This interview took place on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of the interview is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley; edited image of a publicity photograph, from www.greergrimsley.com.]
Wm: What are your earliest memories of music?
GG: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, so there was no lack of musical stimuli. When I was a kid there was a fruit-seller who sang about his produce from his horse-drawn cart. It was music as he sang about his strawberries.
Wm: Like in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.
GG: It was. The ragman would call for people to bring out their rags.
Once Motown hit, trucks would come down the street with speakers, playing the week’s hits.
But even though there was all of the city’s jazz, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of classical music.
Wm: What were your early experiences in musical performance?
GG: I played the trumpet in the high school marching band, but eventually switched from marching band to choir. I was also in the drama club.
My interests in drama and vocal music led me to pursue musicals.
[Below: Jack Rance (Greer Grimsley, center, wearing sheriff’s badge) discusses law and order with his men in the 2014 Minnesota Opera production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”; edited image, based on a Michel Daniel photograph, courtesy of the Minnesota Opera.]
Wm: What musicals have you performed?
GG: I’ve played Emil Debeque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and small parts in their “Carousel”. I was Sanjar in Bock and Harnick’s “The Apple Tree” and El Gallo in Schmidt and Jones’ “The Fantasticks”. Later I sang Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” in the Frank Lloyd Wright Theater for the Marin Opera Company.
Wm: What was you first operatic experience?
GG: I didn’t see my first opera until I was 17. I was a junior in high school and was part of the high school drama club. The New Orleans Opera asked the high school for extras who would be paid ten dollars each.
Although it was the ten dollars that drew me to the opera, it was the historic production of Halevy’s “La Juive” starring Richard Tucker. He was amazing.
Wm: What’s was that opera’s effect on you?
GG: Up until that time, my two major passions were music and theater. I knew about musical theater. Even though “La Juive” was my first opera, I was able to understand that it was a different way of combining music and drama than musicals.
I had been accepted to Loyola University New Orleans and had been planning to major in archaeology. But I made up my mind that I would pursue music rather than archaeology.
Wm: Tell me about your college experiences.
GG: My family did not have a lot of money, so I had to pay for college myself. I worked in restaurants, and became an assistant manager. Then I took two years off and managed a dinner theater in Naples, Florida. After my first year, I applied to Juilliard and was accepted.
It was one of the only schools at that time that had professional studies for opera performers. It was a lot of coursework. We had drama, voice lessons, coaching and productions at the American Opera Center. It was very informative.
At the end of my first year, I applied to the Houston Grand Opera Studio, which offered me a position. Carlisle Floyd and David Gockley were the studio co-directors. It was a thrilling experience to be a young singer, working with the two of them, especially Floyd. They convinced to stay in opera.
I ended up in the HGO Studio for three years. It was a safe place to learn my craft. After I left it, I stayed in Houston. I would get jobs here and there. As a young singer, you have these long periods without work.
Wm: Have you sung in any of Carlisle Floyd’s operas?
GG: No, but I would love to sing roles he has created. I’m interested in the title role of his “Willie Stark”, especially with its New Orleans connections. I was at its premiere. I thought it was a wonderful opera, based on William Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The character of Kingfish is something close to my heritage.
Wm: I notice you don’t have a “New Orleans accent”
GG: Well, I never have had one.
Wm: How did you support yourself during these student days?
GG: I had a friend who was a plumber, so I was his helper.
At the end of my sixth year, I was asked to be in the Texas Opera Theater’s productions of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”. That turned out to be a great opportunity for me. We took those operas on tour, and it was on the tour that I auditioned for the British theater director, Peter Brook.
He had already done a Lincoln Center presentation of “La tragédie de Carmen”, Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s work, which was about to do a second European tour. I met Luretta Bybee, the Carmen, who later became my wife. We had both flown to New York to do the auditions. We toured as Carmen and Escamillo off and on for three years, working with Peter Brook.
It was an amazing life-changing, career-changing process. Luretta Bybee is a fabulous singer and actress. It really solidified these roles for us, and how we approached future projects dramatically. Between us, we explored much further in our roles as actors than we ever had previously.
