Interview: ETHAN JOSEPH (Now Appearing at The Metropolitan Opera in “Champion”)

Post image for Interview: ETHAN JOSEPH (Now Appearing at The Metropolitan Opera in “Champion”)

by Gregory Fletcher on May 12, 2023

in Interviews,Theater-New York


With the dynamic production of Champion at the Metropolitan Opera, directed with flair by James Robinson, and choreographed with a festive revelry by Camille A. Brown, three male singers play the protagonist Emile Griffith — the international prize-winning boxer of the 1960s and 70s, who also happened to be gay. Playing Emile as a boy is the innocent, angelic sounding Ethan Joseph. As a young adult in his 20s and 30s, Emile is performed by the dynamic, athletic Ryan Speedo Green. And as the 50-something elder, suffering from dementia, Emile is fulfilled by the superb Eric Owens.

Terence Blanchard’s brilliant score is in a winning class of its own, toe-tapping and reminiscent to the energy and passion of Leonard Bernstein. Additionally, Allen Moyer‘s set design is masterful, Montana Levi Blanco‘s costume design is luscious, Donald Holder‘s lighting design is evocative, and Greg Emetaz‘s projections are equally effective.

It is rare that a 12-year-old boy gets to sing two significant, touching solos. But that’s what Ethan delivers for his Met debut. And at the curtain call, Ethan’s entrance for his bow causes the applause to erupt and double in volume. I’m worried for Ethan. On one of the biggest stages in New York, with the largest pit orchestra, onstage chorus, and production budget, surrounded by all that brilliance from people working at the top of their craft, how does a young boy top this experience so early in his career?

I sat down with Ethan Joseph at the Metropolitan Opera for Stage and Cinema to discuss his extraordinary life thus far. As we walked through the theater and lobby to the press room, everyone with whom we crossed paths greeted Ethan with affection, calling out his nickname with a smile –“EJ!”

Curtain Call of Champion (Ethan Joseph on left)

GREGORY FLETCHER: The music you’ve sung in Broadway’s Tina, the Tina Turner Story, and The Sound of Music at Paper Mill Playhouse, and recently in Raisin at Axelrod Performing Arts Center feels very different from Champion. Have you sung opera before?

ETHAN JOSEPH: No, this is my first time. It’s new for me, but I like it a lot.

FLETCHER: What an amazing opera debut, and of all places — at The Met! Was there a big difference switching from musical theater to opera?

EJ: It wasn’t a really big change at first because when I auditioned, I sang like I always did, like in Tina and in Raisin. I didn’t think about it much because I wanted to get to my cousin’s house. He was having a sleepover and I didn’t want to be late. Then when I got cast, they pushed me more for an opera sound—not so pop. I tried my best to do whatever they asked me to do. Without any pressure, I just leaned into what they were showing me and followed their lead.

Ethan Joseph in Raisin at Axelrod Performing Arts Center (John Posada)

FLETCHER: Who is they? Who helped you learn the music?

EJ: Maestro and Miss Katelan.

FLETCHER: Maestro, yes, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted. What did Miss Katelan [Tran Terrell] do?

EJ: She played the piano for us and helped us get ready for rehearsals and shows. [Credited as Musical Preparation] she helped me warm up and go over the song. Then she’d tell me what to fix, and what she liked and should keep. And then there’s Terrence, [composer Terence Blanchard]. There was one high note I was stuck with, so he helped me make it easier.

FLETCHER: How’d he make it easier?

EJ: By changing the note. It was a little too high.

Ethan Joseph as Little Emile, Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith,
and Stephanie Blythe as Kathy Hagen (The Met)

FLETCHER: What kind of advice and direction did you get from the maestro? How did he help prepare you for the role?

EJ: Because there’s a whole orchestra playing, I had to keep up with them, and he makes sure I come in at the right time and keep up with the timing.

FLETCHER: And the Production director James Robinson? What kind of direction did he give you?

EJ: He told me to relax, to be sad and in the moment. Like, you know, feeling sad because Cousin Blanche [Krysty Swann] is being really mean and abusing me, and my character doesn’t really like that. But my mom gave up all her children, and so I’m left with Cousin Blanche.

Krysty Swann as Cousin Blanche, Ethan Joseph as Little Emile,
and Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith (The Met)

FLETCHER: The solo she sings in act one while forcing you to hold a cinder block over your head was as angry, aggressive, and scary as any aria I’ve ever heard. I’m guessing she makes it easy to prepare for your following solo, when the director wanted you to be sad. You had me in tears.

EJ: Yeah, she helps me a lot. She does an amazing job as Cousin Blanche.

