An interview with bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, one of the soloists in Seattle Symphony and Chorale's traditional year-end performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Share story

Opera enthusiasts in Seattle closely associate bass-baritone star Greer Grimsley with the music of Richard Wagner, and quite rightly.

“Seattle is my artistic home, really,” says Grimsley, a New Orleans native who made his Seattle Opera debut in 1994 as Telramund in Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

“As a young singer, you bounce around, and no one is going to take a chance on you until someone else does. Speight [Jenkins, Seattle Opera general director] is the one who took a chance on me with Wagner repertoire, which has been a great thing for my career.”

Wagner might be a staple, but Grimsley has some other favorite composers, including Verdi, Mozart, Carlisle Floyd, Strauss and Mahler. Also: Beethoven.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“When I can sing anything of Beethoven, it’s great,” he says by phone from the Crescent City.

Grimsley, 54, will close out 2011 doing exactly that, performing as one of four distinguished vocal soloists in Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s traditional, year-end program built around Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

SSO conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz will lead the orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Grimsley and soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee and tenor John Mac Master in four performances of Beethoven’s stirring masterpiece Wednesday through Saturday. The festive New Year’s Eve show concludes with dancing and a countdown to midnight in Benaroya Hall’s Grand Lobby.

Grimsley first participated in Seattle Symphony’s annual performance of the Ninth in 2006.

“It’s an amazing thing,” he says. “It’s an epic work, and you don’t go into that lightly. It’s impossible to define the beauty of that piece, and if you come into it with preconceived ideas, you shortchange it.”

A bonus for Grimsley is the rare opportunity to work with Bybee, his wife. Both appeared in Peter Brook’s touring production of Bizet’s “Carmen” in the 1980s. Grimsley cites working with Brook as “a giant leap” in his development as an actor, a skill for which he is routinely praised wherever he sings.

While in high school, Grimsley was encouraged to pursue singing by tenor and actor Anthony Laciura (currently seen on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”). His first appearance in an opera was as an extra in the legendary Richard Tucker’s only American production of Fromental Halévy’s “La Juive.”

“Not until later did I realize the gravity of what I’d been in,” he says.

After a year of study at Juilliard, Grimsley enrolled at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, where he made his 1980 professional debut in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Grimsley reprised his Telramund for Seattle Opera in 2004, and his other Wagnerian roles here have included Wotan in “Ring des Nibelungen,” Amfortas in “Parsifal,” Kurwenal in “Tristan und Isolde,” and the title role in “Der Fliegende Holländer.” Seattle Opera has also cast him in works by Gounod, Bizet and Puccini.

Though he is a welcome star at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera and other great halls in North America, Europe and Asia, Grimsley regards Seattle as a touchstone.

“Just on a human level, you connect with a city and an amazing audience and a company’s artistic visions,” he says. “Everything jibes, and as a performer you appreciate that.”

Tom Keogh:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.