• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Wagnerian Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley

    [Opera Lively interview # 103] Dear readers, brace yourselves for one of our most interesting interviews to date, especially if you are a fan of Wagner's operas. We have interviewed the very intelligent, insightful, experienced, and knowledgeable bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who specializes in the Wagnerian repertoire and was a phenomenal Wotan in the latest Metropolitan Opera complete The Ring of the Nibelung cycle.

    This singer has a truly amazing resumé with credits in the main opera companies in the world, which we present in detail in his Artistic Biography below - but here are the highlights:

    His Metropolitan Opera credits, which lended him a cover picture on Opera News Magazine, include:

    - Das Rheingold
    - Die Walküre
    - Siegfried
    - Lohengrin
    - Parsifal
    - Peter Grimes
    - Carmen
    - Salome
    - Tosca

    In New York City, in addition to his numerous appearances at the Met, he has performed as well with the New York Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall.

    Other first rank American opera companies have included Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Diego Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Minnesota Opera, and an upcoming debut at Los Angeles Opera, plus literally all important American regional opera companies, as well as the major Canadian companies in Montréal, Vancouver, and Ottawa.

    Internationally he has performed with the most prestigious companies, including the Liceu in Barcelona, La Fenice in Venice, Teatro Real in Madrid, Deutsche Oper Berlin (several engagements), Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Royal Danish Opera, and many others, including festivals like Spoleto, Bregenz, and Wexford, all the way to Israel, China, Japan, and Latin America.

    We met the singer in person at the Met Press Lounge for a 55-minute interview that is quite dense in information. Wagnerites, enjoy! (He does address other operatic traditions as well).

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    Singer: Greer Grimsley
    Fach: Bass-Baritone
    Born in: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
    Recently in: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, Metropolitan Opera
    Next in: another Ring cycle, Seattle Opera, August 4 through August 23, 2013 - tickets [here]. Der Fliegende Holländer, San Francisco Opera, October 22 through November 15, 2013 - tickets [here]. After Macbeth at Minnesota Opera and Billy Budd at Los Angeles Opera, the singer returns to Wagner and gets close to Opera Lively headquarters: we'll be glad to see him live on stage at our partners Opera Carolina, again in Der Fliegende Holländer, on March 22, 27, and 30, 2014 - Tickets [here].
    Artist's web site: http://greergrimsley.com/



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    Artistic Biography

    American Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley is internationally recognized as an outstanding singing actor and one of the most prominent Wagnerian singers of our day. Continuing his reign as a leading interpreter of Wotan, he sang the eminent role for the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring Cycle in the new Robert Lepage’s landmark production in the Spring of 2013. In addition to performing this role once again in the Summer of 2013 with Seattle Opera, this season his engagements have included Don Pizarro in Fidelio with Seattle Opera and the High Priest in Samson et Dalila in his hometown of New Orleans.

    He will return to San Francisco Opera and Opera Carolina to perform the title role in Der Fliegende Holländer , will sing the title role of Macbeth with Minnesota Opera, will make his debut with Los Angeles Opera as Claggert in Billy Budd , and will return to the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona to sing Wotan in Die Walküre.

    Grimsley appeared on the June 2010 cover of Opera News Magazine, featuring a 7-page focus on his role as ‘King of the Gods’.



    Commenting on Seattle Opera’s 2009 Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Seattle Times said, “Grimsley’s big, resplendent voice is the right size and color for this vital role; as Wotan, he sounds like a singer who has found his true home. He’s an adept actor, too, never overplaying his hand and relating to the rest of the cast with unflagging intensity.” He has also performed the role of Wotan in Die Walküre and Das Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and in the full Ring Cycle with the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia, Oper Köln, and on tour in Shanghai.

    Recent engagements that have let him to be labelled a leading Wagnerian interpreter include: Telramund in Lohengrin with the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Danish Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Seattle Opera; Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde with the Prague National Theatre, the Royal Danish Opera, the Opera de Bellas Artes in Mexico, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and with Seattle Opera; Amfortas in Parsifal with the Metropolitan Opera; and his other signature role as the terrifying Der Fliegende Holländer with performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna under Maestro Gatti’s baton, with the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy, France, with Seattle Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Opera Lyra Ottawa, in Lithuania, and in concert with the Syracuse Opera.

