Joshua Sanders was five years old when he began singing for a large audience. He remembers his mother herding him into the car after putting on a show and singing for his fellow preschoolers. Although Sanders has grown as a performer and honed his craft as an Opera singer, not much has changed about his desire to sing. Granted, his original rehearsal space of his preschool class in Plain, Wisconsin, looks very different than the Opera center in Madison. And his audience of classmates was much smaller than a packed 1,089-seat auditorium of Capitol Theatre.
Now the University of Wisconsin senior will test his lifetime of vocal performance practice in his first principal role with a professional company. Playing the part of Tobias Ragg in Madison Opera’s rendition of “Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Sanders will also be the youngest singer in a principal role in the entire company. As the only undergraduate in his leading position, he has the unique experience of balancing long hours of rehearsal with 16 credits of school work.
Sanders is a vocal performing major at UW and in the days leading up to the show’s debut performance Feb. 6-8, he is going to class, rehearsing the entire show and singing in a Schubertiade (an event celebrating the music of Franz Schubert). The rehearsal schedule for the show is only 11 days long, but the days run from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., leaving little time for anything else, especially error.
“We are all human, we all mess up, we all forget our words, but sometimes being the young one I feel like I can’t get away with that, I have to be on it,” Sanders said. “It has really pushed me to learn how to prepare better and learn how to keep my cool in these situations where it feels a lot more high-pressured.”
Over the years, Sanders has gleaned a technique for keeping cool under the perceived pressure. His most tangible advice involves working a nap into his daily schedule and looking at the music before he comes to rehearsal. But to quell his internal conflict, he remembers simply that he is human. He remembers to let mistakes go and be vulnerable.
Despite his arsenal of performance tools, compared to his fellow company members Sanders is still not a seasoned opera singer yet. He only discovered that opera was his desired mode of performance freshman year of high school when he saw “The Barber of Seville” in Chicago.
“I was just so blown away, I was like, ‘This is what I have to do, I know it.’ I just felt such a connection with the music and the artistry,” he said.
In high school, Sanders also dabbled in other performing styles, including a stint in a production of “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Sanders cites one major gaffe during one of his performances as his worst production experience.
He was giving a monologue at the end of the show when he skipped pages of monologue. He and his cast mates were momentarily derailed, but eventually picked off where he left it and carried on. In spite of the fear of that “Oh, shit” moment, he continued with the show and has learned to embrace that aspect of his career.
“That’s the fun of live theater, it really teaches you how to keep on your toes because I really think it is inevitable,” Sanders said. “It’s very rare to walk away from a show and say, ‘Wow that was the most perfect thing I have ever done.’”
Now, Sanders has been focusing more on building his repertoire as an opera singer. He has been in the chorus of the Madison Opera since his senior year of high school, but just last summer the company asked him to audition for the part of Tobias in “Sweeney Todd.” A few days later he showed up, sang and got the part.
He describes the character of Tobias as a street urchin and orphan who has been abused and manipulated his whole life. He is a complex character who starts out in the story in a docile, subservient role, but in the end emerges as major player in the dramatic conclusion of the show. Tobias is weak, yet forceful. He is maniacal but with good intentions. It’s hard to immerse yourself in such a complex role, Sanders said, but he tries to draw from a place that is very real.
“We all have certain parts of our personality or memory that we can use on stage, so maybe using some of the darker memories we have, or the darker feelings we have to try to keep it as authentic as possible without making a farce out of it,” Sanders said.
As a child, Sanders always enjoyed playing the villain and remembers singing “Hellfire” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” around his house as a five-year-old. Now he gets to act out his triumphant ballad as a less nefarious character with “Not while I’m around.” It’s a big acting piece as well as emotional song. Here he tries to communicate the meaning without being corny or overdramatic by drawing on those real feelings and leaving his heart out onstage, he said. He described the feeling after a big piece like that as euphoric, as a rush.
But after the shows, Sanders likes to reel it in and partake in an activity many UW students are familiar with: vegging out and watching Netflix. As a performer, it is hard to find time to be alone. And as a self-proclaimed introvert the dinner parties, conversations with donors and socializing with cast mates can take a toll. But at the end of the day it’s all worth it, Sanders said, because he is doing what he loves and what he has always loved.
“It was almost never really a question, it was more like a fact: I was going to be a singer,” Sanders said.
Sanders will have come a long way from the days of putting on a show for his preschool class by performing in a principal role in Madison Opera’s “Sweeney Todd” Feb 6-8 at the Overture Center.