Sitting Down with Greer Grimsley & Luretta Bybee
San Diego opera opens its 2017/2018 season on Saturday October 14th with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, or operetta, Pirates of Penzance. Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley will be the Pirate King and Mezzo-Soprano Luretta Bybee will be Ruth, a pirate maid. Grimsley and Bybee are real-life husband and wife.
Opera-goers almost got to see the whole family performing together. Their daughter Emma Grimsley was scheduled to perform Mabel but withdrew a few months ago when she was offered a role in the touring production of the Phantom of the Opera. The conductor for this production is Evan Rogister, and the director is Seán Curran.
I sat down to talk with Greer Grimsley and Luretta Bybee about ten days before opening night.
Eva: I’d like to ask you about this production of Pirates of Penzance. I’ve heard it’s quite special.
L. Bybee: We have a phenomenal young conductor, Evan Rogister, who knows the ins and outs of every score he studies. He’s meticulous yet very affable and approachable. He’s friendly without losing control of the room. He is a very gifted conductor and is destined for big things.
G. Grimsley: I think so too. We first met when he was assisting at one of the [Wagner’s] Ring Cycles [I did] in Seattle. Many years later we did a Salome together in Dallas. He had such command of that score. Pirates, as Monty Python says, is something completely different, but Evan also has command of it and appreciation for it.
L. Bybee: He’s constantly laughing as he’s working.
Eva: What about the director, Seán Curran?
G. Grimsley: It’s such a joy to work with him.
L. Bybee: He comes from a theater background but he is principally a dancer/ choreographer. He always has a dancer’s eye and he understands the body and movement. That’s wonderful. He also has a great respect for the skill it takes to be a singer. He makes things look sharp and yet they stay accessible for those of us who don’t have a dance background. And what makes the show spin is that he’s hilarious. He has a great eye for comedy. This show is very funny.
G. Grimsley: I’ve been so looking forward to this. Before getting here when we were working on this, I kept telling Luretta that we’re really going to have a lot of fun because I knew that Seán was directing it and Evan was going to be conducting it.
Eva: Pirates of Penzance is not a traditional opera. What are the differences in singing something like Pirates, or Sweeney Todd, which I know you performed together earlier this year in New Orleans, compared to singing Wagner, for you Greer, or singing Verdi, for you Luretta, roles such as Amneris
L. Bybee: Sweeney and Pirates are more comedy. They tend to be a number and then a dialog. Particularly, this production has more of a vaudeville approach. There are only a few spots where I really need to use my classical training as a singer. A lot of my stuff is low middle voice, so I’m able to effect the accent and color I want. So it frees me up a little bit, unlike Amneris, where I’m walking that razor’s edge of technique all the time and making sure I’m singing it well.
Eva: I read reviews about your strong acting skills. Does this role allow you to focus more on the acting technique?
L. Bybee: It allows for more room that way. You don’t have to have that technical voice sitting on your shoulder all the time, saying did you sing that right, did you get the best breath. I love the acting first and foremost anyway.
Eva: Is it more relaxed because of that?
L. Bybee: Yes, it is more relaxed. It’s the perfect word for it.
Eva: What about for you Greer? It must be quite different from singing Wagner.
G. Grimsley: Yes, and Gilbert and Sullivan are in a genre quite unto themselves. Some would classify it as operetta. I enjoy the comedy aspect of it. I don’t often get a chance to do much comedy. It’s not as taxing singing-wise as any of the other roles that I do in classic opera. There are some gorgeous pieces in here but you have a little more freedom. And I love the dialogue. It’s always nice to be stretched, as an artist, to music you’re not plugged into.
Eva: I’d like you to think back to your career, about 35 years, what are the moments that stand out for you for their emotion, or joy, or fear, or for singing with someone you especially admire, or because of the audience?
L. Bybee: I would say it’s not about me but about Greer. It was when he was rehearsing Wotan with Stephanie Blythe as Fricka in Die Walküre in Seattle. It was just a room rehearsal but something happened in that rehearsal. It was a magical moment. It got hushed. [Greer and Stephanie] were so committed to the process and to discovering what they needed to discover to put it on the stage. There were probably 15 people in the room, covers, conductor, director, production staff, and when they finished the singing, the entire room was silent except you could hear people crying. It was a powerful moment.
