Monday, February 22, 2016

Furlanetto Celebrates SDO Anniversary in Concert

By Erica Miner 

Famed bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto will commemorate the 31st anniversary of his San Diego Opera debut with his first American concert appearance on Mar. 5, to be held at the Jacobs Music Center at Copley Symphony Hall. The San Diego Symphony, under the direction of Maestro Emanuele Andrizzi, making his SDO debut, will accompany Furlanetto in arias from such operas as Simon Boccanegra, Boris Godunov, Don Quixote and Faust.

Furlanetto and SDO have enjoyed an exceptionally close and cordial relationship since the singer’s 1985 debut in the title role of Oberto. His international celebrity status is recognized worldwide from performances in leading roles at the world’s top opera houses. Having now performed in both the historical Mariinsky and Bolshoi Theatres, Furlanetto is the only Western artist who has sung Boris Godunov on these two Russian main stages.

EM: Welcome back to San Diego Opera, Maestro Furlanetto! We are so honored that you have chosen to celebrate your 31 splendid years with the company in your American concert debut here. What motivated your decision to perform this first American concert in San Diego?

FF: Erica, San Diego has always represented a very special place for me through all these years. When two years ago there was the shocking announcement of the possible closure of the San Diego Opera, I offered to perform a concert to let people understand the importance of an opera season and what they were going to lose. Unfortunately in that occasion it was not made possible, so here I am with the same purpose although the theater survived and continues to exist.

EM: Your repertoire for this concert includes arias from a wide variety of Italian, French and Russian operas: Don Giovanni, Don Quixote, Boris Godunov, Simon Boccanegra and others. How did you choose these particular selections?

FF: The choice of the program has been based on all the operas that I performed with you in 30 years, plus some arias or songs that I would have loved to sing but did not find the occasion to be proposed.

EM: On the subject of Simon Boccanegra, do you feel a special resonance with the role of Fiesco?

FF: Simon Boccanegra, since Abbado took it back from oblivion in the 70’s, became a very performed opera around the world. It is a magnificent piece of the late period of Verdi's compositions and it became an important part of my career. In comparison with other important Verdi roles (King Phillip excluded) this one is adding to the typical Verdi bass characters a priceless moment of redemption and humanity during the final duet with Boccanegra, making Fiesco one of the most interesting characters in the whole repertoire.

EM: You very recently appeared as guest star of the first fully staged production of the opera in St. Petersburg. Please describe what must have been an amazing experience there.

FF: Since 12 years I appear regularly in the program and in the Festival of the Mariinsky. In the past I spoke often with Gergiev about taking this splendid opera in their repertoire and finally Gergiev, who always loved it, made it happen. The success was huge and very rewarding.

EM: How would you describe the differences between singing in the new Mariinsky production to your experiences in the role with other companies such as the Met Opera and Vienna Opera?

FF: The Mariinsky production comes from Venezia and Genova Opera Theaters and it is rather traditional, very beautiful visually, lovely costumes and well sung and conducted, so I would not find any specific difference from the productions of New York, London or Vienna where these fundamental principles were the same achieved targets.

EM: At this point in your long and distinguished career, do you prefer singing on the opera stage or on the concert stage, or are you still equally fond of doing both?

FF: I am first of all an opera singer. Being on stage singing these magnificent roles and interpreting fascinating characters is the greatest privilege and honor in my artistic life. In about the last 15 years, I like to have moments of special achievements in the lieder world, especially Winterreise and my Russian recital. Opera, though, remains my first interest. I certainly enjoy so much having this frequent alternative between these two repertoires.

EM: What are some of your upcoming opera and concert performances?

FF: This spring I will have 4 different Boccanegras, New York, Barcelona, Berlin and Vienna, then the White Night Festival of St Petersburg with Boris, Assassinio nella Cattedrale, and Boccanegra. A beautiful Barbiere production in London, at the Royal Opera, will follow. A tour in Japan with my Russian recital together with Don Carlo with the Mariinsky theater ensemble and finally my beloved Don Quichotte at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in San Diego’s production - it will be, a bit, like being with you all once more.

EM: Many thanks, Maestro! We look forward to what I am sure will be a thrilling performance.