    International engagements have also included Scarpia in Tosca at the Oper der Stadt Köln, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, The Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and at the Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Japan; Jokanaan in Salome with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Aarhus-Den Jyske Opera in Denmark, the Scottish Opera, and the Opera de Bellas Artes in Mexico; Mephistopheles in Faust in Oviedo, Spain; Mandryka in Arabella with the Royal Danish Opera; Don Pizzarro in Fidelio with the Scottish Opera as well as the Portuguese National Opera São Carlos; Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West and the title role in Bluebeard’s Castle with L’Opera de Montreal; the title role in Don Giovanni and Scarpia in Tosca with the Stadttheater Basel in Switzerland; the Villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann with New Israeli Opera; and Amonasro in Aïda with Opera de Caracas in Venezuela.

    In North American performances have also included Jokanaan in Salome at the San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Vancouver Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, and Arizona Opera; Scarpia in Tosca with Seattle Opera, San Diego Opera, L’Opera de Montreal, Portland Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, New Orleans Opera, and Opera Colorado; Mephistopheles in Faust at the San Diego Opera, New Orleans Opera, and in a new production with Arizona Opera; Don Pizzarro in Fidelio with Opera Company of Philadelphia and Portland Opera; Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West with Seattle Opera; the title role of Macbeth with Vancouver Opera and Opera Lyra Ottawa; Amonasro in Aida with Portland Opera; the High Priest in Samson et Dalila with San Diego Opera; and Claggart in Billy Budd with Pittsburgh Opera.

    Also an active concert artist, Mr. Grimsley made his New York Philharmonic debut as Don Pizzaro in Fidelio with conductor Kurt Masur at the inaugural season of the Lincoln Center Festival. Additional concert engagements have included Verdi’s Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony at Carnegie Hall; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Seattle Symphony and San Antonio Symphony; the High Priest in Samson et Dalila with Washington Concert Opera; Don Pizzarro in Fidelio with the Saint Louis Symphony; and Scarpia in Tosca with Deborah Voight and the Minnesota Orchestra.

    Mr. Grimsley first came to international attention as Escamillo in the Peter Brook production of La Tragédie de Carmen, which he has sung in venues around the world, including his Italian debuts at the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto and the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. He also performed Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen with the Seattle Opera, Baltimore Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera, the St. Louis Symphony, the Teatro Real, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Scottish Opera, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.

    He made his Metropolitan debut as Captain Balstrode in Peter Grimes, and has subsequently returned in performances as Escamillo in Carmen, Jokanaan in Salome, and Scarpia in Tosca. He created the role of Canyka in the world premiere of Ashoka’s Dream with Santa Fe Opera and performed the Count de Luna in the American premiere of Verdi’s French-language version of Il Trovatore, Le Trouvère. He has also performed at the Wexford Festival in Ireland as Richard Lionheart in Marschner’s Der Templer und Die Juden.

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    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Greer Grimsley


    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola. Artist's picture from his web site, credit unknown, fair promotional use.

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    Luiz Gazzola, for Opera Lively – You are quite the Wotan specialist. You’ve sung it twice with Seattle Opera, once with the Deutsche Oper Berlin, once with Oper Köln, once at La Fenice, and once in Shanghai. You are doing the Met Ring next [at the time this interview was recorded], and returning for a third Wotan in Seattle. So, let’s focus a lot on this role. First of all, how do you see Wotan’s psychological traits? One might say that he is a rather emasculated boss God, given how he must obey his wife, and how the delicate equilibrium of power limits his ability to do as he pleases.

    Greer Grimsley – I see Wotan as having many, many human features. He is called the King of the Gods, but for Wotan, this is a god that was created in the image of the men who were living at the time and who needed this god, so he has a lot of these human traits. The whole idea of bargaining and getting the best deal and sometimes doing a little shady dealing was what life was like when people were living in this feral time. People had to make truces with those they didn’t like just to survive. So why shouldn’t their gods have to do the same thing? In that sense Wotan doesn’t see the repercussion when he does get the gold and it is cursed. In RHEINGOLD Wotan doesn’t look ahead to see the ramifications of his actions. It’s all about “let’s get this done. We have to pay the giants, and then everything will be OK.” Throughout the rest of the Cycle he – in a very human way – spends his time trying to correct his mistake.

