Dallas — American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley makes a severe and imposing impression in the opera roles that have made his career such a success. For The Dallas Opera, he will play another such character: the title role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, which opens TDO’s 2018-19 season. It opens at Winspear Opera House on Friday, Oct. 12 and also runs on Oct. 14, 17, and 20; and in rotating repertory with Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen (which opens Oct. 19).
He may be severe onstage, but off-stage, the stern Grimsley is anything but. He is delightful company, full of energy, with a sharp wit and a “regular guy” informality that makes you instantly feel like you are an old friend reconnecting after years of separation.
Although I am not an aforementioned “old friend,” I have known Grimsley for years. We first met in 1998 when I was a peon on the music staff of the Seattle Opera. He portrayed Tristan’s loyal and devoted friend, Kernaval, in a spectacular production of Tristan und Isolde staged by Francesca Zambello. It was bigger than Seattle and was of international interest because the two ill-fated lovers were played by two extraordinary singers, Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. The production was a huge success and it transferred to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and into the opera history books as a singularly memorable production. Since then, I have seen Grimsley in one major dramatic role after another.
We re-met in a recent phone interview, which included his wife, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, who I have never met. She is every bit as charming and enjoyable as he is himself. It was a rollicking and wide-ranging conversation, which I will try to summarize and keep relevant to this Dutchman production.
The Flying Dutchman also features Jay Hunter Morris as Erik, Anja Kampe as Senta, Mark S. Doss as Daland, and Andrew Stenson as Steersman. It is directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume.
TheaterJones: What was your first Wagnerian role?
Greer Grimsley: It was [Telramund] in Wagner’s Lohengrin. But this [Flying Dutchman] role is very near and dear to my heart because it was my second Wagnerian role. When I did Lohengrin, I wasn’t fully sure that I should move into the Wagner repertoire.
It is a big step from the other bass-baritone roles.
GG: Fortunately, a lot of people encouraged me to continue along that path. Speight Jenkins for one [Director of the Seattle Opera at the time]. The music is fabulous and I love singing it. [It’s worth noting that Grimsley is the go-to Wotan these days in Wagner’s four-opera cycle Ring of the Nibelung; and after Dallas, Grimsley will sing the Dutchman again this summer at Bayreuth, Germany, the high temple of Wagner worship].
How about you, Luretta? What is this role for you?
LB: Well, there isn’t too much to Marie. But she is different in this production. The concept is that, at one point in the past, she was actually Senta [the leading soprano role who is in love with the Dutchman], so she shares the memories of when the Dutchman last appeared. [He only appears every seven years.] This gives me a lot to work with rather than being the third maiden from the right. However, I am doing this because I also love the music and it lets me work with Greer.
Which brings up an important question. The opera world has a record of marriages in the biz falling apart. However, the two of you have been married since 1987 and made a well-known go of it. How do you manage the challenges of two different careers in the same industry?
LB: Oh boy, do you have all day? [laughing] Greer, do you want to talk about it?
GG: We are both compatible and share many things in our lives. That, and the love we feel for each other, is worth more than anything that would come along in a career. We also celebrate with each other’s success. Sometimes married singers can get jealous of successes for their partner.
LB: And you know, that also sounds romantic and everything. We have been asked that question before, but now that I think of it, one reason is that we have been completely fulfilled by our careers. We both have been able to sing the roles we want. The exceptions for me are Charlotte [in Massenet’s Werther] and Ado Annie in [Rodgers and Hammerstein’s] Oklahoma!.
We need to work on that.
LB: Well, I sang many Carmens [in Bizet’s opera], and in important venues, once with Greer.
That was in Peter Brooks’ La Tragedie de Carmen, a revolutionary rethinking and boiled down to the essence of the Bizet opera. (They also sang a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penance last year with the San Diego Opera.)
LB: True. But…you know…he is so much more visible than I am, although it didn’t start out that way. Also, we raised a pretty danged good kid along the way.
I always thought that the two of you are one of the very stable couples.
Both: We’re stable? [Much laughter]
How did you cope with a school-age child who couldn’t tour with you?
GG: Our daughter, Emma, was in a small private school that was OK with her traveling. She did her assignments on the road. Then, she went to another school that was fine with “out of the box” learning. Once high school came, I was more interested in helping her during that time when you discover who you are. But when on the road, she joined in. She helped backstage and occasionally even onstage.
She is also a singer, correct?
LB: Yes. Right now she is singing Christine Daae in the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
A very impressive credit!
LB: She always says that she was born on the corner of opera and musical theater, which is absolutely the truth.
GG: Another thing we have in common is that we are both intrigued with the drama. We both try to squeeze it out as best we can, so we can tell the most potent story of those characters as they relate to the others on stage. It also is realizing that you don’t do any of this alone. It is a cooperative effort and not just the singers. It is everyone: the stage hands, the make-up crew, the chorus and all of the other roles, that make it all believable.
What is next for you, Greer?
GG: Das Rheingold (from Wager’s Ring Cycle) in Madrid. …It is going to be a stand-alone and they are not doing the rest of the Ring. But I think it works better than all the others as a stand-alone. In a way, it is really like a cocktail party with some odd guests such as giants, gods and dwarfs.
I have been to parties like that. [Laughter]