The Griffey Gospel : Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey

This is the cover story of the September/October 2019 issue of Classical Singer magazine. Download the free PDF version HERE. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s career began with no resources, but with the help of generous and knowledgeable teachers, he has proven his masterful abilities and has had huge success in the industry with only five auditions. His credits now include the title role in Peter Grimes, Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, and Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, among many others. Learn how his authenticity for these characters was born out of a place of adversity and how his early struggles with poverty, bullies, and illness in his family have not only made him a better performer and a deeply committed teacher, but someone who continues to give back and who is loved by his colleagues.

 

A painfully shy child, Griffey found solace in music at the tender age of five. Each Sunday he took the bus on his own to the First Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, where he fell in love with the hymns, especially when Sylvia Carter was accompanying on the church organ. She saw significant potential in Griffey, offering him free lessons. Griffey remembers fondly, “Singing in church in many ways saved my life. It gave me an outlet.”Anthony Dean Griffey’s inexorable rise to stardom is perhaps one of the least likely journeys in the world of classical music. With an imposing physical presence that belies his sweetly lyrical and deeply expressive voice, Griffey isn’t just a fine singer. He’s an actor, a self-proclaimed “closet dancer,” a teacher, and a mentor with an important message for the next generation of young artists.

Carter helped to pave the way for Griffey’s future, donating their church piano and moving it into Griffey’s home during his junior year so he could practice for his college audition. Those hours of rehearsal paid off handsomely when Griffey landed at Wingate University to pursue a degree in sacred music. His plan was to continue sharing the gospel as a master’s student, but his talent and passion soon led him down a different path.

Worship music fed Griffey’s soul, so the life of a music minister seemed like the most logical final step in his career progression. Griffey supported himself during his college years by leading music in church, but his position as a choir director wasn’t easy. “I used to physically get sick when I had to lead choirs,” he recalls. “Choirs can be a bit fickle. If they don’t like an anthem, they might not show up on a particular Sunday.” Standing in front of 14 choir members on any given Sunday may have rattled Griffey’s nerves, but only a few years later he found himself standing in front of over 3,000 people as a star at the Metropolitan Opera.

In his heart, Griffey always wanted to perform, but he didn’t exactly find his oeuvre overnight. Most opera fans may not realize that he is a flexible, tireless dancer. He quips, “It’s extremely important at whatever size a singer is, that they’re comfortable in their body. Had I taken professional dance training and been thin, I may have gone the Broadway route.”

As an undergraduate, Griffey won a National Association of Teachers of Singing competition. Marcia Baldwin, then a faculty member at Eastman School of Music, was one of his judges. She heard something special in Griffey’s voice and she encouraged him to audition for a master’s degree at her school. Griffey was flattered, but not exactly confident.

“Of course I’d heard of Eastman, but I never thought I’d get in,” he says. The faculty at Eastman recognized Griffey’s extraordinary aptitude for classical singing and, in the fall of 1990, he began his graduate studies at Eastman. It wasn’t easy for Griffey to adapt to a much different culture and climate, but his new home provided a gateway for unanticipated opportunities.


Advertisement (article continues below)


During his second year at Eastman, Griffey sang in a masterclass that proved a major turning point in his life. The celebrated alumna, soprano Renée Fleming, led the class with Rita Shane. Fleming was impressed with Griffey and encouraged him to sing for her own teacher, Beverley Johnson, at Juilliard.

His colleagues warned him that she likely would not accept him into her coveted studio, but he boldly decided to take his chances. After Griffey sang for Johnson, she turned to him and said dryly, “You have a hell of a lot of talent, but a hell of a lot to learn.” She took him as a student and ensured that he won a full scholarship in the artist diploma program at the Juilliard School.

Johnson immediately became a central figure in Griffey’s life. He gives her credit for his biggest and earliest successes. “Mrs. Johnson changed my life forever,” he says. “Everything that could’ve been against me was against me but, thankfully, I had Mrs. Johnson.

“When I began my studies with her she was 87, but she had the energy of a youthful schoolgirl.” He studied with her for nine fruitful years and he was by her side during her final days. “When she passed away, it was the end of an era.”

As fate would have it, that pivotal masterclass at Eastman with Fleming was not the last time Griffey would cross paths with the famous soprano. Their lives became intertwined both in Johnson’s studio as well as onstage. It’s a personal and professional relationship that Fleming clearly cherishes. “Tony and I go way back,” Fleming recalls, “both having studied with our beloved voice teacher Beverley Johnson at Juilliard. We most decidedly share a technical foundation from her.

“I also shared the stage with Tony in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire,” she continues, “in its world premiere in San Francisco, and in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and at Carnegie Hall. Tony has a gleaming tenor voice that is capable of being both powerfully stentorian and heartbreakingly sweet—a rare combination. He’s a brilliant actor and an accomplished recitalist. On a personal level, he has a terrific sense of humor and is a popular colleague.”