    The thing about [laughs] being henpecked by his wife, you could look at it this way. I choose not to. I believe in Rheingold there is still a very caring relationship between Fricka and Wotan. This makes the break between them in Walkure so tragic. In their final scene together in act 2 of Walkure she tells him - reminds him - of the rules that he himself has set up. So he is trapped by his own rules. She says, “You cannot do this. You cannot allow this. This goes against everything that you have set up in the first place.” Erda warns Wotan in RHEINGOLD that if he doesn’t return the ring the gods will not live forever. He wants to fix this for everyone, not just for himself, because he feels that he made this mistake.

    OL – In listening to Wotan trying to justify his philandering to Fricka, we almost have the sense that we are hearing Wagner attempting to justify his own behavior in this regard. How much of Wagner’s own personality you think is reflected on the character Wotan?

    GG – I think there is a lot of it reflected, as with many composers. I think they impose a certain amount of themselves into their work. I have to say that there are times when I agree wholeheartedly, and then there are other times when I’m convinced that he did write things that were greater than himself. For what we read about Wagner as a man and the music he created and we find that they are often at odds. Perhaps he wrote some passages for some of his friends, as an inside joke. Who knows? That bears some more research, I think [laughs].

    OL - The theme of redemption is one that frequently occurs in Wagner’s operas. We see it in the Ring with Brünnhilde’s sacrifice. Two of your other Wagner roles, the Dutchman and Amfortas in Parsifal, are central to this idea of redemption. What are your own views of these characters? Maybe Wagner was trying to reach redemption regarding his own personal life.

    GG – I’ve thought often about this: redemption through a woman. I find that interesting because of Wagner’s relationship with his mother. Wagner operas are full of things Freud would have a field day with. There is redemption. There is also acceptance. Women throughout his operas represent transformation for his male characters.

    OL - In the first part of Siegfried, in the encounter between Mime and the Wanderer, Wotan refers to Mime’s brother as “Schwarz Alberich” – dark Alberich – and later to himself as “Licht Alberich” – light Alberich. This has led some people to suggest that Alberich and Wotan represent two sides of the same personality. Do you agree with this view?


    GG – Yes, although I don’t think Wagner intended it to be that way. It’s long before Freud, and it’s long before any other major psychological breakthroughs. I can’t imagine Wagner actually intended that. He was very interested in Eastern philosophy. There is a balance to things – the Yin and the Yang. I think that intrigued him, as well. I found that very interesting when I was first studying the RING, and it is an interesting way for him to distinguish the two of them. Perhaps it’s two different directions, two paths for life.
    We as humans naturally seek balance and symmetry, which includes the bad and the good – the dark and the light.

    OL - Wagner’s anti-Semitism has made him a more controversial figure than many other composers. Can we separate the artist from his or her views? Or does one necessarily influence the other?

    GG – Yes, that’s a much talked about subject. This is not to excuse anti-Semitism. It is awful in any age, but it was a time when in public it was a lot more acceptable, which as I said is never right or justified. He did have a grudge with the major Jewish composers in Paris whom he felt did not help him as much as he thought they should. Whether or not that was true or whether it was just his ego speaking, he felt very betrayed by Halévy and Meyerbeer. I think that colored his outlook. He spoke specifically about the “Jewish music-makers”. I’m not trying to excuse it, but I also touched mentioned earlier that I do think he managed to create things greater than that bigotry he carried. And then you have Parsifal, all through it he has this phrase repeated over and over – “through compassion you will know.” Through compassion! And this is from a man who has written those awful things and has behaved awfully, but at this point in his life perhaps he saw things differently. I hope so.

    OL – Do you give any credence to the idea that the Nibelungs are metaphors for the Jews?

    GG – You can read it that way. I tend to not to. They are mythical creatures and there were creatures like that in the folklore at the time. Also, the Flying Dutchman is supposedly the “Wandering Jew”. I haven’t found anything to corroborate this. I do find it interesting he had Jewish conductors, he insisted on Jewish conductors to conduct some of his pieces [Editor’s note: e.g., Hermann Levi], and a gentleman by the name of [Karl] Tausig who was also Jewish was the person who did a lot of his piano reductions for him. Wagner wanted his works associated with only the best.
    It’s interesting he was able to do this despite the bigotry. I believe it was more important to him that his operas be the best they could be.

    OL – Let’s switch to the singing and acting. Arguably the best Wotan moment is the long scene with Brunhilde when he strips her of her condition of being a goddess. Tell me about your emotions during that half hour of gorgeous music and great theatricality.

