Thursday, October 11, 2012

Meet Our Singers: GREER GRIMSLEY, Don Pizarro

Greer Grimsley may be best known in Seattle nowadays as the King of the Gods. Since 2005, when he won “Artist of the Year” for his performance in Wagner’s Ring, the American bass-baritone has been Seattle Opera’s Wotan of choice. But Grimsley has given us plenty of other wonderful performances as well since his 1994 debut as Telramund in Lohengrin, with characters ranging from the affable (Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde) to the conflicted (Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West) to the tormented (Amfortas in Parsifal). In Fidelio, which opens Saturday, he plays the vicious overseer of the prison, Don Pizarro. I spoke with Grimsley the other day about Beethoven’s musical-political activism, about where to eat in New Orleans, and about Pizarros he has known.
Greer Grimsley sings "Abendlich strahlt" from Wagner's Das Rheingold

Thanks for your time today, Greer! Now, you’ve played many villainous characters at Seattle Opera...
Yes.

...but none with fewer redeeming qualities than Don Pizarro. Do you worry about humanizing the villain in this opera, or can you just be bad to the bone?
Actually, it’s a challenge. The way it’s written, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out this character, so you have to be very concentrated in your approach. You try to throw in as many things as you can. “Humanize?” Yes, he does horrible things. But the thing is, people who behave this badly usually believe they’re doing the right thing. Especially when you’re talking about political prisoners: Pizarro thinks silencing Florestan is for the good of the cause. In his mind he has justified all these heinous things. It furthers his megalomania, and it stays within what he believes is the party line.

At Fidelio rehearsal, Assistant Stage Manager Thea Railey, standing in for a prison guard, listens to Greer Grimsley's roar as the angry Pizarro
Alan Alabastro, photo

You mention megalomania...is it normal psychology, with this man? For me, when I try to make a leap of sympathy, to see things from his point of view, it seems like paranoia, you know, not quite normal, to get somebody to the emotional place where they’re able to sing your big aria, “Ha, welch ein Augenblick!”
Most aberrant behavior is fear-based. Steinbeck is quoted as saying: “Absolute power doesn’t corrupt, it’s the FEAR of absolute power that corrupts.” I think that it’s fear that motivates Pizarro, and everyone in this opera. For Leonore, it’s the fear of finding Florestan dead. For poor Jaquino, it’s the fear that he won’t ever get to marry Marzelline. You can go down the line. With Pizarro—it’s like those popular shows on TV where somebody leads the police on a hundred-mile chase, and when asked why they did it, it’s because they were afraid of going back to jail. When put into a fear-situation, humans will do remarkable things.

Do you get to play that fear, in your other roles? With Scarpia in Tosca, for instance—like Pizarro, another Napoleonic-era tyrant—is he a man who’s living in terror, in this way?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Scarpia has gotten beyond that. For him, it’s hubris. And he, too, believes he is advancing a political agenda.

Greer Grimsley as Scarpia at Seattle Opera in 2008, with Lisa Daltirus as Tosca
Bill Mohn, photo

Full devotion to a political party.
The thing is, even when I’m saying the character is primarily motivated by fear, you may not see that.

No, what we see is that he uses fear. He seems to enjoy the fact that Rocco is terrified of him, and everybody else in the prison.
It’s about control: crowd-control by terror. All too well we know how that works. A small group of terrorists are able to throw the entire civilized world into acting differently. And they love seeing it—it’s like goosing a frog with an electronic probe, to see it jump. They get a big charge out of seeing people change security standards, for instance.

Just to feel, “Ooo, look at me, I had an impact.”
Yes.

Have you ever known any Pizarros?
[Laughs] The closest I came was a stage director who was given to temper tantrums at the drop of a hat. In some ways I did steal some things from that. It was completely irrational, and I was very nonplussed by it. But watching other people...it was amazing, I saw it work. It’s like the little dog who walks into a group of big dogs and goes on the aggressive—all the big dogs say, [in a placating voice] “All right...okay...” In many cases that first volley is succesful.

Let’s talk about music. Have you often sung Fidelio?
Yes, I’ve done quite a lot of them.

What about other music by Beethoven?
The 9th. Just this year I’ve done two of ‘em. And I love it: it’s like going to church, it’s incredible. You get the same sentiment at the end of both pieces—Beethoven’s desire and vision for the future of humanity, post-Napoleonic.

They’re about the same idea...
...that we’re all brothers. Beethoven was in a class with Verdi and Wagner and these other composers who wanted to effect change upon society, for the better, by means of music.

Musical activists!
Exactly. For Wagner and Verdi, it was nationalistic: they wanted to see a single country come out of it. But for Beethoven, he saw what Napoleon did to Europe—he saw what a despot can do, and he wanted to do something about it. I think that’s why he kept re-writing this: he had to get it just right, he wanted it to have the impact it needed. Whereas the 9th, unto itself, is an amazing vision of the world.

Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal in Seattle Opera's 2010 Tristan und Isolde
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Now, many sopranos and tenors will say negative things about Beethoven’s vocal writing. Do basses feel the same way?
[chuckles] Well, I think everybody finds it awkward. You have to work, and that’s where the craft of singing and bel canto comes in. It’s awkwardly written, but not ill-written. It doesn’t completely fit the instrument it’s written for, which is the voice; his frame of reference is instrumental. As a singer, you have to negotiate that in the least damaging way. It’s tricky for everybody in the cast.

What about the big bass solo that opens the vocal section of the 9th symphony? The “O Freunde!” recitative?
Oh, that’s wonderful to sing. It just sings itself! But some of the ensemble stuff, later, is very instrumental, and you have to be on your game. In that sense Beethoven demands the best out of you.

It must be a nice break to do a shorter role like this after all the extremely long Wagner roles you normally sing for us. Do you like singing this more focused kind of role?
I enjoy it. For me, Fidelio is a challenge vocally and dramatically, and something I like coming back to. It’s not about the length, it’s about the character and the music.

Greer Grimsley as Wotan in Die Walküre
Chris Bennion, photo

Speaking of long roles, we’re excited to have you back next summer for Wotan in the Ring. Now the last few times we’ve given the Ring in Seattle, your wife, mezzo soprano Luretta Bybee, and your daughter have been as involved as you. Will they be here next summer, too?
Yes, Luretta is going to do one of the Valkyries and one of the Norns, and I think she’s going to cover Stephanie [Blythe, who sings Fricka and the Götterdämmerung Waltraute]. And my daughter is going to recreate her part as the “Lady in Black” in Götterdämmerung.

You’ll also be singing the Ring at the Met next spring.
Yes, after doing the High Priest in Samson et Dalila next March in New Orleans—back in my home town.

New Orleans! Do you sing there a lot?
Not as much as I’d like to. But it’s always great to get back there—that’s where I saw my first opera, where I was in my first opera. And my family is there.

What’s your favorite place to eat in New Orleans?
Oh, God...you can’t have a favorite place. Typical New Orleans conversation is sitting at a great restaurant, eating some of the best po’ boys in the world, and talking about another place to go eat. If you want classic old New Orleans, it’s Antoine’s, which is where I worked putting myself through school. (I went to Loyola University.) Liuzza’s has just been written up, and also Parkway Bakery, I think President Obama just stopped there when he was going through. Galatoire’s, for really good French mixed with Cajun; Court of Two Sisters; all those restaurants, there’s a reason why they’re famous.

You’ll be there for a while doing this opera, so I imagine you’ll be getting some fine Cajun cuisine?
Yes, usually when I get back, first thing I do is go and get a shrimp po’ boy! People go out, of course, but people also know how to cook. Sometimes the best places to eat are private homes.

Greer Grimsley at Fidelio rehearsal
Alan Alabastro, photo

So after New Orleans, you’ll go to the Met for their Ring.
Yes, I’m very honored to be doing it. I love doing the Ring, and it’s great to be back at the Met. The production looks interesting, so that’s exciting. Stephanie Blythe is going to sing Fricka, Richard Paul Fink is going to be the Alberich, so it will be a Seattle-based team. Debbie Voigt is the Brünnhilde, we’ve sung together several times.

Did you watch all the HD Simulcasts from the Met Ring this last season?
I did, plus the Making Of special, so I know all about the times when the machine didn’t work! I wanted to see what the production was like, what direction they had gone with it. I don’t think there will be many surprises, once I get there.

Have you ever worked on a Robert Lepage production?
I have: the Bluebeard that y’all did here, I did in Montreal. That was a wonderful production.

You’ve done several Rings now... ours, Venice, Berlin, Robert Carsen’s in Köln...do you get more excited about doing some productions than others?
It’s nice doing something that is a piece of history, which was the case with the Götz Friedrich production in Berlin. I worked with his assistant, who was very good about getting the spirit of what Friedrich wanted. By looking at things a little differently, but not changing the story—he set things in the time tunnel—

The famous “Washington D.C. subway station” Ring.
Which is interesting, from a visual standpoint. And it works. There’s nothing that we do in that that doesn’t tell the story. Friedrich was of a generation of directors in Germany who wanted to reach new people, who thought it was incumbent upon them to get people who’d never seen opera before into the theater, to reach as many people as possible. Now we have a rash of directors for whom it’s become all about their interpretation. But really the answer is, any time I get to do a cycle, I’m excited.

Same here. We can’t wait for May 22, 2013—Wagner’s 200th birthday—and our first day of rehearsal! Bring it on!


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