Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Grimsleys and San Diego Opera: All in the Family

Photo: SORS Seattle

INTERVIEW: San Diego Opera

Civic Theatre

On Oct. 14, San Diego Opera’s 2017-2108 season will open with several firsts. Gilbert & Sullivan’s much-loved comedy, The Pirates of Penzance, will be the company’s first performances of English operetta. Perennial SDO favorite bass-baritone Greer Grimsley will share the stage with his real-life wife Luretta Bybee in her SDO debut.

Photo: SORS Seattle
The husband and wife team frequently have performed on stage together, most recently in Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman and in Sweeney Todd with Vancouver Opera. The excitement is palpable among San Diego opera lovers to witness this family collaboration in the SDO season opener at the Civic Theatre.

Erica Miner: As always, San Diego is thrilled that you’re coming back, Greer! We can’t get enough of you here. Since singing Scarpia here in Tosca in 2016, what are some of the highlights of your past year and a half?

Greer Grimsley: Oh my gosh. Right after the Tosca, Luretta and I were in Glimmerglass. Then I did the Finnish production of Götz Friedrich’s Walküre in Japan, went to Minnesota to do their new Rheingold and Siegfried. And I was at the Met. Now we’re home in New Orleans. 

EM: I recently interviewed Matthew Shilvock at San Francisco Opera. They’re so excited about your singing Wotan in their Ring next season. 

GG: I’m so excited about that. I’ve been friends with Francesca (Zambello) since we were both starting in the business. I am excited to take on her Ring. Though San Francisco is such a terrible place to be [Laughs]. 

EM: That Ring is going to be a major happening. 

GG: I think so. Oddly enough, a good friend of mine, Falk Struckmann, is going to be the Alberich. We first met at the beginning of our careers in Basel, Switzerland. I haven’t seen him much between then and when we saw each other at the Met for Fidelio. It was like very little time had passed. It was nice to be connected again. We’re going to be working together in San Francisco and Dallas, for Dutchman

EM: You and Luretta recently celebrated your 30th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! 

GG: Thank you! 

EM: Did you start performing together before or after you married? 

Luretta Bybee: We met on a tour with Houston Grand Opera, which used to be the old Texas Opera Theatre tour. He was singing Escamillo, I was singing Carmen. Then we synchronistically ended up on the Peter Brook Carmen tour. It was a real luxury to spend our first two years together working, a way to really get to know each other. It actually started 32 years ago. Most of that time, we were performing. 

EM: And somehow you found time to get married. 

GG: [Laughs] Two years after. 

LB: We got married in Central City, when I was performing Suzuki. 

EM: You’re performing Suzuki, and dealing with a married guy who leaves his first wife and marries someone else. That’s an interesting scenario. 

LB: I had been married once before, and Greer twice before. We were pretty much free and easy at that point and had no plans to get married in Central City. But the late conductor Mark Flint took it up on himself to plan our wedding, so we got married while we were there. 

EM: A conductor conducted your wedding, that’s amazing. 

GG: He actually ended up playing the organ for us in the service. In Central City. there’s a sweet old church right across the street from the opera house. That’s where we committed the deed. 

EM: A lovely story. Do you remember what you performed together right after you got married? 

LB: I went right back into performances at Central City. Where were we after that? I think I went to Miami to do Rossini’s Saliero. Greer was still kicking around, not getting much attention. I’m running my rear off trying to make ends meet. And people were trying to figure out what to do with him. 

GG: [Laughs.] I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. 

EM: Looks like you got some inspiration and luck from Luretta. 

GG: Of course. 

LB: And a lotta help! 

GG: [Laughs.] That’s true. 

EM: That’s what partnerships are about. As for Pirates, this will be the first time San Diego operagoers will see you two perform together on stage. What were some of your previous joint performances?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: We did lots of Carmens. 

GG: Le Nozze di Figaro. I did the Count, she did Cherubino. 

LB: Tales of Hoffmann. We were in the Ring together in Seattle every time. 

GG: Dutchman

EM: Yes, I remember it well. 

GG: Early on, Luretta was singing the Page in Salome. I just happened to be there with her and they lost their Second Soldier. I learned it very quickly and jumped in, so we’ve done that together as well [Laughs]. 