    GG – Of course I’m very emotionally involved. I have a daughter, and to really connect and sing that music – first of all, it’s such a gift to get to sing it! Secondly, it’s such a wonderful scene! Some of the things that he says to her at first are so horrible! I could never imagine myself saying them to my daughter. But the emotion of having to say good bye forever to your daughter… I don’t think I’ve ever sung it without having tears in my eyes.

    OL – Now, tell me about the vocal challenges of the role. What makes Wotan difficult? What are the different challenges you encounter in the three different operas where Wotan appears?

    GG – That’s a great question. I believe the challenge of Wotan is that you have to show his exuberance and the youthful blindness in the first scenes of Das Rheingold, but towards the end of Das Rheingold, the lesson is starting to be learned. Then as you go into Die Walküre, there is a more worldly quality that you need to have in your singing; a more settled and focused quality. For Siegfried, you need to convey the sense that Wotan has learned so much more than he knew in the previous operas, and that he finally sees the way that this is going to be resolved. He is on a spiritual journey. The way I see Siegfried for Wotan is that he’s resolved a lot of his issues. Instead of being a conqueror of things, now he conquers knowledge. He is completely focused on that, and he’s learned so many things, which he tells Erda. Showing these different qualities of Wotan’s character is a big challenge, and you have to think about it without jeopardizing your technique and your basic sound, but you also have to act with your voice as well. This is true of any opera, but in the RING you have to show all of these delineations between the three operas.

    But yes, it is a huge challenge, and the stamina that is involved, you have to know that you can do it, and then do it. The biggest vocal challenges are stamina, the vast range changes in the three different operas, and the massive orchestral density. Combine all this with complicated text and the need to stay focused over long periods of time and I believe this is why Wotan is so daunting and yet so deeply rewarding.

    OL – Of the three, which one is the most difficult?

    GG – I would say Die Walküre is the trickiest for me because I can lose myself in the emotion.

    OL – Right. So, what is your opinion of the Lepage staging and his famous Machine? I confess that I am very ambivalent about it, feeling that it makes the huge Met stage seem cluttered. For the singers, is it an asset? An obstacle? Both?

    GG – I’m the sort of person who looks at things as a challenge and tries to make them work. There are many things about this Lepage design that show promise and a new direction for opera, but it can be challenging. There are physical challenges, but those aren’t things that I ever shied away from. When I was a young singer I worked with a few great acting teachers. Their one common idea was “Don’t say, ‘I can’t do that.’ Always say ‘let me try that.’“ It would have been fun to be there at the beginning of this Lepage Ring and play with it as well. As long as you have time – and this is always the enemy of non-profit theater – when you have a concept piece like this, you need the luxury of time for singers to feel comfortable, but that takes money. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of that, even at the Met. It’s wonderfully funded and rightly so, but time is always an issue. Having only seen the Lepage production on television before starting rehearsals here, I found it much more impressive sitting in the theater. I would have gone even further with some of the projections. It’s an interesting concept, to me.

    OL - In any case, is singing Wotan at the Met more challenging or more exciting, as opposed to the various other times when you did it in other houses?

    GG – Singing at the Met takes on a very different aura, because it’s the Met, and it’s a great honor always to be here. I think about the singers I used to listen to who stood and sang on this stage. To be able to perform on the same stage makes it hard not to have a smile on one’s face the entire time. It’s amazing, it really is.

    OL – When you sing a particular role so frequently, what do you do to keep the character fresh and interesting for you?

    GG – It happens by itself because I’m always looking for something new. In Tito Gobbi’s book about Tosca, he said he always found something new in his Scarpia. He must have done a thousand Scarpias. I remember reading that book as a young singer, and thinking ‘of course, you have to find something fresh, some different way. But with the Ring, it is so dense that you could sing it for twenty years and still find new things in it.

    OL – So, let’s talk about the other Rings you’ve participated in. I’d like to compare and contrast these different productions, and ask you to share with us some memories of them, or at least, three of them: Seattle, Berlin, and Venice.

    GG – OK. Seattle has the distinction right now in the world to be the only natural looking Ring left. It’s not a concept Ring. We take a great deal of time to find the relationships between the characters, even when we remount it. There is quite a long rehearsal period for this. The scenery is beautiful. It’s a wonderful treat for the eyes, if someone is tired of seeing concept pieces. It’s a beautiful, beautiful Ring. People respond to seeing the characters actually speaking and relating to each other.

