Operatic bass-baritone Greer Grimsley may call New Orleans home, but he's in Seattle so frequently that he has become a quasi-local. Since 1994, Grimsley has performed in 20 separate Seattle Opera productions, including three portrayals of the god Wotan in Wangner's Ring Cycle. His mighty voice officially makes its 21st visit this month when Puccini's Tosca begins its run on the McCaw Hall stage on Saturday, January 10 (a night which also serves as the Seattle Opera Ball). Grimsely plays the corrupt Baron Scarpia, who captures painter Mario Cavaradossi as a political prisoner and uses his capture to tragically torment Cavaradossi's lover, singer Floria Tosca.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Grimsley about the many layers of Scarpia, opera sterotypes, and Seattle food.
What is it that you that you love about Tosca and the role of Scarpia?
What Puccini took from the play is a fascinating and interesting character for Scarpia. It's one of the times where the opera actually improved on the play. Even though the often-quoted "shabby little shocker" is applied to it, there's nothing shabby about it. It's very intricate. It's very intense. The character of Scarpia is fascinating because you have this incredibly educated man of high station who talks about Shakespeare in the first act, but who is capable of unspeakable torture at the same time. It's such a multi-layered character that even at this point, having done it so much, I'm still finding so many new things in the character every time I get to play Scarpia.
For example, what is something that you have discovered this time around or maybe a nuanced thing that you are doing a little differently from previous times that you might have played him?
Sometimes it's the illumination of how the words are used. He uses the formal case. In English, we don't have a formal and informal greetings, but in Italian, he's always very formal with Tosca in the second act. He uses the polite form, the formal form, but yet he is asking her to do the unspeakable, which is to sacrifice herself—her womanness—to him to save her lover. That's just one of them.
Another is just in the staging, the interaction between Tosca and Scarpia. The fun part is when you have different casts, you find different things. For example, Ausrine (Stundyte) brings something completely different from other Toscas. And so that inspires me to find different things: in the timing of how we are just even looking at each other, how I say a certain line to her. Another example is in the Italian I say, "Let’s come together and figure out how you can get out of this problem," and you can say it (plainly) or you can say “coming together” with a little more weight to it, meaning there is a subtext to that.
You're best known around Seattle for your role as Wotan in The Ring Cycle. Is that your favorite role to play?
(Laughs) It's always hard to say which role is a favorite. I love singing Wotan, it probably is one of my favorites to sing because of the Olympic nature of it and also because of the character. Over the course of three operas you have a chance to flesh out this character, which you don't normally get in a single opera. But I also love singing Scarpia and other roles as well.
As someone who travels to perform with a multitude of companies, what are some of the things that you feel like are Seattle Opera’s strengths?
The thing that has always struck me about Seattle Opera is its ability to make its place known in the society here. It thinks of itself as a community based organization. Even when The Ring is going on and we have people coming in from 50 plus countries to see it, there's always a sense that it’s part of the community. It's such a well-run company and the working atmosphere is amazing. It's not always like that everywhere you go.
What do you like, on a more personal level, about being able to come to Seattle to perform?
I've been here so much it feels like a second home. I feel very, very, very at home here. I love the city and I love everything around the city. I love to hike and so I get out of the city to do that as much as possible. I love the restaurants; they are amazing here. If you talk to singers, they will talk about places to eat. *Laughs*
While I know it’s an antiquated notion, you certainly don’t come across as the sort of stereotypical opera performer.
I attempt to keep things as normal as possible. Because it's not an art form that is native to the United States, it was imported from Europe; I think that all of us performers are essentially ambassadors for the art form. That's why I like to fight against the stereotype that you see so much in commercials of the fat singer with horns on their head. That's a rarity, actually, at this point. It's unfortunate that that is always the stereotype that gets tossed up there.
Yeah, the horns and a general air of stuffiness.
Yeah. I've had the pleasure of meeting some of the most delightful and best people in the world who are singers. Look, you do get an occasional self-possessed person, but in what business don't you?
Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
I think Tosca is one of the operas that if someone has never seen an opera before, it's the perfect first opera to see. Because enough goes on: people get killed, and stabbed, and shot. (Laughs) But it's also, as I said before, Puccini made this an interesting story and he's really tightened up the drama for the action and improved on that play. The music is just so fabulous too.
Jan 10–24, McCaw Hall, $77–$277