Dramatic Voice, Lyrical Life: : A Talk with Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley

In a recent masterclass at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Greer Grimsley emphasized the importance of simplicity to the young singers. “Don’t make things harder than they need to be” emerged as a sort of credo over the course of the evening as he instructed the students on relaxed breathing, elongated enunciation, and maximizing resonance. “It’s a helpful idea in our modern world, when we tend to complicate things,” he says. It’s helpful advice for any singer to be sure. But for someone who is in demand the world over as Wotan, Amfortas, Macbeth, and Jokanaan—and as someone who spends months on the road performing in San Francisco, Berlin, and New York—it is essential.

Since portraying Escamillo in a world tour of Peter Brook’s Carmen in the 1980s, Greer Grimsley has become known for creating strong portrayals of diverse characters. He has been called “the embodiment of evil” as Claggart in Billy Budd. His Scarpia has been touted as “menacing,” “superbly honed,” “formidable,” “exuding evil,” and “radiating power.” He now enjoys the reputation as one of the leading Wagnerian interpreters of our day, and last year found him singing Wotan in both the Met and Seattle’s Ring Cycles. In the coming years, audiences from Barcelona to Santa Fe can look forward to hearing him in some of his signature roles.

The principles he offered the students at the masterclass are ones he embodies in his singing and in his busy life, which he shares with his wife and former Carmen co-star, mezzo-soprano and chair of New England Conservatory’s Vocal Arts Department, Luretta Bybee. The day before his final performance as Dutchman at the San Francisco Opera last fall, Grimsley took some time to sit down with CS to discuss technique, building a character, and family life.

I’ll begin by asking you about what for you must be a ubiquitous challenge these days: handling success.

I think the biggest bit of advice—I think it’s true for most of my colleagues too; we all sort of agree on it—is that you look at what you’re doing as a never-ending process. If you start thinking that you’ve arrived, if you start investing in your reviews, as opposed to really being honest with yourself, then you get in trouble. I think most people do that, but I’ll just say it out loud. You have to stay committed to constantly getting better, constantly finding better ways to say things, easier ways to say things. It’s nothing you can control but you’re always working on it. As I said in the masterclass, “Control is an illusion.” And that’s an issue for a lot of people.

Let’s talk a little bit about technique. In the masterclass, it seemed as if there were three important things to address with each person: the breathing, the jaw, and the extended vowel. You said something really beautiful about keeping the vowel alive at all times. Talk a bit about those three things, if you would.

Well, they’re all related. It relates to what I was saying about control. Those are the areas. We think we’ll stop and not breathe before we sing, as opposed to incorporating [the breath] into the music, and the breath has to be as much a part of the music as the notes, as the accompaniment. For me, breath is everything. It’s based on breath. And if you can get the breath going, the second place that you naturally want to control things is the jaw. And if you can keep that free—you don’t want any of this [gestures to the jaw] to be in the way. Then you shortchange the sound. It’s about freeing as opposed to controlling. And, in essence, you’re able to create more musical options by letting go than by controlling. When you have the breath correct, it gives you the possibility to have those vowels live longer, and the consonants are just dropping in between the vowels because you notice that you have the strength under you. That’s the engine; you can’t do anything without it.

I noticed when I came to meet you at the opera, you had just finished giving a lesson to someone in the chorus there. Do you teach a lot?

I wouldn’t say a lot. If someone asks me and I have the time, I’ll do it. Because my schedule’s kind of crazy, I can’t really invest in being in one place for a while. I’ve done some masterclasses at New England Conservatory. My wife, Luretta, is chair of Vocal Arts there, and naturally I don’t mind being a resource when called upon. I don’t mind talking about it because I think information is never a bad thing. Sometimes people are of a mind that “you don’t give away your secrets.” There’s no secret about it. The tradition of our art form is an oral one. Things are handed down.

For example, when Leonard Warren came to the Met, Giuseppe De Luca was his mentor. So through that, he learned some wonderful Verdi traditions that De Luca had learned from someone before him, and that’s the way I look at it. It’s a very human art form, and to take away the interaction—because we are social beings, our species is social—so to take that away is to take away who we are. I was wonderfully helped by the information I got from my teachers.