    That said, the Berlin Ring, I love very much as well. It’s a piece of history, it’s a concept but it is done in such a way that you still tell the story, and for me that’s always been the deciding factor. Whatever way you dress it up, if we are still telling the story, if we are still dealing with the interactions between the characters, that’s what is important to me. It’s great fun, I have a great time when I’m there to do it. I hope they keep it; I hear rumors that there is a new Ring happening in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper, but I hope that older Ring doesn’t go away completely.

    Also, being in La Fenice to do this was amazing! Because this is where Wagner died. I would go on walks, just off the Piazza San Marco, and I got to this park and there was a bust of Wagner. It’s amazing to be in this theater. I was there many years ago before the first house burned down. I got to see the old house. The rebuilt house is an exact replica. The acoustic is fabulous in this theater! One of the biggest thrills was running into the audience and listening to the Ride of the Valikiries. That was the same production that the Cologne Opera did. Once again, it was updated, but it was updated with care, with the idea that we were telling the story. I have no eye patch in that Ring cycle but I think it worked well. It’s when you start messing with the relationships that you get in trouble.

    OL - You’ve sung Wagner roles with a number of American opera companies, but also with houses in Berlin, Venice, Cologne, Prague, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Nancy. European houses, especially those in Germany, are known for their more adventurous stagings. What has your experience been with these Regietheater productions?

    GG – There have been some crazy things. You just have to say, “OK, people are going to come see this opera.” That’s what I start thinking. If something is completely, completely crazy I try in a very diplomatic way to talk to the director, because sometimes they have a very fixed idea about the interpretation, but as long as we are telling the story, the craziness that is around us really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what production I’m in, I try to keep the relationships between the characters as true as possible.

    OL - I am very curious about the experience of staging the Ring in Shanghai. How did the Chinese public react? Any differences in awareness, enthusiasm, or understanding?

    GG – I was greatly surprised, because I didn’t expect what I saw. I was excited to go to Shanghai, because I had never been to China. The thought came to me: ‘I wonder… this is so foreign to Chinese culture, this kind of Nordic myth, and the music as well is very challenging for even Westerners.’ I think you have to embrace Wagner first. The performances were sold out every night and people went crazy. I didn’t expect the audience to respond that way, but it was exuberant. It was amazing. It was very rewarding.

    OL - - Earlier in your career, you sang Escamillo in La tragëdie de Carmen, Peter Brook’s condensed version of Bizet’s opera. In late 2012, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires performed a condensed version of Wagner’s Ring cycle arranged by the German composer Cord Garben – not without controversy, one might add. If an opera company offered you the role of Wotan in Herr Garben’s arrangement, would you consider it? What do you think of this trend of performing abridged operas?

    GG – I would look at it as interesting; I would have to take a look at it, yes, but I would have to see what was cut, what wasn’t, because everyone has a different idea of what’s important to the story. But I think that’s a great way to get people interested in the Ring without having to invest five hours in four different nights the first time. You can give them a taste of what this music is, which is an amazing experience. To be clear, I still believe the best way to truly appreciate opera, especially Wagner, is to see it without abridging it.

    OL – Do you see any risk that due to budget constraints, this fad of abridged productions would lead people to start cutting these pieces all over the place?

    GG – There is always a risk, yes. One of the big expenses is scenery. The idea of using these projections and animation might help with having the scenery not being one of the major cost factors. The cast can be large, but some bel canto pieces also have large casts. It’s then a question of going overtime. Some places that do the Ring regularly have a separate budget for the Ring aside from the usual season. So the Ring is very expensive and an abridged production might respond to that, but I hope other houses will continue to put on the full cycle, and people will continue to fall in love with this art form like I did.

    OL – Good. Your other signature role is The Flying Dutchman, whom you’ve portrayed all over the world even more often than Wotan. Again, tell me about some of its vocal challenges.

    GG – OK. I think the biggest challenge is that in the first act you are asked to sing this huge declamatory aria full of angst and pain and regret, and then in the second act for the first part of the duet, you have to sing as if you are a Lieder singer, and really finesse these words. Then in the third act you are back to this huge declamatory rejection of Senta when you think she’s cheated on you. It’s managing to do those things while still keeping the beauty in the sound throughout all of it that is challenging.

