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]

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