[Below: Greer Grimsley as Escamillo and Luretta Bybee, touring as Carmen, at Pompeii, Italy; edited image, based on a photograph from greergrimsley.com.
Luretta and I tried to establish our careers by auditioning for European opera houses. Luretta’s credentials were stronger than mine. I was still trying to figure out where I fit in the operatic repertory.
We heard that the Scottish Opera was doing auditions. It was that company that asked me to do John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ “Salome”.
Because of my connection with Peter Brook, this crucial landmark opened up for me. Once I knew that I could do John the Baptist, that’s when I figured out that my repertory would lead to performing Wagnerian Opera.
Wm: John the Baptist is one of your signature roles. What are your thoughts on it?
GG: You start with the amazing combination of Richard Strauss’ music and Oscar Wilde’s lyrics. It was all part of this golden age in Vienna, where the art form was being pushed in both its musical and dramatic boundaries.
A big element in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is the fascination with the moon. Everyone talks about the moon.
[Below: Salome (Janice Watson, above) is obsessed with John the Baptist (Greer Grimsley, below) in the 2006 Santa Fe Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]
Even though I didn’t go into archaeology, I retain an interest in these ancient civilizations. In Palestine, at the time of Herod and Salome, there was a great conflict happening bc the Romans were trying to impose their calendar based on the sun and the locals wanted to retain theirs that is based on the moon.
I found that these lunar images guided their conversations. The people were both upset and fascinated.
The music is glorious. It has a fabulous libretto, that, with only a few cuts, follows the play word for word.
Wm: You are now closely associated with Wagner. How did you begin?
GG: I had sung roles in all four of the operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”. At first I performed Donner in “Das Rheingold” and Gunther in “Gotterdammerung”.
For my second “Ring” I was singing all three of the Wotan roles. There was no warm-up. It was a great opportunity that I took.
Then in 1994 Speight Jenkins took a chance on me at Seattle Opera, and cast me as Telramund in “Lohengrin” in a production created by Stephen Wadsworth. In fact, I will be returning to Seattle Opera for a gala celebrating my 20 years there.
[Below: A suspicious Telramund (Greer Grimsley, left) listens as King Heinrich (Gidon Saks, center) questions Elsa (Marie Plette, right) in the 2004 Seattle production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”; edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph for the Seattle Opera.]
Wm: I’ve referred to the Seattle Opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” that Stephen Wadsworth created as a “world treasure”. Do you have any information on whether that “Ring” will be preserved for posterity?
GG: I still don’t know. It would be a shame for it just to disappear.
What I love about the Seattle “Ring” is its emphasis on storytelling and on the relationships between the characters. What I think Wagner envisioned is a revival of Greek theater, which at its best is a group catharsis.
What was started by the Greeks, Wagner was trying to be reinvent. It’s about group investment in the story, about changing peoples lives.
In Europe a lot of productions are influenced by Berthold Brecht’s argument the audience should distance itself from empathy with the characters on stage in order to gain a higher intellectual understanding. What gets perpetrated on the “Ring” are ideas and concepts that Wagner never intended.
[Below: Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, right) is apprehensive about the schemes being pursued by Wotan (Greer Grimsley, left) in the 2013 Seattle Opera production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”; edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph for the Seattle Opera.]
Wm: At this season’s Santa Fe Opera, your role is Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. What is your take on him?
The character of Don Pizarro is very two-dimensional, but all of us who sing that role try to find as much in the character as possible, without resorting to a playing him as a “Snively Whiplash” villain caricature. The reason I love doing it, is that I feel connected with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The opera composers from Mozart through Verdi and Wagner aligned with revolutionary forces and ideas. Mozart promoted Beaumarchais’ egalitarian ideas in “Marriage of Figaro”. Beethoven was a force of nature who saw the injustice about him and tried his best to convince us to support change through his music.
Beethoven wanted to change peoples lives, so did Mozart and Verdi.