    OL - Your other Wagnerian roles are Telramund in Lohengrin, Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, and Amfortas in Parsifal – any favorites?


    GG – Any time I get to do them, I love doing them. I love them all. I really do. My first Wagner role was Telramund and I really enjoyed singing that character. I’ve heard it screamed a lot, but I think the role has a bigger impact if you sing it like bel canto but in Wagner style.

    OL – Your repertoire does weigh heavily in Wagner, but you have had a long list of non-Wagnerian roles as well, about in equal parts between Italian, German, French operas and a bit of Hungarian opera: Scarpia in Tosca, Macbeth, Amonasro in Aida, Jokannan in Salome, Don Pizarro in Fidelio, the villains in Hoffmann, Mephistopheles in Faust, the High Priest in Samson et Dalila, Escamillo in Carmen, and the fascinating Bluebeard, among others. First of all, I’d like to ask you as an opera lover that I’m sure you are beyond being a performer – do you feel a strong superiority of Wagner over the other operatic traditions? Or do you think that the Italians, French, and Eastern European composers are enough of a match?

    GG – They are all inspired and inspiring. There are operas that are just as satisfying as Wagner’s operas, and I’m grateful to sing them. I was just talking about this. Bluebeard’s Castle is an amazing work. It is fascinating, and this was the only opera Bartók wrote. It was for a contest. I remember when I was learning it, I kept thinking, ‘why didn’t he write more? This is an amazing work, and he understood how to write for the voice so well and instinctively!’ The psychological part of the piece is also amazing.

    OL - Given the language barrier, was it more difficult to learn?

    GG – It did take more time, that way. The Hungarian, there is a way to sing it. Although I’ve never sung in Czech, hearing it, it sounds more difficult than Hungarian.

    OL – Well, Hungarian is such a particular language, in a class of its own…

    GG – Yes, it is.

    OL - You have quite a rogue’s gallery of characters across a wide stylistic range. You are a true bass-baritone in that you sing roles such as Macbeth, which are clearly in baritone territory, as well as Mephistopheles in Faust, who is normally sung by a bass. How do you keep your voice healthy across these registers?

    GG – I just sing as I was taught, with the bel canto technique. I try to keep it as even and easy as possible. I never try to force a particular sound in either direction; I just sing. So far that’s kept me really healthy, along the way.

    OL - About modern and contemporary opera, you have participated in Peter Grimes in the role of Captain Balstrode, and you have created the role of Cankya in the world premiere of Ashoka’s Dream in Santa Fe. Please tell us about your views on contemporary opera, and on the experience of creating a new role, and the challenge of singing modern and contemporary music.

    GG – Actually I enjoy it. It doesn’t come my way as much as it used to. Once you start into the Wagner repertoire, for some reason people think you are not interested in other things. But I’m always interested in different things. With Ashoka’s Dream, this was Peter Lieberson’s first opera, I believe, and it was the story of the Bhudda. The challenge of contemporary opera, when you learn it and perform it, is that you have to learn something that is not part of the standard repertoire. By that I mean that when you sing it, your audience shouldn’t be aware that it is so new. You need to sing it like you mean it, just like you sing La Traviata or any other standard opera. And I think it’s a challenge because sometimes we get caught up in the newness of it. Working on the character is no different than working on the characters of the standard repertoire when you work on them for the first time. There are sometimes musical challenges. The composers can be quite complicated. But once again, I look at it as a challenge and I try to conquer it.

    OL - You’re going to add Claggart in Billy Budd to your roster of bad guys next year. While some of the characters you sing are more complex individuals, it’s hard to find many redeeming qualities in someone like Claggart – or Scarpia or Pizarro. How do you approach such characters? From a theatrical standpoint, how do you find a way to “get inside” these unpleasant individuals?

    GG – That’s a good question. I remember when I was going to do my first Mephistopheles in Faust, I was thinking ‘How do you do this? How do you play this?’ I ended up reading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It’s interesting because those are basically conversations with the Devil. The Devil perceives himself as not evil, but being fully justified in doing what he is doing. That’s the approach I take with these kinds of crazy characters. They are convinced that they are justified, in their minds, that their behavior is the right behavior. They think “of course it’s not wrong” and they find all these reasons to do what they do. We see it in many countries where politicians behave that way. They justify their actions by saying, “Ah, it’s for the country, it’s for the people.”

