For years, Josh Piterman envisaged one day playing the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit musical The Phantom of the Opera. So, when he was cast in the role in the West End production in 2019, through circumstances he describes as “sort of movie scripty”, he found himself living the dream.

Imagine the crushing disappointment when six months later, the production was knocked on the head by COVID-19. But unbeknownst to Piterman, his real-life ‘movie script’ was still unfolding. At the end of last year, he returned home to spend a few months in Melbourne with his Scottish partner Charlotte, while the pandemic (hopefully) ran its course. Then out of the blue in January, Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini contacted him to ask if he was interested in playing the role at the Sydney Opera House.

Josh PitermanJosh Piterman. Photograph supplied

“I was like, ‘are you kidding me? Of course I’m interested!’” says Piterman, “He said – and I was quite shocked by this – Opera Australia are the first opera company in the world to stage Phantom of the Opera.”

“When I got the call, I was so emotional, relieved, excited, I just started crying. After we hung up – I remember I was at my folks’ place and no one was home –I actually did crumble, there was just so much emotion [that] had to get out from [the previous] year.”

“This role was sort of everything for me. I guess it was this dream that I put out there, that I wanted to manifest from maybe age 16 or 17, so achieving the heights of doing it in the West End was like climbing Everest. So, to just be pushed off the edge [when the theatre was shuttered in March 2020] was hard to deal with, and I ended up going through a bit of a personal soul-searching journey. I had wonderful support from my partner Lottie, and my folks and my sister back home, so it was a productive time in terms of what I learned about myself – and, in fact, so much of that stuff I can’t wait to bring to the character.”

Piterman is chatting with Limelight at the Opera Bar, just a hop, skip and a jump from the venue where The Phantom of the Opera will open in September, produced by Opera Australia and the Really Useful Group. The production will then head to Arts Centre Melbourne in November.

Piterman’s excitement at performing the musical in the Sydney Opera House was matched by the audience’s. When OA put tickets on pre-sale in April, there was so much demand that thousands of ticket buyers found themselves forced to bide their time in a digital waiting room before making it onto the website. It proved the highest number of single tickets sold in one day in OA’s history.

A friend of Piterman’s who was caught up in the queue texted him to ask if he could do anything to help. “There was actually nothing I could do, which was terrible but also fabulous. And he got his tickets and they’re great seats so it was fine.”

Josh Piterman as the Phantom in London’s West End, 2019. Photograph © Johan Persson

Piterman’s love affair with The Phantom of the Opera began when he heard Anthony Warlow sing Music of the Night on his 1996 album The Best of Act One.

“People have said, ‘how do you feel stepping into a role in this country that people like Anthony and the late Rob Guest made so famous?’ I mean, it’s terribly nerve-wracking, they became icons of Australian theatre. But I’m actually just really grateful to those men who gave their hearts and souls to this show and this role, and put it in a position where this country adores this show – and that’s why [this new production] broke box office records on the first day,” says Piterman.

“It’s because of them and because of Marina [Prior, who played Christine Daaé], and because of everyone that put their heart and soul into the two previous productions in this country. It’s immense gratitude, I guess. I feel a lot of that at the moment. I really missed being on the stage, and I now know how quickly it can all be taken away, so it’s just been a reset of values.”

Piterman’s stage credits include Tony in the 2010 Australian production of West Side Story, Bustopher Jones/Gus/Growltiger in the 2015/16 Australian production of Cats, Gerry Goffin in the Australian production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Corny Collins in the UK tour of Hairspray. He has also performed with The Ten Tenors.

In 2019, he sang the iconic aria Nessun Dorma as part of an Australia Day concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. A casting director in London, who was involved with the West End production of Phantom, happened to be sent footage of his performance and contacted him to say they would love to see him when he was next in London.

Piterman describes that performance of Nessun Dorma as “one of those key moments in your career that you can literally hone back in on and say, ‘that was absolutely defining’. I had done a lot of work not just on that number but on myself post-Beautiful and I was hungry for a moment like that. If you speak to performers they’ll tell you there are times when you feel like you completely transcend self. I can’t remember the performance at all. The only version of it in my head is the version I’ve seen since on YouTube, but it was very special.”

“So that footage landed in the inbox of the casting directors for Phantom and they were just keen to see me when next I was in town. Lottie, my partner, was in Sydney at the time and she was going back to the UK, and I just thought ‘I’ll go back with you’. I went back a week later, and the audition process started, and by July I’d moved over to London.”

“It was pretty crazy that [something like] that can happen in this world. It’s sort of movie scripty. Just magic. So, in many ways, I’ve had a journey with Phantom since I graduated uni in 2006, I auditioned for Raoul for the 2007 production that Anthony and co were doing, and got right down to the end and didn’t get the role. Then 18 months later, I was in The Ten Tenors, and they needed somebody to understudy the Phantom and Raoul. I was in Germany, and the casting people happened to be there at the time, and they flew me from one part of Germany to the next. I did the audition and got the gig but couldn’t get out of the [Ten Tenors] contract. So, this show has just been coming in and out of my life for 15 years.”