Is there a singer, perhaps George London, who was a role model for you, or who shared with you in the way you’re talking about?

Early on in my career a wonderful American Verdi baritone at the time, Brent Ellis, was wonderful to me. And that meant the world to me. As a young singer I wasn’t getting a lot of feedback. I was in a studio program, and you get positive feedback there. But when someone like Brent—who was there to sing Ballo in Maschera, and I was doing one of the conspirators—actually came to me and said, “Wow!” that meant a lot. All the singers I’ve met on the way—Giorgio Tozzi, Jon Vickers—and this was all while I was at the studio program in Houston, so I had this advantage, to see these wonderful artists come through there. Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov. My first voice teacher used to tell me that the most important thing is to watch singers—and not only good ones, because in some cases you can learn what not to do. You open yourself to learn and you don’t shut off, which relates to the first thing you asked me: always be willing to learn something. We’ll probably come back to that with other questions as well!

I have another technique question. You used a phrase the other night about “singing horizontally, not geographically.” Say what you mean by that.

If you remember, I held up the music and showed everyone that the way the music is printed on the page is not the way the human voice works. Our instrument works by stretching and relaxing. Only in the high top does the larynx tilt forward to make the high top. But in essence, it all works on a horizontal plane. The point is to not sing geographically, looking at that note that goes from F to F, and thinking that you have to stretch or crane your neck. It’s not about that. It’s about keeping your support steady and knowing that your voice is not going up. It’s mental. It’s readjusting your mental concept of music as a singer. For a pianist, if they think going up, the right hand is extended, but for us, it’s horizontal.

I have to ask about volume. I saw “Dutchman” twice. I came late to the second performance and stood at the back of the house. San Francisco is about as big a house as you’ll find, and I’ve noticed over the years that singers are generally quieter when you’re listening from under the overhang of the balcony. I arrived at exactly that moment in the opening monologue when you sing, “Nirgends ein Grab!” and that is an achievement to make that amount of sound carry all the way back there over that big orchestral moment. I just have to ask, because all of these technical things are good, and we have to do them all, but is there one thing where you could say, ‘that is what helps me to cut through the big orchestra in the way you need to in Wagner’? In the masterclass you were pointing here [I make a vee with my hands a couple of inches in front of the nose]. Is it that?

Yes. It is. Truthfully, it’s about releasing and relaxing. Your support stays steady. There’s a wonderful Zen proverb that the more one tries to achieve something, the further away one gets, and that’s so true with singing. When you release the sound, you remove all the impediments in the way, and what happens is your vocal cords vibrate and that sound resonates, basically in your sinuses, which are basically in the front of your face. And it’s not about placing it there. It’s about letting it happen there. And when I made that, for lack of a better word, “vee” in front of the face, it’s so the singers can have a visual aid of what that feels like coming there. If you take away all of the tension, it just naturally falls there. And the more I worked with them, the more they relaxed—they were probably very nervous—and it just got better. To tell the truth, I don’t think about being loud, it just happens.

When you talked about breath, you said that some people teach “out” and some people teach “in,” but you say “both.”

It gives you a foundation—that you’re not constantly having to do one or the other. And I find for myself that there’s less tension involved in doing that.

You also did this thing with your hands [I put my hands one above the other, but about a foot apart] and you said, “Here’s your voice; here’s your support. They must always be like this. [I bring my hands so that the ‘support’ hand is exactly under the ‘voice’ hand.] Carry it with you; never let it lag.”

Right. Exactly. Even for the smallest of notes, never let it lag. Your support is always there.

Speaking of even the smallest of notes, you said something to a soprano singing, “Ernani, involami.” She was singing a turn, and even on that little turn you didn’t want her to waste any energy. So is this your means to have great stamina, to stay as relaxed as possible at all times?

About stamina—some of it is genetic and some of it is learned, and the learned part is removing all tension, because tension causes fatigue. The muscles of your voice are very fine muscles. They’re not like your big leg muscles or your arms, so they fatigue very easily. So it’s about keeping tension away from that.

