Operatic Baritone Greer Grimsley: Villains Are His Calling Card

Because of the undeniable audience appeal of Puccini’s Tosca, San Diego Opera has mounted a production of this popular opera every seven years since 2009. Audiences expect casts to change over the years, but the company has remained steadfast casting baritone Greer Grimsley in the role of Baron Scarpia, the opera’s black-hearted villain.

Greer Grimsley as Baron Scarpia [photo (c.) Corey Weaver]]

“I keep coming back to Scarpia because it gives me a chance to delve into a character who is completely unlike me,” Grimsley explained. As Rome’s Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia wields extraordinary power over ordinary characters in the opera including the opera star Floria Tosca, her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, and their mutual friend Angelotti, a political enemy of the monarchy.

“Scarpia is educated and highly cultured, and he justifies everything he does because he is executing the will of the Queen. But he is not above indulging in side benefits, such as trading Tosca’s favors for the release of her lover undergoing torture in an adjacent room.”

The celebrated Italian baritone Tito Gobbi made his career singing this role in the mid-twentieth century. “Gobbi said that he always found something different in the role every time he sang it. So each time in rehearsal I think of different ways to sing a phrase or understand the character’s motivation, and of course different stage directors and conductors also influence your interpretation.”

Many credit Puccini’s memorable tunes as the reason his operas stay in the repertory, but Grimsley sees something deeper. “Puccini’s style gives us dramatic insight into life in the midst of chaos; he helps us understand the emotional journey in that chaotic state.”

When opera companies and all performing arts had to close down because of COVID, Grimsley was devastated. “When everything shut down, it would have been one of my biggest years—there were house debuts that never happened because of COVID. I understood why it had to happen, but it was tough.”

Grimsley turned to teaching and vocal coaching during the pandemic. “I was very fortunate to work with the University of Colorado, Denver, in an online program where I worked with younger singers and kept them motivated.”

The art form, however, has not completely rebounded, in his opinion. “In productions where I have recently performed, attendance is not like I remember it, and I think companies are struggling to get audiences back. It is the same way on Broadway, where many shows are closing after short runs.”

Grimsley is excited about singing in Santa Fe Opera’s upcoming commission The Righteous by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Tracy K Smith. Now in its workshop stage, The Righteous is scheduled to be premiered in the summer of 2024. Spears attracted great attention in the musical world with his 2016 opera Fellow Travelers, an opera about Washington D. C.’s lavender scare during the McCarthy era. Commissioned and produced by Cincinnati Opera, Fellow Travelers has been produced by 13 opera companies since its 2016 debut. Most new operas are fortunate if they are revived even once.

Although Grimsley’s career has centered on the standard repertory—roles in operas by Richard Wagner and other major 19th-century composers— this Santa Fe Opera project resonates with his early opera training in the Houston Grand Opera Studio. “It was our mission in Houston to look for new operas, and we were always workshopping new pieces.”

Looking beyond this post-COVID period, Grimsley is confident about opera’s future. “There is an abundance of young singers, a huge pool of talent that is still interested in the art form because it connects us with our humanity. We are story tellers, a function that is ancient; it goes back to people sitting around a campfire talking about a hunt.”

San Diego Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ opens Saturday, March 25, 2023, at the San Diego Civic Theatre, with additional performances on March 28, March 31, and April 2 in the same venue.

Leave a Comment