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 (http://www.laopus.com/2015/07/david-bennett-part-2-new-seasons-new.html), 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.
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]