So when the New Orleans Opera invited his high school drama club to serve as extras in La Juive, Grimsley made sure to sign up. He didn’t have any lines. All he had to do was show up.
“I had the privilege of standing on a ramp,” Grimsley laughs. But the experience proved to be life-changing.
Grimsley was sharing the stage with an opera legend: tenor Richard Tucker. A singer who notched over 30 years starring at the Metropolitan Opera, Tucker unleashed torrents of pure, powerful sound in the lead role of the goldsmith Éléazar. Grimsley was equally struck by Tucker’s co-star, bass Paul Plishka, who matched Tucker’s strident vocals with ease.
“It was magical,” Grimsley recalls. He credits the experience with showing him what was possible when singing and acting coalesced on stage. “I fell in love with opera, and I like to say I never took the exit.”
Now, Grimsley is an opera star himself, with over three decades performing on the international stage. This fall, he returns to San Francisco Opera for his eighth appearance with the company: in Ludwig van Beethoven’s political thriller Fidelio.
Grimsley stars as Don Pizarro, a corrupt politician and prison director with a dark secret: Locked away in a hidden cell lies Florestan, Pizarro’s political rival, kidnapped and left to rot at Pizarro’s command.
It’s a role the American bass-baritone has brought to life around the world, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Portugal, Santa Fe to Seattle. A veteran of heavy Wagnerian works like The Flying Dutchman and the Ring cycle, Grimsley imbues the character with steely, sonorous vocals and menacing presence.
But his journey to opera was hardly textbook. The son of career Navy man and a full-time parent, Grimsley grew up steeped in the music of New Orleans—and the hubbub of a bustling house. His mother was the 11th of 12 children in a Lebanese immigrant family, and when his father was away, Grimsley’s mother took the children to stay with their grandmother, where they were surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“I always say that I ended up in the repertoire that I ended up in because it was a loud family. If anybody was answering a question or asking a question, it was always many decibels above what is normally used. If somebody was disagreeing, then it was an opera,” Grimsley says with a chuckle.
After high school, Grimsley was accepted at New Orleans’s Loyola University, where he trained in classical voice, expecting to perform in musicals. But opera proved too great a draw. Still, he initially felt he was falling behind his classmates, some of whom entered college already having taken voice lessons.
“I had no formal music training, so I felt like I was always catching up. Every minute I could, I was in the music library and I was listening to the Golden Age singers,” Grimsley says. Between classes, he paid for school by working full-time at the iconic French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s, where he started as a bartender.
Grimsley admits he bounced around a lot as a young artist. “For lower male voices, that’s sort of the story,” he says. “I was told that I was everything from a basso profondo to a tenor along the way.”
It taught Grimsley an important lesson: Know yourself. “Anytime I do masterclasses, I always encourage singers to take the time. Don’t wait to be told what you should do. Figure it out yourself.”
Now, ahead of his performance in Fidelio, Grimsley offers insight into his role as the villain Don Pizarro—and how Beethoven’s opera serves as a mirror for today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I know that it's probably been awhile, but do you remember your first encounter with Fidelio?
GRIMSLEY: Oh my gosh. It was a concert of Fidelio in Lake George.
The first staged production was in Scotland with the Scottish Opera. I think that was my first staged one. We did a run of it in Glasgow. The Scottish Opera, they would also tour. And so we took it to other parts of the U.K.
That was with Stephen Wadsworth, whom I ended up working with on my first Ring cycle. He was the director on that.
Fidelio is a wonderful piece. I love the music in it. The characters sometimes can be frustrating because they can seem very, very two-dimensional, and you have to work extra hard to bring that character to life and not be sort of a cardboard villain.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
GRIMSLEY: The backstory for Don Pizarro is sort of up to the person playing him.
The thing about these characters like Pizarro is that—even though they are perceived as these villains—in their minds they think they're doing the right thing. That's not something that's left to history. We still deal with that today. We still deal with people who are convinced that only their way is the right way to govern. And they will end up doing really heinous things, convinced that they're right, convinced that their way is the correct way.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you say that they believe that they're doing right, there are some people who might resist that. How can he possibly think he's doing right? There's a person starving and tortured in his basement that he's about to go and kill. How does your character in those circumstances justify what he's doing?
GRIMSLEY: Speaking sanely, there is no justification. But as the character, he’s got a problem, and now he has to get rid of the problem he has. He does have someone who is a political prisoner in his cellar, and he has to get rid of him.
It’s hard to understand for folks who look at that situation with a conscience. I don't ever, for one minute, think that the character of Don Pizarro is challenged by conscience. It's about his survival. And his surviving becomes what's right, because then he can continue his political point of view.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talk about current events reflecting some of the issues presented in Fidelio. You've been doing this role for so long. Has the current political climate, or the political climate over the last few decades, changed the way that you view this character?
GRIMSLEY: I think it's sharpened the focus, for me, in different ways. Sadly enough, we've seen some really crazy stuff in recent history. From when I was first doing this role, we've gone from terrorist bombings on airplanes to now, when we’re at the end of the Afghan War.
I think anytime you impose a political view without majority rule or religious rule without majority rule, then you're in a territory that Fidelio warns us about.
It is a warning from Beethoven's time to this time, as long as it has been performed. And I think it's still valid as a warning to really not be so blinded by one point of view and always seek the humanity in situations.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Does it make a difference for audiences to see Fidelio presented in a modern context?
GRIMSLEY: Yeah. It goes from being a museum piece to something that is quite relevant. Oddly enough, with Beethoven, there is such relevance.
The story of Fidelio is universal. You and I could come up with maybe 50 places in the world where you could have an example of a similar situation happening. Look at Russia, with this political opponent to Putin. I mean, that's happening today.
And I think the more we remind folks about that is to be on guard about that. It’s to not go down that road. And hopefully we can learn. But sometimes we don't learn from the past and we have to be hit over the head a lot of times with it.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The cynic might say, does opera really have the power to hit you over the head with anything nowadays? Does it still have that power to change hearts and minds, as it might have in Beethoven's day?
GRIMSLEY: Well, what I will say is that I am a firm believer in live performance. I'm an advocate for it. With an un-amplified sound in the theater, when you combine music and text, there’s something that happens that’s really interesting.
When you get into a straight play, you may be emotionally moved by this straight play, but it goes through your analytical brain first, analyzing those words first.
When you add music—the moment you add music—it goes directly to the emotional portion of your brain. So the combination of music and text is a very powerful thing.
And then on top of it, our singing, our voices, the sound waves that we're making are actually touching people. Those sound waves are hitting and touching everyone in that audience, as well as the sound waves from the orchestra.
It's our connection to humanity. And I think we have to stay connected if—as a society, as a culture—we want to survive and actually triumph over those who want to destroy it. It is such a viable art form in that way. It is our connection to the first storyteller around the campsite. That's who we are. That's who we are as humans.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: On one hand, it seems so obvious. The fact that these are voices literally touching you in the theater seems very apparent, but it's not always until you're missing it like we have been the last few years—at least from my perspective.
GRIMSLEY: Yeah, same here. Same here. This is my first thing since the pandemic started, and I am so thrilled to be back in San Francisco be doing Fidelio, especially because, in essence, we're dealing with the tyranny of a pathogen.
We’re all traumatized by this year and a half. Probably people will need to see something like Fidelio as a catharsis. I mean, that's what the Greeks thought what theater was. It was a group catharsis. I fully believe that that's what we shoot for, in the best of cases, in the most elevated of terms, with live performances.