By Philippa Kiraly
It was Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera who persuaded bass-baritone Greer Grimsley that he should sing Wagner. That was for the 1994 production of “Lohengrin,” and Grimsley has sung in nearly every Wagner production here since.
Talking with him as he prepares to sing Kurwenal in “Tristan and Isolde” which opens Saturday at McCaw Hall, you are immediately struck by his speaking voice, as sonorous as his singing one.
Grimsley sang Kurwenal in the never-to-be-forgotten Francesca Zambello production of “Tristan” at Seattle Opera in 1998. In the role of Tristan’s friend, secondary to the leading Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, Grimsley received one-line reviews, describing him as “imposing,” “strong,” “reliably excellent.”
These are entirely accurate. Grimsley is all of those things, but the descriptions don’t go far enough. As the world saw in his performances as Wotan in the 2005 and 2009 “Ring” cycle, he is an actor of depth and insight as well as being an intensely thoughtful musician.
That was his second Kurwenal. In the intervening years, he has sung the role many times around the world. Now we have the opportunity to see how his Kurwenal has developed since then.
Grimsley has studied the myths and legends which make up the Tristan story, and his portrayal is an amalgam drawn from them. “I landed on a big brother, a mentor to Tristan, who is teaching him how to be the knight he should be,” he says. Kind of old-school, a chauvinist, “he’s crusty, not crazy about having a woman on the boat,” bearing Isolde under their care to a marriage she doesn’t want. Not only that, he considers the Irish princess as much lower in social standing to himself. The job of ferrying her to Cornwall is below his dignity, let alone Tristan’s.
It‘s in the third act, he says, that you really see the character, says Grimsley. “You get a perception of who he is, his devotion to his friend,” who is dying.
Grimsley says he is still in the mode of discovery of the part. “As artists, we are always in a mode of discovery,” he says. “Twelve years of doing other things brings musical insights and refinements that you discover along the way. As opera singers, we share the same lot as a Shakespeare actor, doing the same character over and over again, and finding more to pull out each time.”
This production, staged by Peter Kazaras, with Robert Israel designing sets and costumes, and Duane Schuler doing the lighting, will be very different from the last one. For one thing it uses the latest in projection technology, a style of production which was successfully used in Seattle Opera’s 2003 “Parsifal.”
“It’s not a traditional staging,” says Grimsley, who finds working with Kazaras, a personal friend and colleague, a wonderful experience. “He’s fiercely intelligent, he has an incredible eye, he’s bringing out some very interesting things. This interpretation highlights relationships in a way not always seen.” It’s almost, if you can describe a five-hour emotional roller-coaster this way, a chamber opera approach. “Hopefully, what we’ve done is an exploration of this road of Tristan’s.”
Grimsley says his biggest challenge in an opera this long is not a question of vocal stamina, it’s keeping himself mentally in the game. He has two big sections in the first act, one line only to sing in the second, and major involvement in the third. ”You have to stay with it. I like to watch from the side of the stage (when I’m not on).”
Grimsley’s career has by now spanned 30 years, but he is still in his prime as a singer. While some consider the voice the instrument, Grimsley considers the whole body the instrument, and he works to kee it in good shape. He does aerobic exercise, judicious weight lifing, biking, yoga, to keep his flexibility and balance as well maintained as possible.
He brings a total commitment to the opera he is working on at the time, and diligent preparation beforehand. Asked if there have been any operas or composers he really doesn’t like working on or with, after thinking he mentions a production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” (in which he was singing Jochanaan).
Starting diplomatically, he says he wasn’t crazy about the interpretation and how the rehearsal time was spent. But then he continues: “Instead of using the opera as communication, the director used it as provocation. I’m very open. I’ll try to make anything work, but this was the first time I found myself thinking, ‘Do I want to stay?’ It was a new production. I felt I was obligated to see if it would work. It didn’t. It was all about the director’s ego, and on opening night when he walked out, he got booed for a solid minute.”
It seems that he can always find something interesting in his character to work on. For instance, in Puccini’s “Tosca,” a real chick-lit tear jerker, he still enjoys singing the villain Scarpia. “I still look to pull out something new. That’s the extra dimension. It’s the added complexity of the character.”
From here, Grimsley heads to Shanghai for another Wotan. Asked if there are roles he has still not done he would like to do, he cites Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg,” Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” and Claggart in Britten’s “Billy Budd.”
Otherwise, he feels he is hitting all the operas, all the roles, he wants to do—Wagner, Puccini, Verdi—though sometimes it’s too much of one. “I have to say—and I love this opera—there was one year when I sang four “Fidelios” (Beethoven) and by the end of that I didn’t want to sing another.”