LB: And Sweeney Todd

EM: Re Salome, while I was at Santa Fe I spoke with their wig director David Zimmerman. Do you know that your head is still there? 

GG: [Laughs] Yes, I do! From when I was John the Baptist. 

LB: We also have one of his heads in a cabinet in the garage, the first one that was ever made. 

GG: [Laughs] You would call it a Paleo head, from the time where they actually put plaster on your face. I had to hold my neck with a towel, in a chair, two straws in my nose, while they applied the plaster to my face to make a mold. It’s seen better days, but I guess in a pinch it could be used [Laughs]. 

LB: I remember having to send it overseas to him for some production. It was wrapped up and I had to declare what it was. It was sort of bizarre trying to explain it to the Fedex guy, “This is my husband’s head for a show.” 

EM: They’ve made movies with that theme. 

LB, GG: [Laugh.] 

EM: Your head is floating around the world. Not many people have that distinction. What are some of the pros and cons of sharing the stage with your spouse?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: I’ve been wondering about that for lots of years. There are cons that people would expect from couples sharing the limelight - egos - but for us there’s never been an egotistical issue, maybe because in a way we’ve been on different trajectories. I love the theatre and I’ve had plenty of time singing title roles. After (daughter) Emma was born, I lost the look for the high pressure of being the person that the show rode on. So, I’m really happy doing secondary roles, which keeps my foot in the door. I’m also in my 15th year of teaching, and am doing a blog. We never butted heads like a lot of our colleagues. Greer, when he’s under pressure doing big parts, doesn’t carry a lot of baggage with it. I remember reading the book about George London, how he would check into a hotel the night before singing Wotan. The family would have to stay away. It was set up early on when we had Emma, and Greer was doing Giovanni, that if he needed to he got up in the middle of the night, rocked her or whatever. So there’s never been this “mystique” around what’s necessary for performing. We tend to perform best when we keep things as normal as possible. 

GG: And oddly enough I’ve never found a downside performing with Luretta. That’s through all situations. No matter what, if there was something we were in need of, advice, whatever, there was never any ego in the way. We always knew we were operating for each other’s best interests. The trust factor is also a part of performing together. Knowing there’s someone there who knows you so well that you trust, who’s also reassuring. 

LB: It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but if you’re really invested in the other person’s well-being and success, all you want to do is celebrate it. It doesn’t pose any problem, really. 

EM: It’s a testament to how balanced you are, as people, as personalities. It’s also the key to a successful partnership offstage. It’s not easy when you’re opera singers, but you seem to come to it from a very balanced perspective. I admire that. 

LB: Don’t get me wrong, we’ve definitely had our ups and downs. 

GG: [Laughs.] 

LB: But we’re on the same page about looking for balance in our lives. That helps a lot. 

EM: Luretta, you’ve performed in a number of lighter operatic works, notably H.M.S. Pinafore and A Little Night Music. For you, Greer, this seems to be more of a departure from your heavier repertoire. What is the appeal for you in works like Pirates?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
GG: The appeal is being together. Early on in my career I did Pirates, Carousel, Desert Song. Student Prince I did several times, also Merry Widow. I think I came to opera because I loved music theatre. I studied classically because I wanted to have an edge in the theatre, and fell in love with opera. But I do love the music theatre genre. I look at it as another facet of performing possibility. When the Pirates opportunity came up in San Diego, we were scheduled to do it with Emma as well. It was originally supposed to be the three of us. That was the big draw, to do this together. Then Emma was employed to do the Phantom of the Opera tour, an opportunity for her that we all agreed was not to be missed. She’s exploring all facets of performing as far as singing is concerned. I think it’s different now for young singers than it was for us. I hope we’ll get away from being segregated as classical artists vs. musical theatre, and it will have a cross-pollination again. 

LB: Also, we love San Diego. I did a Young Artists program there before I really got started. Then I came back for two seasons – Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes and one of the dancers in Merry Widow. I’ve made a lot of friends there. We just really like San Diego. 

EM: What’s not to like? 

