Thursday, November 13, 2008

Anthony Dean Griffey Is One Of The Nicest Men Around

San Diego Opera occasionally commissions writers to do interviews for us. And this time we asked local writer Anne Marie Welsh to speak with Anthony Dean Griffey, who joins us in April to sing his signature role of Peter Grimes.

Usually we hold these interviews in our back pocket for a publication at a later date, but reading this one we felt we had to get this one out there. Because you need to know something: Anthony Dean Griffey is one of the nicest men around. It has been years since I last worked with Anthony, but the wait these last few months will seem like an eternity.
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Tucked into the performance calendar of lyric tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, amidst entries for his Metropolitan Opera triumph in Benjamin Britten’s masterful “Peter Grimes,” between praised concerts with the Orquestro Sinfonico de Sao Paolo in Brazil and appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Mahler’s ravishing “The Song of the Earth,” one entry stands out for its modesty. Just before Christmas in 2007, Griffey sang a benefit concert for the Open Door Shelter at his home parish, The First Baptist Church of High Point, North Carolina.

“I grew up in that church and rejoined it when I moved back here five years ago,” says the sweet-and-subtle voiced singing actor by telephone. Just back from the High Point mayor’s annual luncheon for the arts, Griffey will return to San Diego Opera in April, with his achingly vulnerable and alarming interpretation of the mad loner, Peter Grimes. During his time off, he tours public schools with his one-man opera program, lobbies for funding for the kind of arts education that brought opera to him as a child, and uses what one New York Times critic called his “beautiful lyric yet powerful and seemingly inexhaustible voice” to raise money for such causes as High Point’s homeless shelter.

“It’s important to me that I acknowledge I came from High Point and that opera singers don’t all live in New York and in Italy. Opera singers are not just these people who wear Viking helmets and speak in foreign languages. My parents were factory workers; they worked the line making furniture,” he says. “I came from the people. Once I realized that my own father had and still does have a mental illness and I knew that our health care system was completely broken with funding cut so much, I knew I had to do what I could. So many of the homeless on the street have mental illnesses and are not receiving proper care.”

That humble empathy with the common man —abusive as his father was or troubled or misunderstood — has shaped an unusual operatic focus on outsider roles: his powerful, perhaps definitive portrayal of mentally challenged Lennie in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men (seen here in 1999); his absurdist simpleton Schweik in the Kurt Weill-like tunes of Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik; his lonely, violence-prone Grimes; and his disillusioned suitor Mitch, a role created for him by Andre Previn in A Streetcar Named Desire (and seen here in 2000).
“It all goes back to my beginnings and being a large child and shy. Heavy men are thought of as being lazy and not too bright, while the pretty people are to be loved…. Eventually I had to find a repertory that I could make my own. I definitely took the road less traveled,” says the husky, 6’4”, 41-year old Griffey. “And that has made all the difference.”

Not that those four misfits in 20th century operas mark the limits of what the artist can do with his uniquely warm, light, yet unfailingly expressive voice. Griffey’s 2002 San Diego recital showcased a Renaissance to contemporary repertory sung in German, French and English with the “immaculate diction” so often noted by critics. Even in such programs, lauded for their insightful and moving expression, Griffey explains, it’s always the human core he seeks, as if each song or aria were a dramatic monologue in which his nimble, nuanced singing creates not only character, but emotional and dramatic context.

“We all have the same wants, needs and desires, to be cared for, to be loved and to give back to society. I try to give honest, sometimes very raw emotion to these characters,” he says, the whiff of a Southern accent still perfuming his words. “Such productions (as the symphonic song cycle ‘Song of the Earth’) are still storytelling.”

Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed remarked that in those Mahler songs, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the L.A. Philharmonic, Griffey “must sing of drink and carousing while staring down dark death, and he did so with disquieting abandon…creating a sense of frightening urgency.”
As a scholarship student in the Young Artists program at Juilliard, Griffey says “There was a requirement that we study acting. But for me, it was just a process of removing the layers” of artificiality that had accumulated in some conventional opera productions. “For instance, generally in life, people don’t walk backwards. So I never walk backwards onstage because I want to give an honest presentation to the audience, a true emotional reality.”

