Michael Bolton is on his cell phone, talking about his current concert tour while sitting in a Chicago dressing room, when a member of the production crew interrupts him.
"I'm sorry," Bolton says, cutting the conversation short, "They're telling me the show has begun. I have to get into my stage clothes, and go out and get nailed to a cross."
Under any other circumstance, one would take that to mean Bolton was about to perform for a crowd of rock critics. In this case, however, he's being quite literal, because the opening number in Bolton's current show - a semi-theatrical spectacular entitled "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber" (which opens at the Lyric Opera House this evening) - is a little ditty called "The Garden of Gethsemane."
"It's a fun song from 'Jesus Christ Superstar,'" he says. Naturally, Bolton performs the song in the persona of J.C. himself. "Then, the next time I come out, it's as an entirely different character," he adds.
And so it goes throughout the evening, as Bolton works his way through the Lloyd Webber songbook. "I don't want to tell you about exactly what happens," he says. "But I'm playing one song after the other, and before you know it, I'm the Phantom out there, and am doing some songs from 'Phantom of the Opera.' "
That may seem quite a leap for a guy best known for rock power-ballads and heavily stylized - some would say overwrought and inauthentic - versions of soul classics. But as Bolton tells it, singing the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber was actually a fairly logical step in his career.
It started, funnily enough, with opera. This wasn't a musical style Bolton ever expected to become involved with, until one day in 1996 when he got a call to participate in a benefit concert and recording.
"I was invited to sing with [Luciano] Pavarotti in Italy," he says. "I got into opera because I had to learn what I was going to perform." That bit of private study soon became an obsession, and in 1998, Bolton released an album of opera arias, entitled "My Secret Passion." In it, he took on everything from "Celeste Aida" (from "Aida") to the famously tearful "Vesti la giubba" (the crying clown show-stopper from "I Pagliacci").
Exploring the world of opera opened a whole new world for Bolton. Part of it was that singing opera involved a totally different discipline from rock and roll, taking him to "a different place in the voice, a different kind of presence," he says. But singing opera also involved a much wider range of interpretive freedom than he had ever imagined. To take an aria or character and animate it, bringing something unique to the part, greatly appealed to him.
"When I started studying opera, I started listening to everything I could find on Caruso and Gigli, all the way up through the three tenors," he says.
"I saw how different all of their interpretations were. Different tenors took liberties that sometimes ruffled the feathers of purists, and probably ticked a few people off. But I think that's what made those singers great. Their true personalities spoke through the songs."
Get Bolton talking opera, and he speaks with unabashed enthusiasm. Like many opera buffs, he believes that the oldies are goodies. As such, his all-time favorites are two singers who were in their prime long before he was born: Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli.
"Caruso had the ultimate, king of the jungle voice, the lion's roar," he says. "Gigli had wonderful tone, one of the most beautiful, sweet, soothing voices that I have ever heard. I understand that with Pavarotti, Gigli was one of his inspirations."
OK, so Bolton has a bad case of tenor madness. That still doesn't answer how he went from singing opera to singing "The Phantom of the Opera."
Once again, it all started with a phone call: "A friend of mine who's working with me in some areas outside of music called up and said, 'I had a meeting with these people today, and I'm just going to run this idea by you.' " The idea was a musical revue based on the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and built around Bolton.
"He said, 'You can pick any songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber's entire catalog, anything he's done that's been part of one of his shows.' And that was great news for me," says Bolton. "I got to pretty much hand-pick some phenomenal songs - singer's songs."
Although Bolton has his regular band with him onstage, he's also backed by a 30-piece orchestra and 20 singer/dancers. It's a very different environment from the rock concert circuit, and frankly, he finds the change refreshing.
"Backstage at rock shows, it's not about the pure love of music," he says. "Here, it is. Here, it's about people who love the theater, who love the moment they get onstage. And it's great to actually revisit your youth, when you're awakening your love and passion for music."
Not that Bolton was a Broadway baby himself. Although the 46-year old singer grew up in Connecticut and started his career in New York, he says he never had a hankering for the stage. "I've never done a Broadway show in my life," he says. "Of course I've been to shows. But I certainly didn't grow up studying this."
Bolton doesn't seem anywhere near as well-versed in musical theater as he is in opera, but he has seen his share of Lloyd Webber shows. "I've seen 'Phantom' and probably five or six other of Andrew's great shows," he says. "And of course, I have CDs of everything from 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to 'Aspects of Love,' including everything that's being done in this show."
But don't bother rushing to the store looking for a CD of Bolton singing the works of Lloyd Webber. No such disc exists - so far, anyway. Bolton is negotiating with Lloyd Webber's representatives, and hopes eventually to release an album drawn from this show. In fact, he'd like to do even more than that.
"I'd love to take this further, I really would," he says of the show's current nine-week tour. I would love to take the show to Europe, and they're talking about London even as we speak."
Even if Bolton doesn't take his Phantom, Jesus and other Lloyd Webber characters any further, he's glad he got to know them.
"I honestly didn't know if I would love doing this, or would be kicking myself after I made the commitment," he says. "I'd never done anything like this before. But it's a great show. And not only do I not regret taking this on, I'm so happy that I did. It's a great adventure."
What: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber
Where: The Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. tonight through Friday.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $62.50
Call: 410-752-1200 or 410-481-7328