Photos used by permission of:
Igor Sakharov, Ken Howard, Valentin Baranovsky, VS, J. Kat Photo
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Grimsley Part 2: On Opera, Sports and Singers as Athletes

By Erica Miner

EM: To build on what came before - I’m sure Wagner thought about that especially with Wotan, the most interesting of all the Ring characters. What I so admire about opera singers is that many of you do roles and music that are so dramatically different. Such contrasts. That can’t be easy, to jump from one to another like Nicolai Gedda, who was flying here and there, not knowing what language he was going to sing in. I would think that would be one of the most fascinating, and perhaps difficult, things about being an opera singer?

GG: It is. I was just talking about this with Luretta. She had read a blog about some younger singers and how difficult being a younger opera singer is nowadays. There aren’t as many performance opportunities in this country for them, but also in general on the performing arts - a baseball player being considered for the Hall of Fame would be nominated if their batting average was 400, success just hitting the ball 40% of the time they’re at bat. If a performer or orchestra or dancer had that same average, they’d be done in two performances. It’s what we value in society nowadays. I fully believe it’s just because people don’t understand what it takes. You would think they’d understand that in an opera we don’t use microphones. I’ve spent the better part of my career singing without one, with orchestras that are close to 100 pieces in the pit. And people say, “You mean you weren’t miked?” No! The challenge is that the maestro is so far away if you’re way up stage, just making sure of your timing. 

EM: I think with opera, as time goes by, the tradition is lagging behind. In the 1700s and 1800s it was still evolving. Now it’s become something people look at it as something from the past and we’re trying to drag it along. 

GG: It becomes more difficult, as people are watching more baseball and football, what really goes into opera. Not to say that people shouldn’t go to see baseball or football. As a kid I loved basketball and baseball. I spent a lot of time on the basketball court. It’s just understanding what it takes. Opera’s just as skilled. There is a genetic element in being able to be an opera singer. Everybody can sing, but somewhere along the line - you didn’t plan it - you just have your voice. Even with professional athletes, there’s a genetic element. They are part of the population that has the ability to, for example, hit a fastball that’s coming at them at 100 miles an hour. They can coordinate that. 

EM: Opera singers have to train just like athletes. It takes physical stamina as well as talent. If more people understood that, do you think they’d come to opera more often? 

GG: I don't’ know. It’s interesting, because when any of these America’s Got Talent or American Idol, anyone comes out and sings anything remotely close to a trained voice, people go crazy. But they’re still using a microphone. 

EM: At least more people are familiar with Nessun Dorma. Speaking of roles: what are some of your favorites, and what haven’t you sung yet that you’d like to perform? 

GG: I’d have to start with Wotan. That’s an amazing role. Scarpia is up there as well. Jochanaan, Flying Dutchman, Mephistopheles for sure. I love singing Macbeth. 

EM: Is that role as difficult as it seems? It doesn’t quite fit into the usual niche. 

GG: It’s neither fully Verdi baritone nor Verdi bass. It’s a dark character. You have to have a lower voice to sing it as well as the top, though it doesn’t go as high as a lot of Verdi baritone roles do. Oddly enough every time I get to sing the role, I think, this is musically a much more mature opera than when he wrote it - it was written before Rigoletto. If you just heard it for the time and asked if this was an early opera or later opera, I would have said, no, it’s definitely a later opera. Despite not having a good translation of the play (Laughs) Verdi still managed to come up with an amazing representation. There are huge declamations and also a lot of soft singing. You have to be really comfortable with bel canto, at the same time knowing you can put your foot on the gas when you need to. 

EM: Being that it’s Shakespeare, the characterization must be very complex. How do you get up there and do that role - a beast for every actor who attacks it - to do that dramatically and sing. As you said, the singing is so varied. And he’s not the most sympathetic character. That’s got to be tough. The music is so divine, I guess you can get carried away. 

GG: (Laughs.) Yes, you can. The demands of the character - you’re not on stage a lot, but when you are it’s intense. The emotions after that first scene, from then on you’re either going mad or being driven crazy. 

EM: Or hallucinating. It’s difficult but it must be so much fun.

GG: Oh yes. Speaking of Shakespeare, the roles I haven’t done include Iago, which I would love to do. Having been in the Houston Opera Studio when Carlisle Floyd was one of the co-directors, I’ve never performed any of his operas. I would say he’s probably one of the reasons why I even stayed in opera. One of my first jobs in opera was after the year I spent at Juilliard. I was in Lake George as a young studio artist, and saw Susannah for the first time. My jaw hit the ground and I went, “Holy mackerel! I want to do  that.” So those two roles I think are the ones that I would love to get a hold of. 