FLETCHER: You say that like your happy she’s so mean.

EJ: (laughs) I couldn’t be happier. I love being with this amazing cast. Latonia [Moore] who plays my mom, and Speedo and Eric [Ryan Speedo Green and Eric Owens], it’s just a really amazing cast. They’re funny and they’re always here for me when I feel down or when I’m nervous about going on. Everyone’s always there for me, so I like that.

Ethan Joseph as Little Emile, Eric Owens as Emile Griffith,
and Latonia Moore as Emelda Griffith (The Met)

FLETCHER: Sounds like a very special extended family. What kind of interactions do you have with Speedo and Eric who play your older selves? The three of you together portray a complete life onstage.

EJ: Speedo is really funny because he says things like, “Ethan, in a few years, you’ll be as tall as me, as strong as me, and maybe even better looking than me.” (laughing) And I’m like, naw, naw, no way. And with Eric, I’m like, “Hi Eric,” and he’s like, “Hi,” and then we wish each other to have a great show. We don’t talk a lot, but that’s mostly our thing.

FLETCHER: If someday you’re like Speedo, then maybe someday further down the line you’ll be like Eric. Can you imagine?

EJ: He’s probably not as old as his character onstage. I don’t know. Yeah, the way he talks, he seems like he’s like 40 or 45 years old.

Ethan Joseph as Little Emile (The Met)

FLETCHER: Wow, as old as that? What’s the biggest difference between doing musical theater and opera?

EJ: Opera isn’t like every day. On Broadway, we worked six days a week. But here, it’s kind of a bummer for me because I liked being at the Met, I liked how big it is, how big it is backstage, and the cafeteria, the stage, the dressing rooms, the rehearsal rooms, I liked being here. And in performance, too. But we don’t do shows as often like on Broadway. It’s more like performing every four days. And I’m like—why not six days a week?

FLETCHER: I’m guessing because operatic voices aren’t amplified with microphones, and they need time to rest in between performances. And speaking of that, do you find it hard to keep a momentum going for your performance? How do you keep your performance ready with a few days break after each performance? Do you miss the everyday momentum of doing eight shows a week, week after week?

EJ: After opening night, we had four days off. By the next show, I forgot a little bit of the first part, and I started to worry. I was trying to remember the timing of singing the first part, and I was struggling. But I managed to remember by the second performance.

Ethan Joseph as a swing in The Sound of Music at Paper Mill Playhouse

FLETCHER: I think that’s why many opera houses employ a prompter to cue the singers of upcoming lyrics. But I didn’t see a bubble down-center stage. Is there a prompter for this production?

EJ: I don’t think so. I haven’t seen anything like that onstage.

FLETCHER: Is there added stress when you have time off in between performances?

EJ: On Tina, I was an understudy, so it was a similar situation. When my friend got COVID, I had to go on, and I was a little nervous to get the timing correct. When to say my lines and when to help my mom and pulling my dad‘s arm down to save her. In Champion, it’s not really stressful now. Only at the audition when they wanted me to sing nine pages. I didn’t know how I was going to finish in time for the sleepover at my cousin’s.

Ethan Joseph going on in Tina, the Tina Turner Story

FLETCHER: Which do you prefer — being an understudy or being the actual performer?

EJ: That’s a hard one. Let’s see. As an understudy, you’re still there eight shows a week even if you’re not going on, so you can chill. It’s easier. But sometimes, it gets boring. And when I’m performing, it’s busy with so much to think about. So, I don’t really know.

FLETCHER: I guess there are pros and cons both. The Met doesn’t give you a preview period like on Broadway. Did you feel ready by opening night? How was it?

EJ: When the show started, I still had a lot of time before I went on. I was getting a little nervous by the time I was going on. But once I was onstage, I was like, okay, I felt relieved and enjoyed it. Afterwards, I wanted to do it again the next night. I didn’t want to wait four days. I love singing “This Night” and hearing the audience respond. It’s so loud.

Stephanie Blythe as Kathy Hagen
and Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith (The Met)

FLETCHER: Was there a big opening party like for Broadway shows?

EJ: Actually, yeah, the opening night party, oh my gosh, I was screaming inside — I met Angela Bassett! I probably should’ve stayed a little calmer because, you know, she’s a human being like me. Yeah, I don’t know, she was really open and so much fun. We were talking a lot about Marvel because I was like, “Why did they kill Queen Ramonda? Like why-why-why would they do that? It doesn’t make sense!” And she was like, “Well, Ethan, that’s just how it goes.” And we talked more Marvel stuff, and I was like, “If you ever speak to Ryan Coogler again, which I’m sure you will, please tell him that I would love to be in [a] Marvel Studios [film]. It would be my absolute dream.”

