BWW Interview: Heroes, Villains and the Undead: Greer Grimsley Plumbs Seattle Opera's Depths

From king of the gods to wicked nobleman to villainous prison warden, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has impressed audiences worldwide with his astonishing vocal and dramatic range. On May 7 he reprises one of his signature roles with Seattle Opera: the tormented mythical mariner who finally finds redemption in a remarkable young woman obsessed with the legend surrounding him. Wagner's Flying Dutchman.

EM: Greer, it's such a pleasure to speak with you again. I feel terribly spoiled, being able to interview you twice in as many months. How lucky am I? Have you started rehearsals?

GG: Yes, we're about a week into rehearsal.

EM: Since your Seattle Opera debut in 1994 as Telramund in Lohengrin you've sung more Wagner roles with the company (Dutchman, Wotan, Kurwenal) than any other composer's. Does this have more to do with your own choices, the company's repertoire choices, or a combination of both?

GG: It's a combination. I think when the repertoire is there, then the opportunity is there. There's a Wagner clause in the company's Mission Statement, which is to be on the forefront in this country of Wagner and The Ring and be ambassadors for that particular repertoire. That goes back to the founding of the company. Speight (Jenkins, former general director) took it and ran with it. In part Seattle has been my artistic home for seven years because of all the Wagner that was done, but also the other repertoire I was asked to do.

EM: Since you first performed the role of the Dutchman for Seattle Opera in 2007, has your view of the character and/or your approach to the role altered or evolved in any way?

GG: You know, Erica, you always have great questions. [Laughs.]

EM: And you always have great answers.

GG: [Laughs] I would like to think that the more you live with the music, with the character, there are lots of things that you see as you gaze deeper into the character and the music and what Wagner put together in his music theatre sense - that the music and words and drama and emotional life are all there. The more you live with those things, the more you hear the emotional life of the character differently. So with the text and through different productions you can delve deeper into the whole idea of predestination, how the Dutchman got there, what sort of character he is. It's a fascinating and interesting journey. I think if you're a committed craftsman and artist that you can't help but look at it differently. The last time you and I talked I shared the little Zen axiom, "It's the tree that does not bend in the wind that breaks." I believe it's the same thing with performing artists and musicians, that it's being supple, not just in your body but also in your thinking about all kinds of ways to approach music and characters. They can't help but grow in that sense, because you're constantly adding things. Some things grow and others drop along the way.

EM: Do you feel you're also approaching the role differently vocally as well as dramatically?

GG: Yes. From the first time I sang Dutchman years ago to this point, there's a bit of water under the bridge. I've talked to other singers about this, that if you haven't touched the role for a bit and have two or three years in between, it's not that it's more difficult. Certain things are easier, other things just need more attention as you progress through your career. I'm sure instrumentalists feel the same way about a piece that they haven't touched. For example, this run in the (Dutchman) overture I know is really difficult to put together, especially the fingering. Having done it and struggled with it the next time you pick it up it's a lot easier.

EM: It is and yet it isn't. Certain passages in the Ring, for example.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: I talked about that in my recent lecture for the Wagner Society in New York, what it's like to prepare a Wagner opera at the Met. At first it was overwhelming but as I got more familiar it didn't become any less difficult. The stuff is just plain difficult to play. I imagine as a singer there must be some similarities for you.

GG: Yes, it is always a challenge. Sometimes it's just a matter of tempo that maybe oddly enough could be just a little faster than the last time.

EM: Getting back to the Dutchman's character, in our interview last February (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interview-Greer-Grimsley-is-the-Nicest-Villain-in-Opera-Part-1-20160211), we discussed your penchant for playing villainous roles to the hilt. Do you see the Dutchman as a hero - that is, a victim of his eternal curse - antihero, villain, or all three?

GG: He's all three. If he can't find this woman who will redeem him he's calling for the end of the world, which he knows will be the end of humanity. That's the conundrum - whether it's greed, trying to get around the Horn, the Cape of Good Hope, with his cargo, or trying to get everyone safely back as well. I know just from being a Navy brat that most captains are also concerned with the men on their ship. That's also an aspect of the Dutchman. It's a very human thing - selfish and greedy but also responsible. He wants to get that cargo back and be paid for it as well as save the lives of his men. No one wants to be responsible for losing lives. It's such a human condition, he was trying to do the best he could.

EM: And Senta?

GG: Even though he says to Senta as he meets her, "This is the face I've seen throughout this firmament," he knows if she says yes as it's happened all these years before, when he has explained to other women that they have to die, forsake their youth, to be his redemption, it hasn't worked out. When Senta says all the right things to him in the midst of it he also wants to know if she really understands what is involved, because he can't believe this is true, someone so willing to go with him. In essence that is the villainous part is that his character just wants to be released from being a person who's damned every seven years to come ashore, who can't die. Everything he's been familiar with is gone. The heroic part, I believe, is that he's trying to do the right thing, to get where he needs to go, much like the modern conditions you see people get mixed up in. The Coen Brothers are great with these characters that for one reason or another are trying to do the right thing. Like in Raising Arizona, the baby needs Pampers, and it turns into this police chase where the guy's getting shot at (Laughs).

EM: Wagner meets the Coen Brothers. Brilliant.