EM: That’s quite a contrast between Verdi and Floyd. What about singing in English? Do you enjoy that, or do you find it more challenging than singing in other languages? 

GG: The challenge is that it’s my native language, and as we find shortcuts in our speech, as singers the challenge is to remember that singing is extended speech and when we extend speech we have to be a little more careful with beginning and ending consonants, just so people can understand. Choosing the right way to sing a vowel or to allow a diphthong to come into a phrase. 

EM: That’s got be tough. You’re supertitled in English but often I’ve heard people say, “It’s a good thing there are supertitles.” Some singers perhaps don’t focus enough because it it’s their native language. So I think you’re right. You have to make an extra effort, especially with English speaking audiences. Any other roles on your wish list? GG: Hans Sachs. That would be the top of the list. 

EM: Talk about a character that has so much color. 

GG: A historical character as well. 

EM: Hans Sachs - we’ll have to do something about that. Do you and Luretta ever perform together? 

GG: Yes, we do. We just did Sweeney Todd this past year, the first time for both of us, in Vancouver, and we’ll be doing it together in Glimmerglass this year. We look for opportunities in opera as well to perform together. We met performing. 

EM: What were you performing? 

GG: Carmen. She was singing her first Carmen and I was singing my first Escamillo. 

EM: And look what that led to. There’s something about Carmen. Talk about passion. 

GG: (Laughs.) 

EM: It’s wonderful when you can collaborate that way, if it meshes. 

GG: Yes. And if it doesn’t, just recognizing and saying, okay, for some reason this just doesn’t work. But for us it’s never been a problem to work together. 

EM: Unfortunately Tosca is not her role. Otherwise she could just be the one to do away with you. 

GG: (Laughs.) Yes. 

EM: One last question - your Facebook page, “Greer Grimsley is an Opera God.” How did that come about? 

GG: (Laughs) Well, I don’t “officially” have a Facebook page. It was not anything that I went after or asked anyone to do. It was completely done by a fan, started by a fan in Seattle. I have to say that the way it grew I felt honored and grateful that someone would be so moved, and continue to be. It’s very touching and flattering. It’s also a huge dose of humility. It keeps me humble (Laughs). 

EM: Finally, it’s been said you’re “the nicest man in the business,” yet you play the most dastardly villains. How do you do that? 

GG: I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t be the nicest guy in the business had I not done that (Laughs).

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Greer Grimsley is the Nicest Villain in Opera: Part 1

By Erica Miner

He’s been called “the nicest man in the business.” Yet he plays the most dastardly villains. 

For the last three decades, baritone Greer Grimsley has led an active and highly acclaimed international opera career, singing lead roles with all of America's leading opera companies and at many important European opera houses. Having made his San Diego Opera debut in 2000 in Lohengrin, Grimsley last appeared here in 2012 as Jochanaan in Salome

Married to mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, New Orleans native Grimsley studied at Juilliard, made his professional opera debut with Houston Grand Opera in Mozart’s Magic Flute, and played Escamillo in the international tour of the Tony-award winning adaptation of Carmen, La Tragédie de Carmen, directed by Peter Brook. Grimsley’s first portrayal of Jochanaan in Salome with Scottish Opera made this one of his iconic roles along with that of Scarpia in Tosca. Other roles included Méphistophélès, Wotan, and the title role in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman

SDO general director David Bennett, in an interview with LA Opus on July 8, 2015 (, said of Grimsley, “He’s amazing. I saw him last summer in Santa Fe. The voice just kind of rolls out. It’s gorgeous. Healthy, virile, big sound.” 

Grimsley is a complete singer in every sense. His powerful voice is always consistent from top to bottom of his range, vocally and dynamically; he has a magnificent elegance and stage presence; and he sings with great beauty, even playing a lecherous villain such as Scarpia in Tosca, which opens the SDO season starting Feb. 13, 2016. 

EM: We’re delighted to have you back at SDO. 

GG: It’s my pleasure. I love San Diego, and every time I get to sing Tosca it’s a gift. 