    OL – Interesting. You have a rarity in your repertoire, Heinrich Marschner’s relatively obscure Der Templer und Die Juden. Please tell us about that one. Why was it important to revive it?

    GG – Yes! [laughs] It was at the Wexford Festival, and that was many years ago. Wow! Thanks for finding that! [laughs] They like to do interesting works that aren’t done very much. Many people know Marschner’s Der Vampyr, but Der Templer und Die Juden is a very obscure work. It’s basically the story of Ivanhoe. You know what, I think it deserves revival. Having done it, I enjoyed it very much. He was a precursor to Wagner, and you can hear those musical influences that are about to happen in Wagner.

    OL - Performing in opera not only makes a lot of physical demands on you, but also requires a great deal of emotional intensity to bring a character to life. How do you “wind down” after a performance? What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries, so to speak?


    GG – If my family is with me and we have an apartment, we go back to the apartment, or we go out. I may have a beer, and just being with friends and family is relaxing.

    OL - You’re from New Orleans. How are things in New Orleans today?

    GG – They are going well. Actually I was just there. I just performed with New Orleans Opera before coming here. The recovery is going really well. At one point New Orleans led the nation in startup businesses. They’ve created a lot of incentives for people to come back, or to come to New Orleans and create businesses. A lot of the important centers like the French Quarter and the uptown area didn’t get as damaged as a lot of the outlying areas like Lakeview. There are pockets of houses that are boarded up, and look like the hurricane happened yesterday, but my second name for New Orleans now is, “La Fenice”. It is rising out of the ashes.

    OL – Good! The tenor Bryan Hymel, who is also from New Orleans, is making quite a name for himself as well. Have you and Mr. Hymel ever had an opportunity to meet?

    GG – No, I haven’t met Bryan. My daughter is studying singing in New Orleans and she’s done a master class with him. She knows Bryan because she was with my wife who is a singer, when they sang Das Rheingold down in New Orleans together. She can’t say enough good things about Bryan.

    OL - In the world tour of La tragëdie de Carmen, the title role was sung by a mezzo named Luretta Bybee. Was this how you and your wife met?

    GG – Actually I met her just before that. We were young singers doing our first Carmens, for a now defunct touring group from Houston, called Texas Opera Theater. I was Escamillo and she was Carmen. We met on tour and fell in love during that time. We heard about auditions for Peter Brook for La Tragédie de Carmen, and we flew to New York during a break of the tour to audition for him, not telling him that we knew each other, and we were both hired. Sometimes things happen they are supposed to.

    OL - As opera singers, you and your wife have careers that take you all over the country and even to other parts of the world. So you’re faced with even more challenges than most dual career couples. How do you balance the demands of your careers with the needs of family life?


    GG – The challenge was committing to spend the money to see each other. We always find a way to see each other within a certain time frame. It was challenging, especially when our daughter came along. I wouldn’t change any of it.

    OL – You’ve enjoyed a long and well-established career. What advice would you give those who are still studying? What are some of the things to which they should pay particular attention?

    GG – I would say to young singers, to make sure that your technique is second nature, and that you spend time exploring and finding the artist in yourself. Spend time finding out what you want to say, what is important to you to share with people. As young singers, you get a lot of people saying “oh, you should do this, you should do that” and you need some quiet time to sit and really discover who you are, and why you want to do this. It’s very important.

    OL - In general, what do you see as some of the risks or weaknesses aspiring singers face today?

    GG – It’s not so much that I see weaknesses. It’s a reaction to how things have changed in the business. Before, when I was a beginning singer, there were many touring companies. As a young singer you could learn on your feet – get really valuable experience – on these tours. Houston, San Francisco, City Opera, the Met all had tours. It was a huge learning process. Nowadays – and I don’t fault the singers on this – there are no places like this to go, other than a few very selective young artist programs. So I see a lot of young singers stay in college and rack up a huge debt. There are smaller companies that are looking for young singers, but still, there aren’t enough opportunities for all of them, so a lot of young singers are working on their doctorates when they should be out there singing. But it’s scary out there. I would be thrilled to see touring companies be revived.

    OL - Speight Jenkins once compared your voice to that of George London. And when one listens to YouTube clips of you and Mr. London singing the same aria – Scarpia’s Te Deum, for example – one can definitely detect a certain similarity in timbre.