The other moment would be watching my daughter watch him sing the final scene of Die Walküre where he tells his daughter goodbye. She was maybe about 12.
She was sitting in the rehearsal with two others kids who had parents working. They were watching the end of it. She started to sob and she got really embarrassed.
Eva: How about for you Greer?
G. Grimsley: I was also going to mention that one moment in the rehearsal. It was that magical time that performers talk about where we were saying things that we had memorized, but we were singing them as if it was the first time we were saying them to each other. There was no barrier between ourselves and the character. We were in the zone.
Eva: What makes that happen?
G. Grimsley: If you try to make it happen it doesn’t happen. Oddly, the best way I can describe it is releasing your control and letting it happen.
Eva: This is probably a question you get asked a lot but what made you become opera singers?
G. Grimsley: I didn’t have any formal music training until I got to college. I got to see my first opera when I was in high school. The New Orleans Opera called the drama club at our high school when they were looking for extras. They offered us a pittance but we decided it would be interesting. A bunch of us from the drama club went. The first opera I saw was the first opera I was in and as it turns out it was a historic opera because it was Richard Tucker singing La Juive, with Paul Plishka as the bass. I became captivated by opera.
Up to that point, I was doing musicals and was in the drama club and the choir in high school. I saw this art form, the opera, that wasn’t a musical and it was powerful. That particular piece, La Juive, is powerful. I still was thinking about being an archeologist at that time but I was encouraged to sing for a music school and I did. I got a small scholarship. I decided to go that way. But even when I first went in, I was thinking of studying classical voice but also still maybe heading towards musical theater. Once I fell in love with opera, that’s where I stayed. It might be considered a fortunate accident.
Eva: From what you say, it’s clear you fell in love with it. And you Luretta?
L. Bybee: I came from a musical family. My aunt and uncle were gospel singers. There was also a strong country music background. I did a couple of summers of that, working professionally in cross country music back in the late 70s. I loved the music but I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle. We worked bars and restaurants. We’d start at 10 P.M. and we wouldn’t be through till 2 A.M. You wouldn’t unwind until 4 AM. That didn’t agree with me. And after having done it for a while, there was no challenge in it.
I went to school [Baylor University] to be a nurse but anatomy completely intimidated me. At the same time, I auditioned for the choir. The faculty that was there asked me why I wasn’t studying voice. They sort of sussed it out. I said ok, I like singing. I literally fell into it.
I adored the challenge, the fact that it took a good amount of skill, and understanding of yourself. The idea of telling a complete story singing fascinated me. I always fancied myself a movie actress or a country singer or Barbara Streisand. When I discovered the aspect of opera of being able to tell a whole story, I loved it. But honestly, I did it because people kept telling me I was good at it and kept encouraging me. I didn’t think I couldn’t. Coming from West Texas, I was very naïve.
Eva: What are some of your favorite opera roles?
G. Grimsley: Having done it, and even before I did it, I loved and continue to love singing Wotan in the Ring cycle. There’s nothing like the Ring Cycle. The story is connected through four operas and I get to tell the story through three of them. The character develops over not just one evening. You have to show the arc of the character through three operas. There are challenges in stamina and acting. It’s a feat but it’s very rewarding as well. Some of my other favorite roles are Scarpia in Tosca and Flying Dutchman.
Eva: How about you Luretta?
L. Bybee: There are roles that I love to sing because they fit my voice really well and they feel so right in my voice. I love singing Dalila from Samson and Dalila because the music is so beautiful and fits me really well. [I haven’t sung it in a while]. Still, Dalila is a very one-dimensional character. She’s got her mind on one thing and there’s no development at all.
Carmen has been the kindest to me. I’ve sung Carmen all over the world. She helped us buy our first house. Carmen is vilified often but there’s an aspect of Carmen that I yearn to incorporate into my life. She lives life on her own terms. She doesn’t compromise herself for anybody. As an actor, I love that but even there, there’s no real development because she is who she is.