EM: Is Scarpia your signature role? 

GG: After all these years it’s one of my most performed roles. I never get tired of it. Tito Gobbi in his autobiography said, in the thousands of performances he did, one always finds something new in Scarpia. And it’s true. It’s just chock full. A lot of it has to do with the characters and the play. Puccini took this mediocre play and turned it into an incredible opera. That’s a real testament to Puccini as a composer and a genius. If you really listen and delve into his operas, they’re amazing.

EM: What was your journey to become an opera singer? 

GG: When I had to decide about college, I was wanting to be an archaeologist. But in high school I was always involved in the drama club and band and eventually the chorus. In hindsight my interest, my actions, were performance, music. Then Anthony Laciura, who was for many years at the Met as a character tenor, was my first voice teacher. He came to my high school in New Orleans to student teach my senior year. I took a few voice lessons with him and he said, “Maybe if you haven’t decided which college you want to go to, think about Loyola and studying with my teacher.” I applied and received a small scholarship from the School of Music and worked my way through Loyola in restaurants in New Orleans, full time and at night, and going to school during the day. I had no formal music training until I hit college. 

EM: That’s quite a disconnect between archaeology and music. You must always have been a real history buff. 

GG: I still am. In most cases science as well. In a way it’s an active passion. If I’m in a particular area that’s archaeologically interesting, I’ll seek it out. It’s served me well in opera. A lot of operas are based on either novels or historical figures. That research informs my characters. It was because I was passionate about history that I was able to understand the situation of the French Revolution and why Mozart was writing Le Nozze di Figaro, why Beethoven wrote Fidelio and the 9th, in response to Napoleon and post-Napoleonic Europe. Those things are important for me in delving into music. Because music is an expression, it comes out of time and experience. 

EM: Verdi was totally about that. 

GG: Aida is often written off as his opera that celebrated the Suez Canal. It’s beautiful music, but he also understood the history behind it. 

EM: Scarpia is such a familiar role for you. I’ve always wanted to know, but have never asked - do you find it anticlimactic to die at the end of the second act and not be there for the rest of the opera?

GG: (Laughs) Not really. That’s a wonderful question. I’ve never been asked that before. I’ve always looked at it as that’s where my story ends in the piece, but his influence still reaches far beyond his death for the third act. It’s a very compact and intense second act. Something had to come to a head there at that point. I think it would be anticlimactic if I did survive the second act.

EM: In a way that makes him even more powerful as a character, that he set things in motion that spell the end for everybody else later on. 

GG: Yes, and one of his themes (Sings letter/post-death theme), I don’t think you hear that until he’s writing his letter of safe passage for Tosca. The way he’s orchestrated it, you know it’s not a clean getaway.

EM: The undercurrent of impending doom. I read that when you did Scarpia at Seattle Opera, you received a “wave of applause” after you died. Did that actually happen? 

GG: It did. I don’t remember if it was in performance or in one of the rehearsals where we had an audience. I just thought it hadn’t happened, but I thought, okay, job well done. The audience was with me. I remember Speight (Jenkins, former Seattle Opera general director) was in the wings at the end of the second act, and he said, “I hope you didn’t think that was a bad thing.” I said, “No, not at all.”

EM: The audience must have gotten carried away. That must have felt pretty good. I read that you said Tosca is a perfect first opera for the novice operagoer. 

GG: It’s concise in its drama and the music is so well suited to the action on stage. There just isn’t a disconnect - very little time for someone who’s a novice, to go, “What’s happening?” Not a wasted note. Perfect structure, everything seamlessly integrated. There’s no dead space anywhere. That’s the beauty of Puccini. He’s able to let you know what the emotional life of a character is, whether or not they’re singing. Not many people know he was a fan of silent movies when they first came out. Maybe there was cross-pollination there, that he saw the power of image and music without the sound of characters speaking lines. One of the most popular musicals on Broadway was Les Misérables - Tosca is the same period, same kind of story - political prisoner, a tyrant who wants to mess with him.  

EM: What else about Tosca makes it jump out for you? 