In Peter Grimes, he plays a troubled, self-isolating fisherman whose small-minded community suspects him of murder when one and then a second of his young apprentices dies mysteriously. Griffey’s experience in the Britten masterpiece began in 1996 at a younger age than he even he expected, thanks to Seiji Ozawa, longtime music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “Seiji was holding auditions for Tanglewood (a student production at the summer music festival) that spring. They thought I was too young for Peter Grimes. Similarly with Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Both roles were traditionally done older and with voice types much heavier than mine. But I felt I could offer something of to both of those roles. I’m the kind of artist who, if I don’t feel I can bring something of my own, then I don’t want to do the part. I don’t want to be a carbon copy of another singer. I have to be myself. When Seiji first heard me his response was very exciting for me.”

And though that first opportunity to sing Grimes surprised him and his beloved teacher at Juilliard, Beverly Johnson, the role not only “launched my career,” he says, but showed him his true calling as an artist and a person.

Veteran critics have often described Griffey’s sensitive, vulnerable interpretation of the outcast fisherman as a midway point between British tenor and Britten associate Peter Pears who originated the role in London in 1945 and the colossal Jon Vickers whose ferocious approach became the later 20th century model. Though Vickers was in the audience and applauded the young tenor’s Tanglewood debut afterward, Griffey says “To this day I have not heard Jon Vickers sing Peter Grimes. Someone gave me a recording but it was important for me to develop my own interpretations. And so I have not heard it.”
Based upon a poem by George Crabbe, the opera’s libretto tells a mysterious, elliptical story in sea-saturated music of uncommon beauty that also leaves a good deal to the imagination of the actor/singer. “You also have to be adaptable to what the director decides with certain types of productions,” says Griffey. For the 2008 Met staging, one simulcast in movie theaters and broadcast on PBS, the minimalist theater director John Doyle envisioned an abstract scene: “I had no fishing nets, no fish. I had to figure out how I was going to handle all that,” Griffey says.

He’s now “looking forward to collaborating with (director) John Copley” on the more traditional SDO production. Cast with him are Jennifer Casey Cabot as Grimes’ love interest, Ellen Orford, and baritone Rod Gilfry as the sole sympathetic villager, Captain Balstrode.

Griffey’s growing confidence about his artistic instincts, his dramatic insight and his vocal technique means, he thinks, “I can now do the romantic roles. I feel now I could play a prince.” Among those he would like to perform are Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Nemorino in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the latter because he has done so little comedy. With his solidly balanced career in opera, recital and concertizing, Griffey hopes to sing “every piece of music by Britten” and also dreams of “a comic role written for me.” Still, he says with that disarming modesty of his, “When the end comes, I would rather be known for singing ten roles well than singing 150 that no one remembers as special.”

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- Anne Marie Welsh is an author and free-lance arts critic.

3 comments:

Steve Oakes said...

Great Story.

Tony is indeed a remarkable person. I was his roommate in college. There was no question back then that he would be singing all over the world and would be recognized by the community for all of his achievements.

Delores Thomas said...

I read everything I can get my hands on about Tony and have always rejoiced at the reports about him and the wonderful talent God gave him and which Tony has shared with the world. He graduated from Wingate University where I am employed and I have had the pleasure of hearing him perform here at Wingate as a student and more recently as an opera celebrity.

kcbob1 said...

Tony, How you have been blessed and bless back. You have moved into a world of vocal talent that touches all levels of society.
It is so touching to see that your in love with the music and how you can use the joy of it and the profits from it to help people known and unknown to you in your home city of High Point NC.
My daughter Christy was in A CHRISTMAS CAROL at High Point Collage when you were in your early teens. You sang very well as a teen.
I remember you, your brother, and parents working on our church bus in the church bus ministry at First Baptist Church way back then. Those were the years we all were learning how God love's ALL from all situations.
Again so happy for you, God bless you Tony.

Bob Sterenberg