Another famous artist, Audra McDonald, first met Griffey at Juilliard and went on to sing alongside him at LA Opera in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The acclaimed Broadway and television star says, “Tony has one of the most glorious voices ever—like in the history of all history—and he is an absolute joy to work with. There are about 20 people on this planet who can make me laugh really, really hard, and Tony is one of them. He’s a true empath and feels so deeply about humanity, and I think it’s what makes him such a great artist.”

Still developing his confidence as a performer while studying at Juilliard in the 90s, Griffey much preferred performing rather than auditioning. Fortunately for him, he only ever needed to sing five auditions in his entire career. When asked how he achieved such astonishing success in such a short time, Griffey is modest. “It was being in the right place and right time,” he says, “along with positive word of mouth.” In 1994, Griffey made a smooth transition across the street from the Juilliard School to the Metropolitan Opera as a new member of their Young Artist Program. Clearly, he was at the right place at the right time—and his remarkable artistry probably didn’t hurt his chances.

Acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa heard Griffey after he completed his first year at the Met. The Tanglewood festival was considering vocalists for roles in their upcoming production of Peter Grimes. Advisors encouraged Griffey to audition for the role of Bob Boles, but he made the gutsy choice instead to learn and offer selections from the title role. “I felt like I had more to say as Peter Grimes,” he remembers. “I related to the role of an outsider in a small town.”

Griffey’s deep connection with Peter Grimes was apparent to Ozawa, and his debut the following summer placed him in front of powerful individuals in the music industry, including composer André Previn (who would eventually write the role of Harold “Mitch” Mitchell for Griffey in A Streetcar Named Desire at San Francisco Opera), other first-rate conductors, and an agent at Columbia Artists Music who immediately welcomed Griffey to the roster.

The eponymous character of Peter Grimes became a springboard for extraordinary success along Griffey’s artistic path. In 1998, he stepped into the role at the Met, and he once again portrayed Peter Grimes at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Opéra Bastille, Santa Fe Opera, and in the new Met production and HD broadcast in 2008. In 2013, he headlined a critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall performance of the same opera with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Griffey’s triumphs as Peter Grimes are irrefutable, but he still considers himself a work in progress. “That role will always evolve,” he says. “I’m not a finished project on that and I never think of myself as the definitive anything!”

The highly regarded director John Doyle worked closely with Griffey’s Peter Grimes at the Met and he has nothing but praise for him. “He’s focused, organized, perfectly prepared, and wonderful with his fellow artists,” Doyle says. “Perhaps most importantly, though, is his glorious sense of humor, which contributes hugely to the relaxed atmosphere in the room. He thinks like an actor, takes risks, and doesn’t in any way allow ego to get in the way of the creative process. All that—plus that wonderful lyrical voice—make for a great journey.”

After seeing Griffey’s gut-wrenching Peter Grimes, audiences may be surprised to know that he’s well known behind the scenes for his boundless humor. When asked about the source for his jocular nature, Griffey says, “I make fun of myself all the time because I am a flawed human being. It’s important as an artist to be able to look at yourself and to find the laughter in it all.” In his latest performance in Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera, Griffey sang Mr. Strutt, a bit of a villainous character. Yet he came out and gave a lively high kick during the curtain call, keeping the festivities fun after the show’s serious ending.

Though Griffey is known as an intrepid performer, he admits, “I’ve always had to deal with stage fright.” When prompted to explain his tools for tackling the anxiety, Griffey chuckles a bit. “I know I’m going to sound a little like a preacher, but it’s my background. Things became much easier once I realized that I’m just the vessel the music comes through.”

He used to feel crippled by insecurity about his weight and his vocal abilities, mentally begging audiences and conductors, “Love me. Like me. Love my voice.” But now, he sees his role primarily as a musical and dramatic interpreter, tapping into a deeper message. Perhaps one could call it the Griffey Gospel.

One of the most significant challenges Griffey overcame was the endless conflict about which repertoire best suited him. The world’s most influential coaches disagreed with suggestions ranging from Rossini to Wagner. “For me to say, ‘This is what I have to say as Anthony Dean Griffey’ took me a long time,” he says. “As a child growing up in poverty, I felt like I didn’t have permission to say anything.”

Eventually, Griffey found his niche in the characters whose journey felt close to his heart. “The roles I sing are not the most glamorous roles,” he says, “but they have a story behind them. The characters have a pulse. I think that had I done ‘traditional’ repertoire, I probably wouldn’t still be singing today.”