You need the muscles to make the stretch that we talked about—but beyond that, you’re streamlining your voice as much as possible, making it as easy as possible. It’s not about coming off your support. That’s your base. Your home base. You never go away from that. It’s draining all the tension and, for example, keeping each vowel as close together as you can. You’re able to delineate each vowel as easily as possible, so you don’t have to go to great lengths to sing “ah, oh, ee.” One of the things I talk about is that Bel Canto singing is about getting the most amount of sound for the least amount of effort.

You mentioned you were a history geek, and in an interview you gave about Jokanaan, who is based on John the Baptist, you had a very thorough understanding of historically what was happening, that he was attempting to influence Herod and Herodias to a more religious sort of rulership. You obviously had a deep understanding of that scenario. Why and how should singers educate themselves about the background of these pieces? How do you go about it? Do you read a lot?

Yes. As it turned out, I had read a lot about that period. But when you’re rehearsing a role, for me, I just wanted to know as much as I could about where it came from, what were times like, what were the situations. It can only enrich your characterization. The more you know about it, the more you can communicate—maybe even beyond the text of the character—and you can find new ways to interpret the text.

For example, this is what I think is so brilliant about Oscar Wilde. There’s all this talk about the moon in Salome. At the time, the reason that there was all this great consternation and this great upset is that the Romans were occupying Palestine, and at exactly that time period they were moving from a lunar calendar to a solar calendar, which was the Roman calendar. So even celestial bodies took on a great significance. It deepens your understanding. That’s one of the reasons that John the Baptist would be so mad, that you’re going against this God-given way of counting time, and that’s on a fundamental level.

People always want to know, how is a two-success marriage workable? What is it that helps you two get through the week?

There’s no formula, and you have to do a lot on the go.

You have a daughter.

Yes, and she thrives despite growing up in an opera family. But we try to stay together as much as possible and we did and do spend the money to see each other as often as possible. It’s hard. It’s lonely at times.

Where is home and how often are you there?

We’re living in Boston now, and I haven’t been in Boston since May 17 and what is it, November 14? In the summer, we were in Seattle together, doing the Ring.

I read that your daughter was a super there.

Yes, she’s a senior in college and she’s a budding singer. She sang Kunigunde and she’s going to sing the Queen of the Night.

You’ve said that your wife is a set of ears for you, that she gives you tips on Wotan. How involved are you in your daughter’s career? Do you have to be a bit careful about being a voice teacher within the family?

It’s waiting for her to ask. That’s always the thing about being a parent. She asks us questions and asks for advice, but it’s waiting for her to ask. That’s the respectful thing. But it’s hard, as a parent. I’m not going to lie. You want to encourage. I’m grateful to my parents, who were not musicians.

What did your parents do?

My dad was a 30-year man in the Navy, and after he retired he was an executive at the shipyards in New Orleans. And my mother was a homemaker.

Do you ever think about “Dutchman” in terms of your dad being a sailor?

Oh yeah. I know how to whistle, and that’s why I love getting to do that at the end of the opera. I use the Boatswain’s pipe at the end of the opera. He taught me little things that helped me along the way. But if I had to learn that, it would’ve been a great thing to learn, going back to the research question. And I learned the importance of that doing the Escamillo because it was Peter Brook and he had all of us who were singing Escamillo on that tour work with a real matador and learn the capes—the muleta and the big cape as well. We didn’t have a great amount of time to show all that we learned, but what we learned went into how we portrayed the character. Just knowing things helps.

Can I quote you to yourself?

Sure. [laughing] Uh-oh.

I want to talk about being a big voice. Here’s you: “I was a victim somewhat of the very conservative nature of vocal thinking in the United States. That you have to sing Mozart until you’re 45, and then you can do heavier things. That’s not how my voice worked.” Would you talk about how you navigated that culture when you’re obviously a bigger voice? How did you figure that out and stand up for yourself?

Through trial and error. Because I had a good top, people pushed me into baritone, lyric-baritone stuff. I sort of went with it. Being a young singer I thought, “They know better than I do.” And what I found after I had done my first Salome was that I wasn’t using my whole voice in that other repertoire. That said, I loved singing Giovanni and I loved singing the Count.