FLETCHER: Over the Metropolitan Opera? I think when you’re older, this credit will mean more to you.

EJ: I’m 12 ½!

FLETCHER: Okay, point taken. Any other surprises at the opening?

Ethan Joseph as Little Emile, Ryan Speedo Green as Young Emile Griffith,
and Stephanie Blythe as Kathy Hagen (The Met)

EJ: Spike Lee talked to me! About going to university where he and his father and grandfather went. [Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA] And his mother and grandma went to the same college, too [the sister school Spelman College]. And I was like, “Okay, but I’m really thinking about going to Harvard or MIT.”

FLETCHER: Stay on his good side. He could cast you in one of his films someday. When I saw you in Act Two standing next to your mom, [played by Latonia Moore] who sang that painful aria about abandoning her children, accompanied only by the upright string bass, it was one of the most intense, powerful arias I’ve ever witnessed. What was that like for you standing at her side, taking all that in?

EJ: Yeah, Latonia, we’re like buddies — best buddies. When the director told me in rehearsal to come out and stand next to her while she’s singing, I didn’t know what to do. I tried feeling bad for her because she’s been through a lot of stuff. Then I tried crying, but that didn’t work either. As it is now, I stay still and let one tear roll down my face.

FLETCHER: You may have more than one tear roll down your face in the last performance. I bet you’ll remember this moment as a life highlight.

EJ: She told me, “Ethan, I learn from you every time we’re up there together,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay, I know you don’t mean it.” But she’s like, “I do, I do,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay.” She’s pretty amazing.

Ethan Joseph in Champion Met Opera Encore Screening (The Met)

FLETCHER: You mentioned your wrangler earlier. Tell our readers what a wrangler does.

EJ: Well, if you’re an adult, you don’t need a wrangler because you can take care of yourself. But with kids, we can’t, I guess. We have wranglers on Broadway, too — a.k.a. a guardian who takes care of you. The wrangler meets you when you arrive and stays with you till you leave. They escort you from the dressing room down the elevator to the stage. And make sure I have everything I need. When I wear the costume with short pants, it gets cold backstage, so they’ll get me a robe to stay warm. Or if we want to go to the cafeteria — boom, they take us there. And get me whatever I want — bada bing bada boom — well, if you have the money.

FLETCHER: Is this what you want to do as an adult?

EJ: My passion is singing and acting. I also want to be an architect. But first, I want to be in movies, that’s my real goal. I really want to be famous, because when I was younger, I was like wow, I want to be famous.

FLETCHER: Careful what you wish for. Do you have any other passions?

EJ: Cooking. I wanted to make my own family recipe, and it took a long time to make one. I made cookie bars, a secret recipe, and apparently my family loves them. I saw this video and I thought, wow, what if I put in some of my own ingredients and make it my own way? So I did, and now I have a secret family recipe. I cook dinner for my family. They love it. I started cooking steak a lot. Steak is my favorite meat. It used to be chicken. I love Gordon Ramsay’s cooking shows, and I love making his recipes. I made his steak and potatoes, and it was actually really good.

FLETCHER: Maybe you’ll have your own restaurant someday. But first, I hear you already know what you’re doing next. A national tour that begins performances in August — how terrific is that? Congratulations.

EJ: We start rehearsals in mid-June. I’m playing an actual role and understudying another. I’ll get to see Chicago, North Carolina, LA, Ohio, and more. It’ll be so much fun.

Ethan Joseph taking a selfie with Gregory Fletcher

FLETCHER: And in ten years, you can return to Champion and play the 23-year-old version of your character. And then 25 years after that, the oldest version with dementia. What — your facial expression tells me you haven’t thought that far ahead. Don’t you see yourself doing more opera? Have you turned into an opera fan yet?

EJ: I saw The Hours on TV. It was pretty good, but I didn’t get to watch the whole thing because I was cooking at the time. I get to see Don Giovanni soon. Oh my gosh, it better not be boring.

FLETCHER: What do you think you’ll miss the most?

EJ: I love this place; it’s all been an amazing experience. I really don’t want to leave. And I’m glad to be part of the original opera recording.

FLETCHER: I bet Champion will remain in your life. As well as the Met.

EJ: Next year, they’re doing Fire Shut Up In My Bones here, and in Chicago at the Lyric Theater they’re doing Champion. So, who knows.

FLETCHER: It looks like you may be very busy as a 13-year-old. And I bet, too, as a 14-year-old, 15-year-old, 16-year-old, you see where I’m going with this? And every year to follow. As an architect, chef, opera singer, Broadway star. And deservedly so.

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