GG: Wagner heard the Dutchman's story as he was leaving Riga because the creditors were coming after him. At the same he was frustrated he couldn't pay them, he was also indignant that they wouldn't understand his genius and who he was as an artist, so that he had to flee. That's very close to who he was at that time. So Wagner's Dutchman is not a black or white personality, he's very conflicted and mixed. As I said the last time we talked, Wagner is a perfect example of someone who created something artistically incredible, greater than himself, greater than his experiences.

EM: Well, they say to write what you know.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: The Dutchman's choice to abandon Senta turns out badly for her. I see that as a parallel to Lohengrin's choice to abandon Elsa, though for different reasons. Do you think these plot points are analogous?

GG: Once again, the minute you said that, I thought, that is somewhat of a parallel. He misinterprets what's happening with Senta and Erik, but at the same time I know he will feel guilty seeing someone give up her life. I think there's a huge conflict there. Not that he wouldn't be angry - he would, but he also doesn't want to cost anyone their life for his salvation. That's how he got into this predicament in this first place. It's such a Hobson's Choice for him. I can't say I'll feel this way two years from now in thinking about it, but for her own good he's saying, I'm going and I spare you the everlasting damnation. So there is a certain heroic quality. That's also part of the hero myth that Joseph Campbell talks about, that the hero has to separate himself. A heroic nature that Wagner gives to the Dutchman that you hear in the music.

EM: That's Wagner's brilliance. To be able to say something without really saying it, just using the universality of music. You mentioned the word "human" - which brings up the fact that Wagner remains relevant, even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is a stretch, but do you feel that the Dutchman's "undead" aspect makes him more relevant for 21st century audiences because of all the current interest in that kind of character?

GG: I think we've always been fascinated as humans, from the first time we were conscious of dying, wondering what it would be like not to die, and what cost it would have on you. I think it is a very potent and valid point because in our society - not to sound like an old fogey - we're so disenfranchised from daily interactions because everyone's retreated into social media. We've separated ourselves from personal interactions, to connect in that way. That's why I think the whole "zombie" craze has taken hold, to wonder what that would be like. It's some part of our psyche saying you have to reconnect to humanity and what that means. Sometimes by being fascinated by what it takes to become a zombie or fight against it, that is in essence our unconscious need to reconnect. We were much more connected to the life cycle, the earth cycle, in the 18th and 19th century.

EM: Going back to your roles: Scarpia, Pizarro, Telramund and Jack Rance, vs. Jochanaan and Kurwenal. Your "bad guy" portrayals seem to dominate. Is this by design, because of vocal concerns, or just the way things have evolved for you over the years?

GG: It is a combination of everything. There are a lot more roles written for my voice type in the bad guy realm. That seems to be from when opera was first set down, that you had the lower voices associated with the more sinister side of humanity and the more clarion voices, sopranos and tenors, seem to be a natural selection for heroes, for a good guy.

EM: Basically it proves that quip that if a baritone thinks he's going to get the girl, he has another thing coming.

GG: [Laughs.]

EM: Your wife Luretta (mezzo soprano Luretta Bybee) is singing with you in this production. It sounds like a lot of fun to keep it in the family, so to speak. Her role is a comprimario one, but are you enjoying having her on the set?

GG: Oh, yes. We've always worked really well together. We always were each other's champion when it came to what we were doing, even when we're not both in the show we're each other's eye and ear. That's held us in good stead. It goes both ways for either one of us if we say, "You might want to think about how approach this a little better," and it doesn't turn into a scena. It's been a boon to me as an artist.

EM: When you can find that balance and tell each other like it is and still be able to work and profit from it, that's fantastic. I can't wait to see the two of you in the production. What's next for you after Dutchman?

GG: Once again, it's Bybee-Grimsley combination at the Glimmerglass Festival singing Sweeney Todd together. She's Mrs. Lovett and I'm Sweeney Todd.

EM: Quite a contrast from the Dutchman.

GG: Yes [Laughs].

EM: The characters' conflicts are quite different, certainly vocally, but it must be a tremendous change for you to go from Wagner to singing a musical. Is that a big switch of gears, or does it fall easily for you?

GG: I wouldn't say it's an easily done transition. We debuted these roles last year in Vancouver together. I've always known this from the first time I saw Sweeney Todd - I was at Juilliard when it premiered in New York - but the thing I discovered, the thing that struck me is that Sondheim's a musician to begin with and he loves words - oddly enough like someone else we're talking about [Laughs]. It's the same intent I believe, the use of words, and it just happens to manifest itself in Sondheim's particular form. I so respect him as a musician. Musical theatre is not something you toss off, something that you just go, "Here I come." It does require a great deal of thought and work. It's fascinating. Sondheim doesn't like to call his works operatic, and I don't want to do that, but he does do some of the same things as Wagner. The style is the American musical, but with his signature. It's unmistakably his music.

EM: It is indeed.

GG: There are so many musicals now that all start to sound the same. They're dipping from the same well, whereas with Maestro Sondheim, it's just like with Wagner. Once he found his musical voice, it's definitely him. When you hear his music you say, "That's Sondheim."

EM: And they're both geniuses. I'm so looking forward to seeing both you and Luretta in this Dutchman. And it's always such a great opportunity to speak with you.

GG: Thank you. My pleasure.

Seattle Opera's Flying Dutchman will set sail with Grimsley at the helm May 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 at McCaw Hall. (http://seattleopera.org/on-stage/the-flying-dutchman/)

Photo credits: Rozarii Lynch, Wah Lui, Gary Beechey

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