    GG – Yes. I have been told so, and I’m always flattered and honored.

    OL - When you study a new role, do you listen to other singers’ interpretations? Who are your idols? Who inspires you?

    GG – Yes, I listen. Actually I came to George London very late. I like to listen to older recordings because there is not so much studio mixing. You can find old live recordings and you can actually hear what I call the air in the sound. More often than not you can hear certain musical traditions that I listen for. I like to listen to different conductors conducting the same piece. I like to find out, for a role I’m doing the first time, how my predecessors interpreted it, musically. It feeds what I do. As a young singer, I listened to a lot of tenors: Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker, Del Monaco, Gigli, Pavarotti, Domingo but also I listened to baritones and basses like Bastianini, and Capecchi, Tito Ruffo, di Lucca, Milnes, Pinza, Tozzi, Panerai , Siepi. Then someone told me, “You should listen to George London because you have some similar qualities.” OK, I did, and once I listened to him, it was very strange because I understood how he was making his sound. It’s hard for me to explain but I understood what was happening in his throat when he sang. I certainly adore the legacy that he left. It’s amazing! He was one of the people that I studied what he did in the Ring; also Hans Hotter, and the great Thomas Stewart. These are my three Wotans I referenced, to see how they handled it. And it’s not to imitate. I don’t imitate, but it’s to hear how they negotiate certain things in the music that are difficult.

    OL – Now let’s talk about your beginnings. How did vocal classical music come to your life? Was music in your family background?

    GG – No, I say I’m an anachronism in my family. My father liked to play guitar and sing Country songs. I did not grow up in a family of musicians; not at all. I remember in sixth grade, we had the option to pick an instrument and we learned the basics with little simple songs, and I picked the trumpet. And then this program ended, and I kept the trumpet and kept teaching myself how to play until High School. I got into the High School Marching Band and I was also in the choir. I liked to sing as well but didn’t think that this would be my career. All through High School I was thinking that I wanted to be an archeologist. And then when I was a junior in High School, I got to see my first opera. The first opera I saw, I was in, because they called the school and asked for some volunteers to be extras. Oddly enough, this opera in New Orleans was La Juive with Richard Tucker singing the only performance he sang of it in the United States, because he died before the Met got to do it for him. I remember being so impressed and so inspired by Mr. Tucker! This new art form that I found, combined two things that I absolutely loved, singing and acting.

    After that I started to explore a little bit more. Then in my senior year a friend of mine, Anthony Laciura who is a very fine character tenor but is now an actor in Boardwalk Empire on HBO, told me, “You know, you have a good voice, you should go study with my teacher at Loyola.” So I auditioned for the Music School at Loyola University and got a scholarship. It started me on my way.

    OL – Nice! How did you get interested in the music of Wagner?

    GG – I had dear friends who kept saying, “You are going to sing Wagner one of these days.” And I would say, “No, no, no, I don’t think I ever will.” And they would take me to operas to convince me, and it actually did work. My interested was sparked by going with my friends who insisted I should be singing some of this, and yes, I ended up doing it. [laughs]

    OL – What are your interests outside of opera?

    GG – Archeology is now a hobby, so if there is anything of interest where I am, I usually try to get out and go to it. It’s easier to do that in places like Rome, and Tel Aviv, and Greece, and in many other European cities there are museums to do that. I love fishing when I can have time to do that. And also I love to just get out in nature and hike.

    OL – How are you as a person? Can you describe your personality?

    GG – [laughs] That’s a very good question. I would say, I am curious, accepting, pretty much most of the time trying to look on the brighter side of things.

    OL – So your daughter is interested in singing. Do you take her with you to your performances?

    GG – She has been going to them all her life. She is 21 years old and is a junior now at the college where I went, down in New Orleans, Loyola University. She just sang the role of Cunégonde [Candide] in January. She is an English major and a music minor and has a real gift for singing.

    OL – Genes from both sides.

    GG – I think so, but how we got a coloratura, I’ll never know, from a mezzo and a bass-baritone. [laughs]

    OL – Thank you for a lovely interview.

    GG – Wow, wonderful, wonderful questions. It was a pleasure.

    OL – The pleasure was mine, and our readers’.

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    Let's listen to the singer in Der Fliegend Holländer:



    And here, we can see a trailer of the Seattle Die Walküre, and we can hear the gifted singer do his impressive Wotan at 1'59" and 2'40":



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