Josh Piterman and Kelly Mathieson in The Phantom of the Opera in London’s West End, 2019. Photograph © Manuel Harlan

The production we will see in Australia is different to the West End production that Piterman starred in. It features the original costumes, designed by Maria Björnson but new staging, which has been seen in touring productions in the UK and the US.

“I haven’t seen it, but I did catch up with Seth Sklar-Heyn who’s the Associate Director and we had a bit of a chat about it. The staging of it is vastly different. There’s still obviously the chandelier and that’s a pretty epic moment in this”, says Piterman, who adds that the production brings the characters “into this more naturalistic realm”.

“I’m really looking forward to exploring some deeper levels and some nuance and truth within the Phantom. Obviously, he’s still deformed and all those things we know about him, but if we’re going for something more naturalistic, I’m really interested to see what else I can find within him. He’s such a complex man, so deeply flawed and insecure. A lot of the work I was doing last year was studying Carl Jung and those male archetypes of the warrior, the lover, the magician, and the king, and the shadow selves that go with them. I think it’s like the warrior is the sadist, and the magician is the manipulator, and the king is the tyrant, and the lover is the addict. There’s so much of that stuff that I go ‘Oh, the Phantom is so much shadow-self stuff’, so I’m really looking to hopefully getting to put some of that into it.”

Though the Phantom is a formidable presence when he’s on stage, he’s not actually on stage that much during the musical. So how does Piterman keep himself in his headspace?

“You say he’s not on stage that much, but there is so much hiding, there’s so much time when you actually are on the set hiding and listening in, and what I never did [in the West End] was never stop listening,” he says. “There’s probably – I don’t know in this production – but in the original I’d say there’s 20 minutes of hiding onstage, it’s a lot of time that people are unaware of.”

“I really, really listened and I’ve found that is a really great way to just stay present to every beautiful moment, everything that happens on stage. I’d never done a role that was like that, but then his headspace is vastly different to mine, so I became quite ritualistic about how I got into him every performance. I have a sort of moment in front of the mirror –  mirrors play a big part especially in the opening scenes – so I have a moment in the mirror of putting the mask on and sort of transporting myself, and then once the makeup’s off at the end, I go in the shower and actually wash it off.”

That way, he says, he steps completely out of character and can leave the darkness behind.

“I’ve learned from doing previous characters that are on the sort of darker side, even Jerry Goffin in Beautiful, [that you need to do that otherwise] you run the risk of going down some pretty dark holes, especially with someone like the Phantom, so, yeah, I made sure that there was some clear strategy around entering and exiting.”

Josh Piterman with Esther Hannaford in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photograph © Joan Marcus

In 2013, after performing in the UK tour of Hairspray, Piterman was feeling pretty burned out. Returning to Australia, he left performing for a while and set up a fitness business.

“I was married at the time, and I just didn’t think I was fulfilling my purpose anymore. I started to get a lot of anxiety and a lot panic attacks and all sorts of stuff, and just really struggling with mental health,” he says.

After taking some time out, he got a call from Enda Markey asking if he’d audition for a production of Blood Brothers he was planning to produce in Melbourne.

“I hadn’t done anything in ages, and Enda was like ‘just put an audition down for me’, so I did and then the next day they cast me, and I was like ‘I’m back home’,” says Piterman. “Back home but valuing it differently.”

“I think I spent the first part of my career, as many 20-something-year-olds do, just trying to ascend, just trying to climb the ladder of success and be noticed and be valued, be seen, be [thought] worthy. And I realised that that doesn’t work so it became about the work itself. That’s what I’d missed – the work, the craft, the exploration of character, the exploration of my voice. And since then my career has been very different for the last six years and more fulfilling in every single way.”

His partner Lottie is a singer/songwriter but is also very focussed on wellness. Piterman himself practices meditation on a daily basis. “I spent last year teaching meditation and did my certification,” he says.

“When I had my divorce, that’s when I started meditating. When I was having panic attacks, I said I cannot possibly operate at this level of anxiety and stress for the rest of my life, and so I started meditating and I try to do two sessions a day. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s been a life saver. It’s been a journey of understanding, not just at a chemical level of what’s happening with stress, but it’s been a journey of self I guess.”

He believes that it can be helpful for any actor, given that actors draw on themselves to create characters; if they can go deeper within themselves they will have more to draw on. “I think as a society there’s a lot of grasping of external things to fill some void, and there isn’t a lot of time when people just close their eyes and go inward.”

Asked if there are other dream roles he’d love to one day play, he says he’d love to play Jekyll and Hyde in Frank Wildhorn’s musical. “I just love that legit style of mega-musical singing, and complex male characters, and if we talk about shadow-self, I mean…. But more importantly, I’d love to do something that’s never been done. I would love to start something from its embryo, and be in that room with other actors, around a table, discussing ideas, all just putting pieces of the puzzle together until the baby come to life; that would be the most special thing. We don’t get that many opportunities in this country to do that, so maybe that’s part of the desire with living overseas. I hope that changes, we’ve got some great producers in this country who have dabbled in [creating new work], and are continuing to explore that, so maybe that will be an option.”

The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Sydney Opera House, 3 September – 29 October, and at Arts Centre Melbourne from November

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