GG: It’s so easy just to lose yourself in it. The best ideal of Greek drama in its classic era is that we come together and share in a group catharsis in live performance music - that’s the social glue. Not to sound like an old fogey, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s much easier to text than talk, to sit and watch TV, or go to a movie and watch an opera, as opposed to come to the theatre. What’s wonderful about live performance is the visceral experience - that I know when the orchestra plays and I sing, those sound waves are actually touching people - literally touch the audience. I know you felt it as an orchestra member. You feel the energy of the audience with you, an exchange of energy you can’t quantify. It’s there in live performance, as part of that cathartic experience we have. 

EM: How do you feel about opera, here and now? 

GG: As nonprofit organizations we’re constantly asked, whether from a city or from donors, to justify our expenses. All of those organizations - orchestras, ballet and theatre companies, opera companies - are community service organizations. The question should be, what is your impact upon the community, as opposed to, how much is your rent, how many patrons do you have. 

EM: That’s one thing I like so much about David Bennett. He’s been talking about community from day one - reaching out to the community, the community impact, how important it is to bring opera to the community. 

GG: Absolutely. 

EM: You did Jochanaan here in 2012. Do you find the role of Jochanaan more, less, or as challenging as Scarpia? 

GG: Yes to all of that. My musical responsibility for the role is about 20 minutes. But in the way Strauss has written this character, it’s like concentrated laundry detergent - 10 times the amount of drama in that 20 minutes than as if you were singing a 3-hour opera. Very powerful and demanding. Not a long role, but very dense. There is an example of a composer understanding, despite using almost word for word the play, the relevance of historical events and using the music to recreate the opera the way he wanted. It can be very chromatic at times, if you’re energetic and get caught up in the drama, to keep your concentration so you are singing the notes the composer wanted. Strauss was a devil - he would write notes he knew people couldn’t sing or play. 

EM: Starting off - back or under the stage - you don’t really get a chance to warm up much. And all of a sudden you’re there. Does that make it easier or more difficult for you to make your impact? 

GG: That’s a good question. I warm up before I come to the stage, but just like Scarpia - you couldn’t have paid for an entrance any better (Laughs). 

EM:Like Scarpia, you're murdered before the end. Unlike Scarpia, you’re murdered off stage - thank goodness. It must be really interesting to do that sort of thing that doesn’t quite fit the usual paradigm.  

GG: Yes. My interests have always been very mercurial - not in a negative sense but in a wide sense. I’m curious. Also I’m fed by variety. I think most musicians would say if there were a steady diet of one composer you end up losing your chops and ability to be supple with other composers. But when you’re performing other composers, the way I like to phrase it is that they all help feed and inform everything else. That’s what I love and enjoy. I do love the challenge of wildly different characters. That’s the joy of singing Wotan - not only is it an endurance test, but I love the challenge of the growth of one character as he progresses through three operas and making choices along the way.

Next, Part 2: From Wagner to…Baseball?

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Stunning Verdi Requiem by the L.A. Master Chorale

Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra with soloists. (Photo by Patrick Brown)

Los Angeles Master Chorale
Disney Hall, Los Angeles

This past weekend at Disney Hall, an inspired Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra, conducted by Artistic Director Grant Gershon, gave two thrilling, ultimately cathartic performances of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem. I caught the first one Saturday afternoon, in which the combined forces, with stellar guest soloists, gave full account to both the work's titanic musical architecture and its human-scaled pathos.

The work was originally prompted not by any religious enthusiasm on Verdi's part, but by the deaths of two towering figures he revered in Italy's artistic firmament: composer Giacomo Rossini and novelist-poet Alessandro Manzoni. Agnostic and solidly anti-Catholic, Verdi had already in his Don Carlo conveyed an acidic contempt for abuses of authority by both clerical and temporal rulers.

Ironic then that it was a respect for two "secular saints" that imbued the Messa da Requiem, premiered in 1874, with such fervid convictions. Playing some part may have been lingering memories of an early tragedy in Verdi's life, the loss to sudden illness of his wife and children. All but two of Verdi's operas are tragedies of no return. With his Requiem, he rights the imbalance by making of Catholicism's episodic liturgy a coherent narrative of direct human quest for redemption, with no ecclesiastical intermediary. He casts his soloists as ordinary people, and his chorus as a collective humanity. More than a sum of parts, Verdi's Requiem is a holistic vision, called by many his "greatest opera."

Last Saturday was one of those occasions where a masterpiece's potential was fully matched in performance...... (See here for more on Huffington Post.)