blier. The album addresses themes of racial equality and human resilience.
“This album was such a beautiful thing for me to put together and experience,” Blue said. “It was also a reminder to myself that I am more than just a classical singer and it kind of honored all the music that made me who I am before I stepped into the classical world. I’m really happy it came out the way it did. I can’t stop listening to it. I’m so proud.”
Blue attended Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio before pursuing his master’s degree from the Juilliard School in New York. While in Ohio, Blue worked at Grafton Correctional Institution, teaching opera to inmates. It remains one of his proudest accomplishments and creative fuel for another project.
“The U.S. prison system is something I think that doesn’t get explored enough on the artistic side so far as I want to humanize prisoners,” said Blue, who co-directed the men’s choir there. “It was one of the coolest experiences of my life because I got to spend time with real people whose biggest complaint is that they don’t hear their own name enough. They were a number in a system and were referred to as a number always.”
Blue taught inmates to dance and sing and enjoyed the interactions.
“They were some of the funniest guys I ever met,” Blue said. “They loved the singing and they loved hearing about the minutiae of everyday outside life, things that we all took for granted. I wanted to be involved in it in some way moving forward. I don’t want to spoil the next album but it’s going to have something to do with that.”
That chance will come soon enough. Right now, it’s all Rodolfo, all the time. It’s a role fully embraced by Blue, and a decision with no regrets.
“I said yes right away because this is a company I want to work with every opportunity I can,” Blue said. “And Boheme is one of those hallmark operas that everyone knows and this is my first time, which is a pretty wild way to have a role debut. It just felt like the right time to put my foot in the ring of Rodolfo. And it fits very well. It’s been a fast experience but also a joyous experience of stepping into the shoes of this beloved, really well-known character.”