Loved, past tense?

I would do it. You look at some of the casts who did it at the Met. George London did a Count; I don’t know about Giovanni, but he did a Count at the Met. And you look at the cast of that and it’s not a peep-y cast—these are big voices. I think sometimes we get too precious with a lot of operas. And it’s a question of taste.

And the fashion changes. Birgit Nilsson sang Donna Anna.

I believe that if you’re able to be respectful of the musical style, you certainly don’t want to have a mismatched cast, but you can have an evenly matched cast and it still sounds like Mozart. There’s nothing that I’ve found that says that Mozart required a certain kind of voice—and, certainly, doing the final scene in Giovanni, you have to stand and deliver. The way I was taught with my first teacher and with subsequent teachers is that you sing. You have your Bel Canto technique and certain people have a certain Fach, but you want to be prepared to sing as much of the music that’s available. You want to be facile. I think that’s the big thing that nobody talks about is staying facile.

Bigger voices take longer for people to gain the strength for and learn how to handle them. So, it’s easier to cast Mozart with younger singers who don’t have that, so you can understand how that happened. But every era of music is romantic to that era. That was their romantic expression of the time. From Monteverdi to Philip Glass, that’s their expression of emotion of feeling.

Getting back to your point about navigating that, it’s about finding what works well for you and, very poignantly, what you can get hired for. You may think you’re the greatest Don José, but people still want to hire you to do Così fan tutte, and you have to look at that. It’s great if you can do that and then have people ask you to do Don José, rather than try to teach people. And if you can do it well, you keep doing it. Eventually you find your way to do it.

Is there something about Wagner you can put your finger on and say, “Singing Wagner is different than singing other composers” or do you not find that to be so?

Wagner had a specific intent with his music, and I sense that. He was wanting to revitalize the ideas of Greek dramas in opera with the immensity and scale of his subjects. But it’s hard to say that it’s different. I think of all music as trying to communicate something. He found a specific vehicle for his music and his philosophies that worked very well. Verdi as well. And Puccini. The difference is the style. You don’t sing Wagner the same way that you sing Verdi, and that’s connected to the language. That’s a hard question. I come to all composers with a great deal of respect and responsibility to make sure that I’m true to the music and try to communicate what the composer wanted.

You said once about Beethoven’s 9th that it’s almost a religious work and it really is an honor to sing. With Wagner, there certainly is this intent to create a spiritual work. It wasn’t the religion of his day—it was his own spiritual realm. This is a very open question, but I’m wondering what you experience as a singer as being a spiritual vehicle. Is it that grand, or how do you feel about it?

In the best sense of the word. The Greeks thought of theater as a group catharsis—and not just for the audience, but for performers as well. I think if you look at it as that, and you look at the responsibility you have for communicating with the audience, that we’re all on this emotional journey . . . . You know, it means different things to different people. The audience members that I’ve talked to take different things from different performances. Is it cancer research? No. But Strauss called it “Heilige Kunst.”

It does feel holy, in a way, because it touches things that make us unique in the universe and it touches emotional buttons. Music in itself causes us to respond emotionally first. They’ve documented this. They’ve watched brain scans, and I think that’s a special thing. I think there’s more to it than we know.

Also, the Greeks believed there was something very holy in the overtone sequence, and I think there is something to that. There’s nothing that we can quantify, but I think every performer will tell you that you can feel the audience with you, as much as you’re giving to them, and there’s no way to document that. That’s sharing. That’s being communal. Being in one place for one purpose and there’s something very beautiful about that, very human. And that we’re not using microphones to do that.

When I’m singing and when the orchestra is playing, those vibrations are touching everyone in the theater. It’s a very special thing. When I talk about this, I don’t take this lightly. Nor do I exalt myself for doing it. I’m very lucky to get to do this. It’s such a privilege, and that’s what every composer talks about. Wagner talked about it. Strauss. Verdi. Beethoven. And it’s beyond technology. It’s beyond what we can quantify. It goes to Jung. It goes to collective consciousness. It goes to something primal.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.