LB: In roles where it’s just a romp and there’s not a huge amount of pressure, you can really just sit and enjoy a sunset… and we love both the director (Seán Curran) and the conductor (Evan Rogister). We’re so excited about that. Seán is just a ditch - I did a Candide and (to Greer) you did a Salome with him. Remember where we all stripped naked because he wanted us all depraved? [Laughs.] 

GG: [Laughs.] I’m not sure we should include that. 

LB: He wouldn’t care, he loved it. And Evan we met when he was assistant conductor on the Ring cycles in Seattle. 

GG: He’s gone on to have a wonderful career now. I sang with him after the Ring a couple years ago in Salome in Dallas. He’s developed into a fine young conductor. 

EM: About Emma, was she bitten by the performance bug because you encouraged her, or was just around it all the time, or did she come to it on her own? 

GG: I don’t think we’ve come down to a single answer. 

LB: I think the exposure made a huge impression on her. Meeting and getting to know all these fabulous artists who are well beyond petty parts of the business that young singers have to deal with, though sometimes she says she feels very much alone as a young singer because her peers don’t really understand - they’re just learning what happens in big productions in big companies. Diane Zola, who ran the Houston program for years and is artistic administrator there now - she was maid of honor at our wedding, we’re very good friends. About Diane Emma said, “Mom, it’s really hard when people bring up Diane Zola and say she’s so important, and I remember her being at my first birthday party and babysitting me.” But I think Emma is so enamored of the art form of opera. she got a degree in English and Women’s Studies, so there are parts of opera she thinks are chauvinistic and disappointing, but she has a very small group of friends who love opera, and want to see it survive in a good way. They call it, “Fighting the good fight.” Emma describes herself as living at the intersection of opera and musical theatre. In some ways her voice really thrives in musical theatre, she has a propensity for it. But I also remember her singing “C” above high “C” in perfect pitch - she was uncanny that way - and she can hear parts in the orchestra. She sat for hours, listening and never got bored. She was always curious. The stage manager would make her honorary stage manager. Her big treat was rolling up the tape from the floor at the end of rehearsal. We had a closet full of balls of masking tape. 

GG: [Laughs.] I don’t think it was osmosis, but she was exposed constantly. She did go through this phase in high school where she didn’t want to have anything to do with singing. She just stepped back. Then she joined the choir. But she never gave us any inclination that she was driving for it. 

EM: Maybe she didn’t know herself. 

GG: I think so. But it somewhat clarified for her when she got to New Orleans here to study. 

LB: I don’t know - I ask myself this question everyday - I think guiding someone toward passion for a certain art form is a good thing. I remember two things that happened with Emma. One was that she made a comment at some point that she was bored. I said, “You can be bored if you want. Stupid people get bored, and you’re not stupid.” The other thing I said - I caught her at a good time when she was enjoying a rehearsal - was, “Isn’t this exciting?’ she said yes, and I said, “And you’re welcome to be here anytime, as long as you can be quiet and not get yourself in trouble.” That stuck with her. She could sit for hours. Sometimes she would draw pictures of what was going on, or take her own notes for her dad and me. “You should be careful with the spada, the sword, when you’re wrestling with Don José.” 

GG: Yes [Laughs]. 

EM: That’s amazing. 

LB: I guess she really was in love with it, wanted to be a part of it so much. 

EM: What will you two being performing together in the near future? 

LB: The only thing officially on the books and signed is Dutchman in Dallas. Next month at Loyola we’re having a Dramatic Voice Symposium. Peter Volpe will be here, Brenda Harris, Melanie Helton, possibly Allan Glassman, among others, and the two of us. We’re going to do a Gala concert at the end. Plus there’s a discussion of a possible Sweeney Todd that hasn’t been solidified. 

GG: It’s just when the opportunities come up. Sometimes they come up in clusters. Sometimes it takes a while [Laughs]. We’re always looking for that chance. 

EM: And the universe will bring it to you. Opera lovers are always looking for opportunities to see the both of you, and I can’t wait to see you on stage in San Diego! Thank you so much, you two, for spending time with me. 

LB: It’s wonderful to talk to you. 

San Diego Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance will run at the San Diego Civic Theatre from Oct. 14-22  and will be broadcast on October 21, 2017 at 8 PM on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM (97.7 FM Calexico) and online at www.kpbs.org.

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera


Photo credits: SORS Seattle, Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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