Opera star Greer Grimsley, who lived briefly in Bremerton and made many local fans through his role in Wagner’s “Ring,” comes to town April 16 for Seattle Opera’s fundraising gala.
The key to a good opera death scene? Don’t be so selfish.
When Greer Grimsley is playing the sadistic Baron Scarpia in “Tosca,” and the title character stabs him, he keeps in mind what drove her to do it.
It’s her moment, too.
Seattle Opera gala
“Many Voices, One Song,” 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16, Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle. Information: seattleopera.org/gala.
“You don’t want to take away from the intensity of what she is going through,” Grimsley said. “She’s saying, ‘Suffocate on your own blood.’ So you have to think about what that would mean and not overdo it.
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“You’re shooting for telling a story with honesty, and you don’t want to take away from the story.”
Grimsley, a bass baritone, has died time and again over 30 years of singing in opera houses around the world.
But when he comes to town Saturday, it will be to bring new life and fresh blood to The Seattle Opera as the headliner for its “Many Voices, One Song” gala at The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI).
“Of course,” Grimsley said of making the trip from his home in New Orleans. “If it’s going to raise money for programs to foster understanding of opera and young artists, that’s a given. It’s something I believe in.”
By all rights, Grimsley said, he shouldn’t even be singing opera. He came to it by happenstance. He grew up in New Orleans, where music infused everyday life, and was in high-school musical-theater productions.
When he was 17, the New Orleans Opera asked his high school for extras to appear in “La Juive,” a 19th-century French opera about — surprise! — doomed love. Grimsley and his drama-club cohorts were paid $10 each. The experience spurred him to change his college major from archaeology to music, which he studied at Loyola University, then Juilliard.
“I didn’t grow up with an awareness of opera and it’s something that’s very dear to my heart,” he said. “You can like something without having grown up with it.”
So how to get people into the seats at McCaw Hall — especially younger people who will hopefully become lifelong patrons?
“There’s no one answer because every city has a different demographic,” Grimsley said. “But you hear people say, ‘I don’t like opera,’ and I ask, ‘Have you ever seen an opera?’ and they say, ‘No.’
“It’s crossing that line,” he said. “It’s offering something that is dramatically compelling and musically magnetic. That’s the key. Having the commitment to tell the story and staying to the composer’s wishes with the music, and not apologizing and trying to be hip.”
Grimsley, 59, recalled being a young singer, and being part of an arts organization called Affiliated Artists that put on “informances.” Singers, pianists and conductors visited small towns for a couple of weeks at a time, performing in schools, corporate lunchrooms, even a women’s prison.
“We were talking to people and explaining to them and telling our stories as human beings,” he said. “And you’d tell them, ‘I’m giving a recital,’ and every time, the venue was full because people got to know you as a person.”
Seattle audiences know Grimsley well, which is part of why he considers this his second home.
For a brief time, as a child, he lived in Bremerton, where his father was “a 30-year man” in the U.S. Navy.
“I remember when the Space Needle was new,” he said.
It was also in Seattle where Speight Jenkins, the former general director of The Seattle Opera, mentored Grimsley through the Wagner repertoire, specifically the “Ring” cycle and the character Wotan, which Grimsley has made his own.
The role may be Grimsley’s favorite. But if you ask him in May, when he is in Seattle for “The Flying Dutchman,” you may get a different answer.
“As corny as it sounds, my favorite is whatever opera I am doing,” he said. “We spend so much time with the character and the music, it has to be the favorite thing that you’re doing.”
Opera could become anyone’s favorite art form, Grimsley said, if they give it a chance. It is as pure as they come. Just the orchestra and the singers. No sound board.
“The sound waves created by the singers touch the audience, without a middle man,” he said. “See ‘Dutchman,’ or ‘Salome’ or ‘Tosca.’ These are great first operas, and if you’ve never been, come.
“You’re never going to be lost. Instead, you’ll be transported.”