Chris Willman
March 08, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Josh Groban has a Las Vegas dream. It’s not that he wants to headline the casinos, though that should come soon enough for the operatic pop singer. ”My dream is to have my song in a fountain,” he explains, tongue barely nudging cheek. ”They’ve got all the big songs playing in the fountain in front of the Bellagio — Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman, Pavarotti. That would be cool: not being able to sleep because your voice is blaring outside for thousands of people.”

But Groban’s thoughts now are mostly concentrated a couple hundred miles north of Sin City. In a few nights, this baby-faced lyrical baritone — who’s either the male Celine or the bulimic Luciano, depending on who’s touting — will be in Salt Lake City to duet with Charlotte Church on ”The Prayer” at the closing ceremony of the Olympics. In the meantime, he’ll need to get high — into the hills to serenade some squirrels. ”I have to get used to the altitude, to sing it a few times in the open air. Walk up a mountain, just do some scales for a couple hours and I should be set. Cold air is actually not bad for singers, because it’s like putting an ice pack on a bruise; it keeps you from getting inflamed.”

He doesn’t have any history of choking, Groban says, ”but I do get stage fright. Mentally, being 20 and having my album out for only three or four months, I’m probably not ready to get in front of 3.5 billion people. Like, I don’t have the experiences that a Christina Aguilera has.” Hey, break a larynx, kid.

Come the day after the flame-snuffing, Groban is basking in the afterglow. ”We had about 15 minutes before we went on, and it was the greatest adrenaline rush I’d ever had,” he exults. Those scales were for naught, of course: Like strange bedfellows Kiss and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Groban and Church were asked, after much debate, to lip-synch. Though Groban’s not complaining, it didn’t help that NBC failed to give him even one close-up in his global coming-out party. That’s okay; at best, the skaters who hogged his screen time have a few years of Ice Capades to look forward to, while it’s the self-described ”tenor in training” who’s headed for smooth sailing.

If it seems odd that Groban fancies being a Bocelli contemporary in one breath and wonders whether he should envy Aguilera’s wealth of showbiz wisdom in the next, that’s the combination of worlds he finds himself happily straddling. His self-titled debut, produced by mentor and middlebrow popmeister David Foster, among others, mixes Italian-language traditionalism with a barrel-chested version of Enya-style ethereality, all sung in a voice that screams ”classical” — though Groban is quick to consider himself pop, in deference to classical’s crossover-loathing playa haters.

The massive international audience notwithstanding, the Olympics may not represent as big a break as Groban’s two showstopping 2001 appearances on Ally McBeal, where David E. Kelley wrote him a role as an agoraphobic high school senior with lungs of gold. The fact that Groban’s album has been in the top 10 of Billboard’s Internet sales chart since his second Ally aired in December speaks octave-spanning volumes about his appeal to folks who don’t normally hang out at the mall CD shop but do log on to en masse every time he makes another TV appearance. Moms and daughters especially. ”I’ve gotten about a hundred proposals,” admits a slightly sheepish Groban, sipping cappuccino in one of L.A.’s Silverlake-district coffeehouses. ”Nobody’s throwing their panties yet, but I’m confident that one day that will happen.”

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