Beethoven’s musical commentaries on post-Napoleonic Europe are amazing. More than ever you can see that he is trying to change the lives of people. But Beethoven’s idea of the what the world should be was egalitarian, not despotic as Napoleon himself turned out to be. That’s why I love continuing Beethoven’s message, which is as relevant today as in Beethoven’s time.
Wm: What parts of Mozart’s operas are most interesting to you?
GG: For one, I enjoy singing the final scene of “Don Giovanni”. I actually believe that some Giovannis that I otherwise admire, play the final scene too lyrically. This is when Giovanni needs to roar, defiant of deity, and refusing to take any responsibility for his actions.
The scene has to have an impact. Giovanni has to come off as arrogant as possible. As Don Giovanni’s voice, we who sing that role have to make his defiance evident to the audience.
Wm: One of the arguments I constantly make is that there is a general lack of appreciation for the dramatic innovations that Gounod, Bizet and the other French composers of the Second Empire and Third Republic Paris brought to the operatic stage. As a person interested in the drama in opera who sings both Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust” and Escamillo, do you agree with me on that observation?
GG: I think for a while in the 20th century, French opera was thought to be less serious, but I don’t agree.
Gounod, who, at one point wanted to be a priest, is very French in what he writes for the Devil. I think that the church scene, especially, is dramatically gripping.
We were talking about Bizet. I refer to “Carmen” as French verismo when the work is done right. Bizet added a new kind of dialogue for opera, but unfortunately died before he could do more.
[Below: the Dutchman (Greer Grimsley, left) embraces Senta (Lise Lindstrom, right) in the 2013 San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: What are your thoughts on performing with the Santa Fe Opera?
GG: I love it, every time I’m here. I like being outdoors and being able to go on hikes in this beautiful country. It affords these young singers a chance to get a toehold in the business. The Santa Fe Opera’s mission statement is a noble one.
You read a lot of news articles talking about the death of opera, but people are outside of the Santa Fe Opera theater enjoying tailgate parties. The parking lot is full. Everyone is excited to be here.
I think that the American Opera World should use Mark Twain’s quote that “the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
[Below: Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro in the 2014 Santa Fe Opera production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: I assume you believe that this spirit you see in Santa Fe is translatable to all parts of the United States?
GG: Oh, yes! I have worked where people have called opera as “elitist”. I’ve never felt that way. I came from not knowing anything about opera to discovering it and then having a wonderful career in the art form, because of that I feel the need to be an ambassador.
There is a lot of negative imaging that comes of opera. There are always images of overweight persons with horns on their head. When rock was first being marketed, classical music was used as something to push against.
I think we need a “discovery project”. We are still a new country when it comes to this art form.
I took part in a campaign in the 1980s and 1990s to counter that impression about classical music. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive enterprise.
Wm: Describe the campaign in which you participated.
GG: I was part of an organization called Affiliate Artists sponsored by the Arts Council and corporations. We would spend a week or so doing “informances”, sharing parts of our lives mixed in with a musical accent – art songs and and arias, telling your stories, doing a recital. I still do the “informance” version.
Every time I did that, wherever we performed, the room was full of people. We would go to corporate lunchrooms, we’d go to department stores. It wasn’t so much that people got to know my story. The program was interesting enough that people would come to the recital.
The program was constantly reaching out to new people. It successfully reached a lot of people we wouldn’t have ever known we should be looking for. If a person finds something about opera that is appealing, or even interesting to them, then they might be more inclined to try out an opera performance once or twice. It may lead to some critical thinking about the art form.
It’s not to say that this type of outreach is better than another color in the crayon box. But if persons have no information that would lead them to think that opera is something they might like, then you concede to them the cultural bias against opera.
Wm: Obviously, a large, organized campaign to promote opera could be very valuable. Are there some smaller steps that can be taken as well?
GG: I believe that when we artists share our stories with the public, it helps demystify the art form. We need to realize that when people get to know our individual stories, it can lead to greater appreciation of our art form.
Wm: That’s one of the arguments for this series of interviews and conversations on “operawarhorses.com”.
Thank you, Greer, for your time.
GG: Thank you, also.