On the opera stage, Greer Grimsley is today’s go-to bass baritone to portray spine-chilling villains or Satan himself. But off stage, the laid-back 59-year-old New Orleans native could not be more affable and unassuming.Grimsley is in town for San Diego Opera’s season-opening Tosca by Giacomo Puccini, in which he will sing Baron Scarpia, Rome’s Chief of Police and one of opera’s most fear-inspiring, murderous villains. Grimsley as the bad guy is no stranger to local audiences: his 2010 San Diego Opera visit featured him as Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, and 2009 was his first Scarpia for the local company.
“If I met Scarpia on the street, I wouldn’t like him,” Grimsley commented in a reservedly calm fashion, as if the Baron himself were standing at the other side of a crowded room and Grimsley did not want to cause offense. “As we observe from the outside, we are repulsed as we watch his atrocities,” which, in the opera’s plot supplied to Puccini by the playwright Victorien Sardou, include torture, murder and attempted rape.
“I understand him because he is keeping order. As a friend of the Queen, he is doing his job by using power to keep order, to keep the country safe. You could see the opera as a kind of cautionary tale of what can happen when someone has that much power. Scarpia justifies his action with religion, in part because he sees church and state joined together, as they were in Italy of that time.”
Grimsley pointed out how at the end of the opera’s first act, Puccini skillfully layers Scarpia’s fealty to religion and the state with his lust for the famous opera singer Floria Tosca. “It is such a great moment in the opera. While a huge procession is coming into the church singing the ‘Te Deum’ and canons are heard firing outside the church, Scarpia dreams of having Tosca in his arms.”
This is the point in the opera when Scarpia utters his cry that elides confession with desire, “Tosca, you make me forget God!”
Since the 1950s, Puccini’s Tosca has been subjected to an intellectual smear campaign that Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman launched in his influential book Opera as Drama, in which he dismissed Tosca as “that shabby little shocker” with a musical score that barely rises to “café-music banality.”
“For a while there was a disdain for Puccini because of the overt melodramatic cast of his music and drama. But over the years I have developed a great respect for his mastery of orchestration, for his use of leitmotif—which I think is more effective than Wagner’s—and for his ability to quote other composers and make such music sound like his own, something he does quite well in his later opera La Fanciulla del West. He displays a depth and facility only the great composers attain.”
Unlike concert pianists, who often start lessons at age three and make their debut with a symphony orchestra by age nine, Grimsley did not grow up with the notion of becoming an opera singer. Fortunately, music sneaked in the back door. In his parochial grade school in New Orleans, the young students were taught simple songs to sing at Mass, and in high school he claims to have had a great time playing the trumpet in his marching band.
A seed was planted, however, when members of his high school drama club were given the opportunity to portray non-singing roles in a production by Opera New Orleans.
“This made an amazing impression on me, because there we were on stage with tenor Richard Tucker and bass Paul Plishka in a production of Halévy’s La Juive, French grand opera. I got to play a monk and a soldier, and this made me think music and theater was something I should investigate. Let’s say it was an ember that started to burn.”
Studying at New Orleans’ Loyola University and then at Juilliard developed his vocal technique, but it was not until Houston Grand Opera Director John DeMain recruited him for the Houston Opera Studio, where he worked and studied for three years, that Grimsley became ready for the stage. His first professional opera role was the Second Armed Man in the Maurice Sendak production of Houston Grand Opera’s The Magic Flute by Mozart.
“There I learned how wonderful my colleagues were, especially the older singers who mentored us. And I was certain at that point I was moving in the right direction.”
While Grimsley loved the Italian repertory, once he sang Jochanaan in Richard Strauss’s Salome, he knew that German opera, notably Richard Wagner, would be his next career move.
“The usual conservative advice is wait until you are 40 before you begin to sing Wagner, but I was 37 when I sang Telramund in Lohengrin,” a role that later turned out to be his introduction to San Diego Opera in the company’s 2000 season.
“To sing Wagner, you need s certain quality of voice that can cut across a large orchestra, or more accurately, the voice becomes a part of the big orchestral sound.”
Grimsley has made his mark as Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, especially in the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial Ring designed by Robert LePage. He followed that Ring with the Stephen Wadsworth Ring for Seattle Opera, the third Ring cycle he had sung for that company in a decade.
“Singing an entire Ring Cycle is an athletic challenge, but it does give a singer the unique chance to shape the development of a character through three operas.”
Speaking of new challenges, Grimsley is already on board with North American opera companies raiding the musical theater repertory for new productions. He and his wife, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee sang the leads in Vancouver Opera’s production last spring of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
“Doing these musicals makes sense because many people came to opera through musical theater, although it has to be the right choice, classics like Oklahoma and South Pacific. It would be a waste to do something like Rent.”
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San Diego Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca opens Saturday, February 13 and plays through February 21 at San Diego Civic Theatre. In addition to Greer Grimsley as Baron Scarpia, Greek soprano Alexia Voulgandou sings Tosca, and Gwyn Hughes Jones portrays her lover, Cavaradossi.
San Diego Opera: (619) 533-7000; sdopera.com