Amneris, on the other hand, has an emotional arc that’s very interesting to me. She’s selfish, self-absorbed, spoiled, wants what she wants, and then she comes to realize that the path she’s on is the wrong path. She grows in a way that’s fascinating to me.
And though you might not call it opera, just for the pure romp of it, I adore Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. I also love a lot of the Rossini roles. I did a lot of the heroes and heroines. That’s where the challenge really engulfs me because it’s such a tightrope act – all those notes, making sure you turn the right direction all the time. You have to be on your game to sing your parts.
Eva: Does it ever bother you to sing the more villainous types of characters, like Scarpia or Amneris?
L. Bybee: You have to come to terms with them. [Turning to Greer] you always say that you have to find some truth in them that you can relate to.
G. Grimsley: People like Scarpia don’t think of themselves as evil. They are completely justifying their position. They feel as if they’re doing the right thing even though it’s for wrong reasons. It would be boring to just toss it out there and have plain malevolence. There are plenty of modern day examples of people who are doing some terrible things but they feel they’re completely justified. You could name a lot right away. And with a character like Sweeney Todd, he is victimized in the beginning. Through that victimization, he becomes the abuser.
L. Bybee: My dream role is Salome, which I will never sing. Salome is a phenomenal character. She doesn’t really develop but that sort of demented, abused character is fascinating. And the opera itself is so power-packed that it’s genius.
Eva: Which are your favorite opera houses to sing in?
L. Bybee: Greer has worked in more houses so my list is going to be shorter than his. My favorite place to have worked and sung at was the Seattle Opera under [General Director] Speight Jenkins’ leadership. The new house was phenomenal. There was such a feeling of camaraderie and respect! The staff – production and musical – was impeccable. It was run in a way that was welcoming and inclusive and supportive.
My second favorite was the New York City Opera where I worked for quite a while. They did innovative things and it was also like a family. I’m not big on stardom. It was visible enough, comfortable, but I didn’t feel under the klieg lights all the time. I had some great colleagues there. I grieved when the NYC opera failed.
I should add that I started here in San Diego as a young singer. I did a Young Artists program here in the 1980s.
Eva: How about you Greer, your favorite opera houses?
G. Grimsley: I would have to say Seattle for all the reasons that Luretta said. I spent a lot of time in Seattle.
L. Bybee: We worked together there. I worked there first and then we worked there together from the time our daughter was born until a year ago last spring in 2016.
G. Grimsley: It was home for 25 years. We owned a little apartment there it was so much home. I have to add that I owe a debt of gratitude to Speight Jenkins because he was definitely my mentor, for Wagner especially. He believed in me and he believed in Luretta. As an artist, that’s such a great gift that anyone can give.
L. Bybee: It’s a rare gift.
G. Grimsley: It was much more prevalent in older generations of opera.
L. Bybee: It can be a lonely and grueling life and when you go to a company that makes you feel at home and a part of them, it’s such a respite to the sort of slog of trying to keep yourself in shape and keep yourself visible.
G. Grimsley: Along with Seattle, I’ll have to add Chicago, San Francisco, the Met, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and all for pretty much the same reasons, of being welcomed. But a lot of times it’s the theater. The new houses in Houston, Dallas – all these are theaters now. When I first started in the business, a lot of opera companies were fitting themselves into municipal spaces and municipal halls. Now you have these dedicated theaters. For me, it’s also part of my instrument when I go into a great theater. It’s the acoustics as well. You can’t help but respond to the acoustics. At this point it’s unconscious but as performers we tune to the hall. It becomes part of us.
In recent memory, I can’t think of many houses that were not great to sing in in that respect.
Eva: Are there places where you have preferred the audiences?
G. Grimsley: It’s not so much the location but it’s when the audience is there to participate. Those are the audiences that I love. You can find that everywhere. It’s something that’s not quantifiable that happens between the audience and the performance on stage. It’s a transfer of energy. You can feel if the audience is there to see you or if they’re there because they bought their tickets and they had a great dinner and they’re now just sort of waiting for it to get over with, or are there to be seen. There’s no way you can measure that but you know during the show.
Eva: What creates that? Is it the opera or at festivals or on opening night?