Griffey maintains a busy performing schedule with a healthy balance of recitals, concert work and, of course, opera. He recently starred in premieres of both Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera and Nico Muhly’s Marnie at the Met. The experience of returning to the exalted stage at Lincoln Center was profoundly satisfying for Griffey. “It’s more fun now because I’m of a certain age,” he says. “My voice is still healthy, but I’m not starting as a frightened young 27-year-old artist and trying to figure out who I am and what I have to offer artistically.”

Certainly, Griffey’s career has taken him a long way from his humble beginnings in industrial North Carolina. Because finances in his family were perpetually tenuous, he was unable to audition for any pay-to-sing summer programs. He opted instead to work for seven years at a camp for children and adults with special needs. Individuals with physical, mental, and emotional challenges have always been near and dear to Griffey. Close members of his family dealt with significant mental and emotional issues, including schizophrenia. Those painful experiences later informed Griffey’s famed characterization as Lennie Small in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.

Though Griffey achieved international success, he never forgot his family in High Point. “When I made enough money,” he says, “the first thing I did was buy my mother a home. That was an important step for me, because I think as artists we’ve been given a lot and I think we have to give back.”

Griffey’s ultimate goal as an artist is to be of service. He continues to support his family, but his philanthropy and activism extend to the greater community.

“Growing up poor,” he recalls, “we received food and help in terms of paying bills. Both of my parents worked full-time jobs, but unfortunately the wages were so low that it was difficult to support a family as a factory worker. There was no extra money for music lessons, but I had teachers who saw in me what I didn’t even see in myself. I always promised myself that if I ever made it, I would give back.”

A man of his word, Griffey still finds ways to pay it forward in his hometown raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through concerts to support people living with poverty and mental illness. For him, those were his most meaningful performances. “I love singing at the Met and the New York Philharmonic,” he says, “and all things are wonderful. But to give back to one’s community and to learn forgiveness—that was a huge part of freeing myself and getting the mud out of my wings as a person and as an artist.”

Returning to the neighborhood of his childhood brought back painful memories. “I was a big kid,” he says, “and big kids don’t get coddled. I was bullied, and I prayed from the time I got on the bus to the time I reached my desk. Eventually, I walked several miles to school because I was afraid to ride the bus with those bullies.”

Years later, Griffey has found beauty and healing in the midst of those scars, asserting, “I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences because it made me the man and artist I am today—and it made me a much more compassionate person.” That same compassion is at the core of Griffey’s teaching studio at Eastman, where he returned as a member of the faculty nearly 30 years after he began his studies there as a master’s student.

Stephen Carr, associate professor of opera and musical theatre studies at Eastman, recognizes Griffey’s unique gifts as a mentor and teacher. “He knows the heart of a young singer needs as much attention as the larynx,” Carr observes. “His students are never inhibited as performers or imprisoned by their technique. They all improve vocally and they blossom as expressive artists. I think this might be because Tony knows as well as anyone that singing is about so much more than producing a beautiful sound. For Tony, singing was his escape and his deliverance—it saved his life, and he’s never forgotten that.”

 

Griffey is fiercely devoted to his students. “Teaching is much harder than performing,” he asserts, “because I’m always thinking about it. Teaching is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even when I’m not in the studio, I’m constantly thinking of each student and wondering what is the best vocabulary to reach them and help them realize their full potential.”

He purposefully limits his schedule to four or five lessons a day in order to give each voice student his full attention. When he describes his teaching approach, he hearkens back to his days as a student of Johnson. “She still comes into my studio and sits on my shoulder,” he says. “Sometimes when I don’t have the words to say, miraculously they come to me. I attribute that to Mrs. Johnson.”

In answering the question of whether teaching or singing receives the bigger portion of his attention, Griffey refutes the idea that he must choose one over the other. “My focus is a combination of both,” he says. “My students always come first to me, but I wanted to come to teaching while I was still performing at a relatively high level. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who was not connected to the professional world.”

And while performing informs his approach with his students, conversely he feels that his pursuit of healthy technique as a teacher has made him a stronger singer. Griffey seems grateful to have found such an elusive balance in the unpredictable world of classical singing. “Now I combine both of my passions,” he says. “I love to teach and I love to perform. I have the best of both worlds.”

A clear testimonial of Griffey’s generous heart is the encore he chooses for each of his recitals. He ends each performance with a tender rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” a tune Griffey has loved since childhood. Griffey titled his solo CD This Little Light, and all proceeds go directly to help feed the homeless in High Point. Griffey’s message of service, love, and compassion continues to resonate with people around the world. Young singers and audiences are eager to follow each new chapter in the Griffey Gospel.

Jonathan Blalock

Jonathan Blalock is represented by Encompass Arts. He has sung with The Santa Fe Opera, The Dallas Opera, Washington National Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, The Pacific Symphony, Memphis Symphony, PROTOTYPE Festival and Opera Hong Kong.