G. Grimsley: It’s everything. I believe that live performance in the theater is in the best terms a classic Greek ideal of group catharsis, for everyone involved, the performers and the audience members. When people are excited to go see it, it also is part of the communication. It’s not just words, it’s a transfer of energy. The audience is willing. There’s no pre-judgment.
Eva: I’d like to ask you about singing as a husband and wife. Is that good? Is that bad? Does it make life easier? Or does it make life harder?
L. Bybee: It’s all good. I tell my young singers and students that I work with in Master Class [Luretta Bybee serves on the voice faculty at Loyola University’s College o Music and Fine Arts in New Orleans] if you really love the person and they do what you do, you celebrate their success. If your own process is more important, then resentments can build up. We’ve seen lots of marriages of our friends break-up over that.
G. Grimsley: We offered help and support to each other along the way.
Eva: And what about not being together when you schedules take you to different places and having a family like that? What are the issues there?
G. Grimsley: It’s a sacrifice when we’re not together. That has to be acknowledged and talked about with those who are thinking about doing this. When you have a family it requires a huge logistics shift. More often than not, it was Luretta who was the single parent but there were times as well when I was the single parent. The majority of the responsibility fell to Luretta.
L. Bybee: It wasn’t a burden.
G. Grimsley: There’s no formula for it because it’s quite individual to each couple, how you work it out. We had some incredible times together on the road. When we’re separated, we’re not with the people we want to be with, with the people that we love. No matter what you’re doing it’s a great sacrifice.
L. Bybee: It can be perilous. It’s easy to get complacent. Our rule was three weeks apart for many years. That changed though as our daughter went into high school, three weeks became five weeks and sometimes it would become two months. Then you adjust to being single and you have your own friends and your own things that you do. When he’s on the road, he has his path that he takes. It can be perilous. It’s very challenging.
G. Grimsley: We’ve always celebrated being able to work together. We’re very grateful for it. We look for those opportunities.
Eva: I’d like to ask you about your daughter who I didn’t get to meet. It must be exciting for you that she’s finding success in this career. What is it like for the three of you to sing together?
L. Bybee: Now she’s gone into the same field that we have. I just pray that it’s a good thing for her because she understands it so well. She’s very highly educated. Her experience is very different from her peers. She was at a young artist program and when the young artists get together they talk about this company head and this conductor and this director and this famous singer. She came to me one day and said Mom, what do I do? They’re talking about the artistic administrator at Houston Grand Opera [Diane Zola] and she changed my diapers and was at my first birthday party. My friends don’t want to hear about that. In a place where Emma very much thought she would feel in a community, she sometimes feels alone in some ways. It’s not a shared experience.
Eva: Does she do opera also?
L. Bybee: She does. She says she lives at the corner of opera and musical theater, which I think is a good corner to live at these days because the operatic world is changing so much.
Eva: Do you think it’s a good thing she’s going into this career?
G. Grimsley: She graduated with an English degree and minored in Music and Women’s Studies. I always told her to find her passion, whatever it is. If this is it, I’m happy for her.
L. Bybee: She knows opera so well. She was captivated during a rehearsal when she was two, in Seattle. It was Lohengrin. She was mesmerized. I thought this was the moment. I said to her ‘what do you think?’ and she said ‘wow’. I said just think, if you sit still and quiet, you can do this any time you want. I look back on that moment and I think the cosmos spoke through me. From that moment on there was never a question of her misbehaving. Most of the time, she deemed herself the stage manager’s assistant’s assistant. Her big moment in every production when she was with us was pulling up the rehearsal tape from the ground. When we moved, one side of her closet was filled with tape balls that she’d collected.
Eva: I get the feeling from talking to both of you that it’s not just about the singing. As an opera-goer, I love the singing. From talking to you, it also seems to be just as much about the drama, the character development, the artistic team, am I getting that right?
L. Bybee: As an audience member you go for the singing, but for the singer it becomes about the singing because of all those other things. When somebody means what they say and it’s elevated by that sense of the voice and the music, it can’t be beat – the art form, the drama, the voice itself. I think it’s the pinnacle of theatrical experience. It incorporates everything.